On record – William Wordsworth: Orchestral Music Vol.2 (Toccata Classics)

Kamila Bydlowska (violin), Arta Arnicane (piano), Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons

William Wordsworth
Piano Concerto in D minor Op.28 (1946)
Three Pastoral Sketches Op.10 (1937)
Violin Concerto in A major Op.60 (1955)

Toccata Classics TOCC0526 [79’41”]

Producer Normands Slava
Engineer Jānis Straume

Recorded 21-25 January 2019, Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics issues a further volume of orchestral music by William Wordsworth (1908-88), featuring two highly contrasted concertos alongside the composer’s first acknowledged work for the medium, in persuasive readings by the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra with John Gibbons.

What’s the music like?

Composed in the aftermath of the Second World War, Wordsworth’s Piano Concerto unfolds in five continuous sections. At its centre is an Adagio, its pathos informed by an ominousness that becomes far more confrontational in the two Allegros either side, during which interplay between soloist and orchestra is also at its most combative. Framing these, in turn, is a brief introduction whose understatement belies a motivic resource that is brought full circle in the coda with its mingling of fatalism and defiance. Premiered by John Hunt while dedicated to Clifford Curzon (did he ever actually play it?), this is a compact and effective piece such as ought to have garnered further performances and certainly warrants revival in a live context. Hopefully, this adept as well as committed recording will bring that possibility a little closer.

As should that of the Violin Concerto which, by contrast, ranks among Wordsworth’s most expansive orchestral works. The opening Moderato, alone playing for 15 minutes, is notable for its thematic concentration – its lyrical then contrapuntal ideas being manifestations of the same theme which is duly intensified in the development, though an overly discursive reprise makes the terse coda feel almost too perfunctory. No such doubts over a central Adagio that finds the composer at his most eloquent and builds to a close as affecting as it is inevitable. Following without pause, the final Allegro is essentially a series of variations on its spirited initial theme – replete with imaginative use of percussion and exuding an energy as carries over to the imposing cadenza then a coda whose affirmation Wordsworth seldom equalled.

Placed between these two concertos, the Three Pastoral Sketches might seem lightweight by comparison. In fact, these evocations merge into a purposeful unity with ample indications of the symphonist Wordsworth was soon to become as they proceed from the ruminative poise of Sundown, via the ethereal undulations of Lonely Tarn (Holst and Moeran brought into unlikely accord), then on to the cumulative power of Seascape with its sense of fulfilment just beyond reach. This ranks high among orchestral debuts from Wordsworth’s generation.

Does it all work?

In almost all respects. Special credit to the two soloists, who surely cannot have encountered this music before these sessions but whose dedication and insight can hardly be doubted. Arta Arnicane has all the impetus and incisiveness necessary for the Piano Concerto, while Kamila Bydlowska evinces burnished warmth and a caressing tone ideal for the lyrical expanse of the Violin Concerto. John Gibbons again secures playing of commitment from his Liepāja forces, their lacking the last degree of tension in portions of the concertos being just a minor quibble.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. As with the previous volume, Wordsworth’s music is a ‘slow-burn’ as rewards those who take time to make its acquaintance. Finely recorded and annotated, this can be cordially recommended in anticipation of those numerous works still to be encountered in this series.

Read, listen and Buy

You can read Richard’s review of the first volume in the Wordsworth series on Arcana

You can listen to clips and purchase this disc from the Toccata Classics website

On record – Steve Elcock: Chamber Music Vol.1 (Toccata Classics)

The Veles Ensemble (Hartmut Richter (violin), Ralitsa Naydenova (viola), Evva Mizerska (cello), with Daniel Shao (flute), Peter Cigleris (clarinet), Yuri Kalnits (violin), Leon Bosch (double bass), Catalina Ardelean (piano)

Steve Elcock
Clarinet Sextet Op.11b (2001/14)
String Trio no.1 Op.8b (1998/2016)
The Shed Dances Op.26b (2016)
An Outstretched Hand Op.24 (2015)

Toccata Classics TOCC0506 [79’36”]

Producer & Engineer Michael Ponder

Recorded 21-22 May 2018, St Silas, Chalk Farm, London, 24 May 2018 (Sextet, Trio, The Shed Dances), Henry Wood Hall (An Outstretched Hand)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following an impressive disc of his orchestral music (TOCC0400, reviewed on Arcana here), Steve Elcock (b1957) is given further coverage by Toccata Classics with this release of chamber music, reaffirming him as a force to be reckoned with among those symphonic composers from his generation.

What’s the music like?

Every bit as engrossing as the works on that earlier release – that is, uncompromising without being unyielding and serious without being (unduly) earnest. This is evident from the earliest piece here, Elcock’s First String Trio having been conceived for two violins and viola before reaching its present guise. A tensile single movement pivots constantly between the fractious and consoling, at times encroaching upon a more equable expression that nevertheless fails to sustain itself, and with a conclusion where even the most tenuous poise is summarily denied.

Starting out as a Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra, the Clarinet Sextet is on a larger scale – opening with an Allegro whose clear-cut sonata design opens-out intriguingly with a cadenza-like passage just before the reprise. Similarly, the Romanza is thrown off-balance by a faster central section which duly intensifies the climactic stages, and if the progress of the final Variations and Theme seems more arresting as regards form rather than content, the gentle evanescence after the theme has been elaborated feels as subtle as it is intriguing.

More immediately approachable, The Shed Dances began life as a sequence for violin and piano before being recast for clarinet and string trio. Written at the suggestion of a sufferer from the neurological condition known as ataxia, all six dances are thwarted or undermined by rhythmic imbalances that are only effortfully overcome – the most memorable being the inhibited gait of Petrified minuet, edgy impulsiveness of Boneyard antics and winsome swaying of Marion’s pavane which confirms Elcock as possessing no mean melodic gift.

Finally, to An Outstretched Hand whose inspiration in the stark contrasts of composing as an act of friendship across the centuries and the burgeoning refugee crisis across Europe became fused into this powerfully sustained single movement for flute, clarinet and piano quartet. Its sombre initial Largo is followed by two Allegros (themselves separated by a stark interlude) whose increasingly confrontational manner carries over to a final Largo which recalls earlier material in a mood that, fatalistic rather than merely defeatist, exudes the keenest poignancy.

Does it all work?

Yes, in almost all respects. It helps when these performances are so evidently attuned to this idiom, teasing subtleties out of the charged formal processes and grating expressive contrasts that are recognizable Elcock traits. The overall programme is carried by the Veles Ensemble, whose tonal finesse and tangible commitment to this music is evident throughout – which is hardly to decry the contributions of those other musicians featured here. Hopefully it should prove possible for these pieces to be heard in public performance on some future occasion.

Is it recommended?

Certainly – not least when the sound is unexceptionally fine, and the composer’s annotations are unfailingly to the point. Elcock’s growing admirers will be pleased to hear that a further disc of orchestral music (including the Fifth Symphony) is scheduled for imminent release.

Listen and Buy

You can listen to clips and purchase this disc from the Toccata Classics website

On record – Roger Smalley: Piano, Vocal and Chamber Music (Toccata Classics)

Taryn Fiebig (soprano), Darryl Poulsen (horn), James Cuddeford (violin), Daniel Herscovitch (piano), Scott Davie (piano), Roger Smalley (tam-tams)

Roger Smalley
Albumblatt (1990) Nine Lives (2008)
Capriccio no.1 (1966)
Barcarolle (1986)
Morceau de Concours (2008)
Piano Pieces I-V (1962-5)
Three Studies in Black and White (2002-4)
Lament for the Victims of Natural Disasters (2005)

Toccata Classics TOCC0501 [72’21”]

Producer & Engineer David Kim-Boyle

Recorded 2005, University of Western Australia, Perth (Three Studies in Black and White), 13 February, 28-29 March 2019, University of Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics releases this welcome overview of music by Roger Smalley (1943-2015), whose extensive output followed an eventful and unpredictable trajectory from unabashed modernism to post-classicism demonstrably informed and enhanced by a performer’s insight.

What’s the music like?

As varied as this selection might suggest. Earliest here is Piano Pieces I-V, tersely distinctive miniatures whose conspectus of radical tendencies from Schoenberg to Stockhausen is allied to a pianism at once resourceful and pragmatic. An aesthetic heightened in Capriccio no.1, whose often confrontational interplay between violin and piano owes much to Schoenberg’s late Phantasy while not precluding a more personal approach such as Smalley’s subsequent involvement with Stockhausen transmuted into a more progressive but less emotive manner.

By the time of Barcarolle, Smalley had moved away from modernist traits towards an idiom permeated by while never beholden to the Romantic era. Chopin’s famous example may not be evident here, but the ominous undulation of Fauré’s earlier such pieces is unmistakable; as is Liszt in the scintillating dexterity of Morceau de Concours, a test-piece to reckon with not just in terms of its technique. Most impressive, however, is Three Studies in Black and White, a trilogy likely inspired by Alkan’s Op. 76 Études – with the opening Gamelan a visceral yet ultimately eloquent exploration for left hand; by contrast, Moto perpetuo is an edgy and often volatile workout for right hand, then Dialogue reunites both hands in music at once resolute and consoling. Few, if any, piano pieces of such substance have been composed this century.

Which is not to underestimate the effectiveness of Nine Lives. Subtitled A Song-Cycle about Cats, these settings of feline evocation range as widely as that of the authors featured. Of the three extended items – that by Oscar Wilde is stealthy and secretive, that by Christina Rosetti a memorial of deadpan insouciance, while that by Oliver Herford is a luminous and affecting envoi. Framing the programme are a brief Albumblatt later subsumed into the Piano Trio, and Lament for the Victims of Natural Disasters where horn eulogizes against resonant tam-tams.

Does it all work?

Yes. Smalley’s academic career at University of Western Australia at Perth connected him to many significant musicians, several of whom are present here. Taryn Fiebig brings a wealth of nuance to the songs and is ably accompanied by Scott Davis, while James Cuddeford and Darryl Poulsen make salient contributions. Greatest credit, though, to Daniel Herscovitch for piano playing as not only makes light of the considerable technical demands but conveys the unity within diversity of Smalley’s musical language throughout four decades of evolution.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The Smalley discography is not inconsiderable, and readers should investigate such major works as Accord (Continuum) or Pulses (NMC); while Poles Apart (NMC) focusses on more recent pieces.

A plea, too, for the reissue of the Symphony and First Piano Concerto (Vox Australis), two of his defining works. That said, this latest release makes as inclusive an overview as has been issued. The sound is unexceptionally fine, and booklet notes unfailingly insightful, but for the track-listing the Barcarolle and Morceau have added 10 minutes each.

Listen and Buy

You can listen to clips and purchase this disc from the Toccata Classics website

On record: Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons – William Wordsworth: Orchestral Music Vol.1 (Toccata Classics)

Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons

William Wordsworth
Symphony no.4 in E flat major Op.54 (1953)
Symphony no.8 Op.117 ‘Pax Hominibus’ (1986)
Divertimento in D major Op.58 (1954)
Variations on a Scottish Theme Op.72 (1962)

Toccata Classics TOCC0480 [80’38”]
Producer Normunds Slāva
Engineer Jánis Straume
Recorded 8-12 January 2018 at Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics embarks on a series devoted to the orchestral output of William Wordsworth (1908-88), his reputation doubtless affected by his music satisfying neither the criteria of post -war modernism nor that easy accommodation with earlier eras as favoured by traditionalists.

What’s the music like?

While he found a measure of success in the decade after the Second World War, Wordsworth had few performances in his later years with only a handful of works recorded. That began to change when Lyrita issued studio accounts of the Second and Third Symphonies (SRCD.207) in 1990, followed by broadcast performances of the First and Fifth in 2016 (REAM.121). The present disc thus fills several more gaps in his discography, not least two further symphonies in what must be hoped will eventually see the complete cycle being commercially available.

Dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli, who had assiduously championed its predecessor, the Fourth Symphony is a tautly conceived single movement – its slow introduction providing the salient material for the sonata design which follows. Although themes are relatively clearly defined, the evolutionary process blurs expected formal divisions so that the piece unfolds seamlessly for all its disjunct contrasts. The developmental episode is made more disquieting through its underlying march-rhythm, then the reprise transforms what had gone before by expressively heightening these themes on the way to a culmination whose decisiveness is permeated with that fatalism which informed so much of this composer’s music. Praised by Neville Cardus among others, it stands as an ideal entry-point into Wordsworth’s symphonic writing overall.

Also featured here are two slighter but not insubstantial pieces. Indeed, the Divertimento has distinct symphonic connotations – witness the purposeful unfolding of its Overture towards a heightened recall of its initial gesture, the wistful Air with its plaintive woodwind writing and crepuscular harmonies, then the lively Gigue whose ideas are kept in perpetual motion up to a rumbustious close. Lighter in tone, Variations on a Scottish Theme finds Wordsworth at his most approachable; the mid-nineteenth century tune The Hundred Pipers (attributed to Carolina Oliphant) made the subject of nine variations whose brevity (only the fifth lasts near two minutes) is complemented by its deftness and charm. Conceived with ‘school’ musicians in mind, this is a piece such as ought to find favour with young and amateur musicians today.

The Eighth Symphony is another matter entirely. Wordsworth’s final work, its subtitle ‘Pax Hominibus’ indicates his lifelong pacifist convictions though any relation to musical content is oblique at best. The first of its two movements proceeds ruminatively, with much recourse to solo lines and spare textures, creating formal and expressive expectations that its successor feels intent on denying. This opens with a strangely dislocated crescendo and continues with an elegiac passage, diaphanously scored, before a literal reprise of what has been heard before then a recall of the first movement’s main theme, prior to a calmly eloquent conclusion. The composer left an alternative ending – rightly included here as a repeat of the movement, for all that its insistence on jarring defiance feels at odds with the mood of this work as a whole.

Does it all work?

Yes. Wordsworth may not be a difficult composer to assimilate, though his music does not reveal its essence easily or without some effort. That said, there is an underlying logic and cohesion to his formal processes which is as tangible as it is satisfying, with the emotional depth that emerges is similarly undeniable. It helps when the playing of the Latvian-based Liepāja Symphony Orchestra sounds so attuned to its reticent idiom, with John Gibbons clearly having thought about this music so that its measure might more fully be conveyed.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound has clarity and focus, while Paul Conway’s annotations are detailed and probing. Hopefully the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies will follow, with major works such as the wartime oratorio Dies Domini – praised by Vaughan Williams and still unperformed.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website

On record: Jeremy Dale Roberts – Chamber and Instrumental Music (Toccata Classics)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Sheppard Skaerved (violin), Roderick Chadwick (piano) Kreutzer Quartet (Peter Sheppard Skaerved & Mihailo Trandafilovski (violins), Morgan Goff (viola),  Neil Heyde (cello) with Bridget MacRae (cello)

Jeremy Dale Roberts
Capriccio for violin and piano (1965)
Tombeau for piano (1966-69)
String Quintet (2012/14)

Toccata Classics TOCC0487 [78’24’’]
Producer Peter Sheppard Skaerved
Engineer Jonathan Haskell
Recorded 17-18 December 2014 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead (String Quintet), 3 July 2014 (Capriccio) and 22 February 2017 (Tombeau) at St Michael’s, Highgate, London

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics further sets the pace by releasing this disc of music by Jeremy Dale Roberts (1934-2017), whose distinguished academic career (for over three decades at Royal College of Music, latterly as Head of Composition) likely obscured his achievements as a composer.

What’s the music like?

Over more than half a century, Dale Roberts created a catalogue whose diversity is out of all proportion to its modesty (some 40 works). The present disc is the third devoted to his music, following releases on the NMC and Lorelt labels; the latter also featuring Capriccio for violin and piano. This 12-minute piece is dedicated to Howard Ferguson, whose technical finesse it emulates for all that its stylistic profile is appreciably wider – evoking Stravinsky and Bartók as it builds to an assaultive climax before subsiding into the subdued while sombre postlude.

As Roderick Chadwick infers in his booklet note, Tombeau was for Dale Roberts his defining work in terms both of encapsulating where his music had reached at that point and in making possible what came after. Unfolding continuously over 30 minutes, its central elegy is framed by a volatile sequence of studies and variations (Chadwick understandably eschews analysis, even if a diagrammatic outline would have helped in elucidating the intricate overall design). Stylistically, too, the piece ranges widely across the pianistic spectrum from Schumann, via Szymanowski, to Messiaen – with the eventual outcome as personal as it is hard-won. A pity dedicatee Stephen Kovacevich never recorded a piece undoubtedly at the forefront of post-war piano music (British or otherwise), but Chadwick’s identification with the score is total.

The largest work here was also its composer’s swansong. Despite its seemingly abstract title, the String Quintet embodies a densely allusive and multi-layered narrative inspired by Marina Tsvetaeva and Edvard Munch while being given focus by Virginia Woolf, though this is not to suggest the piece is other than an intrinsically musical statement. The viola often assumes an almost concertante role during those three movements which make up the first part, then is largely absent from its successor – a lengthy meditation for violins and cellos whose recall of earlier ideas is riven by silence prior to a culmination capped by the viola’s ghostly offstage re-emergence. A singular experience, then, and a singular work which repays intensive study – from a composer who’s not taking the easy path was never vindicated more fully than here.

Does it all work?

Indeed. To say that Dale Roberts is a connoisseur’s composer should not imply his music is hermetic or obscure; rather it assumes the listener’s commitment and goodwill in the process of assessing the piece at hand. Each of these recordings benefited from the composer’s active participation during the recording sessions. Peter Sheppard Skaerved is at his imperious best, whether in partnership with Chadwick or as part of an augmented Kreutzer Quartet; while his and Chadwick’s booklet notes deftly combine musical discussion with personal recollection.

Is it recommended?

Absolutely. This is now the best point of entry into Dale Roberts’s output, and one hopes for more issues from Toccata. In particular, the Cello Concerto Deathwatch (perhaps coupled with the still-unperformed orchestral cycle Arbor Vitae) cries out for commercial release.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website, and about the composer Jeremy Dale Roberts at his website