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Percy WHITLOCK (1903 - 1946)
Concert Overture: The Feast of St. Benedict (1934)
Ballet of the Wood Creatures ((1939)
Wessex Suite (1937)
Suite: Music for Orchestra (1941)
Come along Marnie (1938)
Susan, the Doggie and Me (1938)
Holiday Suite (1938/39)
Balloon Ballet (1938)
March: Dignity and Impudence (1932/33)
Malcolm Riley: organ
RTE Concert Orchestra; conducted by Gavin Sutherland
Rec. 4th & 5th February 2000 at O'Reilly Hall, University College, Dublin
 MARCO POLO 8.225162 [71.48]
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Every so often a recording is released which reveals a totally different side to a composer's character. For most music listeners the name of Percy Whitlock is firmly associated with the organ loft. However the pieces presented here are from the other side of this versatile composer's output. They are a superb addition to the great and largely underrated corpus of British Light Music.

When Whitlock was turned down for the post of organist at Rochester Cathedral, he moved to Bournemouth to take up the post of musical director at the Anglo-Catholic parish of St Stephens. Soon however, he was finding this appointment somewhat difficult. In 1936 he was appointed the borough organist at the Bournemouth Pavilion Theatre. This was a position he would retain for the rest of his life. It is from his time at this venue that most of his orchestral music was produced.

However the earliest piece on this CD is a recording of his March: Dignity and Impudence. This was composed in 1932/33. It is a definite nod in the direction of Sir Edward Elgar. In fact it has been nicknamed the 6th Pomp and Circumstance March. The title alludes to the sentimental painting by Sir Edwin Landseer of the two dogs. However, Malcolm Riley assures me that Whitlock was not a dog lover. We should perhaps read Imperial for Impudence and Pomp for Dignity. As a march it has everything we could wish for. A big tune, interesting fanfares and 'minuet' section and of course fine orchestration. It lies somewhere between P & C No. 4 and Crown Imperial, as yet unwritten by Walton. If this piece were written by either of the two mentioned masters it would regularly feature in the Proms or on Classic FM. It needs and deserves to be better known.

The other work written before Whitlock's Pavilion days was the Concert Overture: The Feast of St Benedict. This was composed for a competition run by the Daily Telegraph. Unfortunately Percy was unsuccessful. He did not even get a 'commended' or mentioned in dispatches. The prize was won by Cyril Scott with his a-typical Festival Overture. Whitlock was a little peeved. He appended a note to the score stating that '…an arrangement is pending for two toothpicks and a gas jet.'

It is certainly a good overture, if a little diffuse in places. It is very much in the style of Elgar's In the South. There are three moods presented in this piece - Festivity, Love and Religious feeling. The score is fine with many attractive moments.

The Wessex Suite is an excellent example of music evoking holidays by the seaside. It has three movements - Revels in Hogsnorton; The Blue Poole and the March; Rustic Cavalry. Hogsnorton was a mythical English village created by the then popular comedian Gillie Potter. The Blue Poole is a concatenation of the beauty spot, the Blue Pool on the Isle of Purbeck and Poole Harbour itself. These are delightful movements, the first being a waltz in the best of English traditions complete with a 'modern' trio. The slow movement is to my ears the loveliest thing on this CD. It opens with a short upward phrase for saxophone followed by the inevitable cadenza for solo violin. There is a rocking motion accompaniment, and then the truly gorgeous tune is given to the saxophones. There is some variation and a change in tempo before the main theme returns, complete with slightly out of tune violins - a lovely touch that evokes many pier end concerts before slot machines took over from Palm Court Music.

The movement ends with a quiet chord on the vibraphone. It is a perfect picture of lazy days by the seaside. Lovers walking hand in hand without a care in the world.

The last movement is a swashbuckling march that seems to me to have more to do with pirates and things nautical than courtly behaviour.

The latest pieces on his CD are the Suite: Music for Orchestra. This is perhaps the weakest thing on this recording in spite of the fact that the first movement, Peter's Tune is an orchestration of the Allegretto from the earlier Five Pieces for Organ (1929)

The four movements do not seem, to my ears at any rate, to hang together. The styles are eclectic. And the introduction of the organ into the middle movements seems to upset the balance somewhat. However the Fanfare on the tune Song of Agincourt reveals Whitlock moving in a direction away from the sheer romanticism. There is something in this piece that reminds me of Vaughan Williams less pastoral music and perhaps even Warlock's Capriol Suite.

The remainder of the pieces on this recording can be considered together. They all derive from music written for a 'play' for children produced at the Pavilion called the 'Day Dream Family'. It was a kind of 'Little Lord Fauntelroy' production that would certainly not bear a revival in our own days. However much of the music has survived. And this is certainly quite fortunate.

The main event is the Holiday Suite. This work once again expresses much of the emotions aroused by the thought of 'an English holiday at the seaside.' The suite is in three movements: the first being an attractive waltz in the style of the best of Eric Coates. The second movement is a delightful miniature with the back to front title of 'Spade and Bucket Polka.' In amongst the fun we hear the English Tune Cherry Ripe. The last movement is another march - Civic March. However there is some discussion as to whether this was originally meant to be the Picnic March. There is an open-air quality to this tune. Perhaps it is easier to imagine the Famous Five off on a picnic with their ginger beer and jam sandwiches. To my mind it fits in with the idea of 'being at the seaside.' The last thing I would want to do as a child is watch a lot of old fogeys dressed up in outdated clothes shamble along the High Street! However, I will defer, for scholarship's sake and concede that this last movement is a rather bright and gay 'civic' march!

The other pieces of music which derive from the music to the 'Day Dream Family' is the delightful Mendelssonian 'Ballet of the Wood Creatures.' This is so short, at only three and half minutes. What a pity Whitlock never composed a full-scale ballet score. Yet this is gem. We cannot help imagining these woodland animals talking. The Balloon Ballet is an attractive tune with a 'spinning wheel' quality to it; well orchestrated with just the right amount of diversity for short movement.

The two arrangements of the songs Come Along Marnie and Susan, the doggie and Me are neat and accomplished orchestrations by Malcolm Riley.

This is great CD. One which all enthusiasts for light music will appreciate. Yet much of this music actually goes well beyond what is normally regarded as appropriate for this genre. Certainly the Overture and the Dignity & Impudence March could take their places along side most English music of the period. They are fine, competent pieces.

Light music should be tuneful, well wrought and approachable. Whitlock's works are all these things and more.

The sound recording is excellent, as we expect for Marco Polo. The programme notes could be more fulsome - but no doubt all Whitlock enthusiasts will own the fine biography by Malcolm Riley and published by Thames (1998). The cover picture is truly evocative of the period of these compositions. It derives from an old Bournemouth Pavilion programme.

All I can add is that hope Marco Polo will consider recording the few remaining orchestral works that are still extant. And perhaps there is room in the repertoire for the Phantasy Quartet in A minor, the Quintet in g minor for Piano & String Quartet and the Movement for String Quartet?

When Whitlock left St Stephen's Parish to go to the Pavilion, a fellow organist is reputed to have said, 'It's a pity he is giving up such a good Church post to go to a place where organ playing is merely an accompaniment to eating and drinking.'

We must surely be glad that Whitlock did make such a move.

John France

Stephen Lloyd has also listened to this disc:

The heyday of light music was when spas and seaside resorts sported municipal orchestras and parks, piers and promenades resounded to the sound of military or brass bands. Gone are the municipal orchestras and decaying bandstands stand empty. In their place noise blares from loudspeakers and competing 'ghetto-blasters'. And while light music once formed a substantial portion of broadcast music, today it is a seriously endangered species. When Radio 3's Matinée Musicale ceased, a death knell was sounded. So it is to record companies with such enterprising series as Marco Polo's 'British Light Music' that we have to turn to sample music that is in no way inferior to more serious music but offers a charm and a relaxed style that is less demanding on the intellect and sings of happy times.

Eric Coates, the acknowledged 'king' of light music, has been well served, and so have composers like Haydn Wood, Frederic Curzon, Ernest Tomlinson and Edward German (in light music mode). Many others have been represented in collections like Hyperion's 'British Light Music Classics' and EMI's 'British Light Music'. Great credit, then, to Marco Polo for giving over a whole CD to a much less-known figure, Percy Whitlock (1903-1946), less-known, that is, unless you happened to live before the Second World War in Bournemouth where he was a familiar figure not just as composer but as borough organist. Successive Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra conductors - founder Sir Dan Godfrey, Richard Austin and Montague Birch - encouraged Percy Whitlock to write works which they programmed. Not all Whitlock's works are 'light'. Besides a large number of works for solo organ there is an impressive Symphony in G minor for Organ and Orchestra that Richard Austin premièred in 1937 (it had a broadcast in March 1991 with Graham Barber (organ), and Grant Llewellyn conducting the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra).

Many of Whitlock's lighter pieces were written under the pseudonym of Kenneth Lark, and - here's a lark - he was an occasional music critic for the local press and it was not unknown for Kenneth Lark to review a work by Percy Whitlock or for works by Whitlock and Lark to appear in the same programme. Taking the joke one step further, according to the title page, his Wessex Suite was composed by Kenneth Lark and orchestrated by Percy Whitlock. His sense of humour pervades his music as well.

The most substantial work on this CD is the concert overture The Feast of St. Benedict (that Robert Tucker included in his 1996 Windsor Sinfonia programme at Eton). Composed in 1934, this is an easy-going melodious piece, with hints here and there of that splendid nautical overture Plymouth Hoe by John Ansell (quite often played at Bournemouth). It was premièred in September 1934 by Sir Dan Godfrey in his last season as conductor of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, and repeated eleven days later. Whitlock had entered the work for The Daily Telegraph overture competition that was to be won by Cyril Scott's Festival Overture (when is that heard today?). At nearly twelve minutes' duration it might perhaps have benefited from some structural tightening but it is nonetheless a pleasant enough piece and, like nearly all the works on this CD, it grows on you with repeated hearing.

Other works, if not always displaying great individuality, are equally melodious, just the sort of pieces that would have charmed seaside audiences, reflecting as they do popular styles of their period. Is there any work more danceable than The Blue Poole from the Wessex Suite (1937) that boasts alto, tenor and baritone saxophones? Inspired by a beauty spot on the nearby Isle of Purbeck known as 'The Blue Pool', it punningly alludes to Bournemouth's neighbouring Poole and the piece's 'blues' feeling. It might just as easily conjure up an image of couples moving at a leisurely pace across a smoke-filled Pavilion ballroom. The Suite's cheerful concluding march, Rustic Cavalry, ventures closer to Coates or Haydn Wood territory.

Melody is the key to most of Whitlock's pieces. His suite Music for Orchestra, introduced by Montague Birch on 20th February 1941, has an innocent simplicity, the second movement Caprice opening very much in the mood of Edward German. Its concluding section is based on the Agincourt Song (declaimed on organ) which Whitlock had heard in a broadcast three years before Walton took it for the film Henry V.

The oddly-named items Come along, Marnie and Susan, the Doggie and Me are short songs dating from 1939, both tastefully orchestrated for oboe and strings. The Holiday Suite dates from the same year and was performed on 29th January, Richard Austin conducting. This suite is not quite up to the level of the other suites, although the central Spade and Bucket Polka that uses the tune Cherry Ripe stands out from its companion movements.

The last piece, the March Dignity and Impudence (1933), a gem, takes its title from a Landseer painting. It has a certain dignity, while the impudence is surely in lifting the theme of the trio from Elgar's fourth Pomp and Circumstance march. But anyone who likes marches will be playing this track more than once - no wonder this work became a favourite at Bournemouth in the popular light music programmes!

Almost all the works include a part for organ, no doubt so that Whitlock could play along in his own compositions. In this recording the organist (on an electronic instrument, sadly not one comparable with the Pavilion's Compton piped organ) is Malcolm Riley who almost single-handedly is responsible for the revival of interest in Whitlock's music and deserves the greatest credit and thanks for doing so. Secretary and founder-member of the Percy Whitlock Trust, he is author of Percy Whitlock - organist and composer (Thames Publishing 1998), an authoritative study of the man and music that is indispensable to anyone wanting to learn more about Whitlock the man and his works. As for this CD, like chocolates or ginger biscuits it is very moreish! Whitlock had an ear for a catchy tune and his scoring is sweet without being syrupy. Anyone who has a soft spot for light music will not regret snapping up this delightful confection. Gavin Sutherland, already responsible for some notable discs of British light music, coaxes some eloquent performances from the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

Stephen Lloyd

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