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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Reports from Lewis Foreman
IVOR GURNEY WAR ELEGY REVIVED AT CHELTENHAM
RECORDING HYPERION’S BANTOCK VOLUME 6

ELGAR WASN’T OSCAR PETERSON
MALCOLM WILLIAMSON: obituary
TED PERRYObituary

 

IVOR GURNEY WAR ELEGY REVIVED AT CHELTENHAM

On the face of it one might expect that an orchestral War Elegy by so well-known a poet of 1914-18 as Ivor Gurney should be a familiar piece from the First World War, and yet the music which the Gloucestershire Symphony Orchestra revived at their concert on Sunday 2 March is completely unknown. A glance at the manuscript full score of the War Elegy, preserved in the library of the Royal College of Music, immediately suggests why. Although it opens confidently, it becomes increasingly uncertain as it goes along; the central climax seems clotted and awkward; in one or two places its seems unfinished. I was therefore delighted that the GSO and their conductor Mark Finch had programmed it at their concert at Cheltenham Town Hall, the home of so many notable first performances, providing an opportunity to judge the music in performance.

This was the first performance since Stanford conducted it at the Royal College of Music in June 1921, although Richard Carder gave the music a run through at the Canford Summer School of Music in 1988. But this was the first formal performance, and in the programme notes conductor Mark Finch summarised the problems of trying to elucidate what Gurney actually meant from the score and parts that survive. "Of the six notes which make up the last bar of music, three were written differently in the parts. Indeed, trying to unpick Gurney’s intentions throughout from the hand-written evidence has proved an interesting challenge – on the one hand, the score contains many ambiguities and some clear mistakes, on the other, the hastily written parts . . . also contain errors of their own. . . there are many other examples of unusual dissonance of varying degrees of plausibility."

Nevertheless it worked in performance, and while it is no masterpiece, and it certainly needs sensitive editing, Finch and his forces did a good job in bringing Gurney’s personal world to life. Hearing Gurney’s trudging funeral march given added voice by the clumsy second climax followed by its all-too-expressive fade out, one could not help but feel that we were hearing an authentic account of the hardships and sorrows of an eloquent poet whose terrible experience it encapsulates. As the programme put it "the futility of Gurney’s war experience . . . summed up in the bare fifths for flutes and clarinets with which the piece ends". I made it run 9’26". When a First World War programme is next being considered this surely deserves to be heard again.

LEWIS FOREMAN


RECORDING HYPERION’S BANTOCK VOLUME 6

Lewis Foreman reports enthusiastically from Watford, where Hyperion’s recording session for their next Bantock CD was safely completed.

On 1 and 2 April at the Watford Colosseum (or Town Hall, if you prefer) the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Vernon Handley successfully recorded the sixth volume of Hyperion’s Bantock cycle for issue later in the year. The vocal soloists in excerpts from The Song of Songs were the soprano Elizabeth Connell (fresh from singing Richard Strauss in Australia) and tenor Kim Begley. As on previous volumes the producer was Martin Compton and the engineer Tony Faulkner. It went remarkably well, and all involved are reported delighted with the outcome.

The programme consisted of three orchestral tracks and three vocal ones. Two comparatively well-known works by Bantock, the Overture to a Greek Tragedy and Pierrot of the Minute, were contrasted with less-known repertoire. The once-popular aria ‘The Wilderness and the Solitary Place’ from Bantock’s short oratorio Christ in the Wilderness proved a worthwhile find, explaining its one-time regular appearances at the Proms, and the three extracts from The Song of Songs made one eager to hear more of the complete work which is quite impossible properly to experience from the vocal score.

The sessions started on the afternoon of the first day with "Day 2" (or Act 2) from The Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is a literal setting of the whole of the Biblical "Song of Songs", treated as a passionate drama in five acts (which Bantock calls "days"), each separated by massive choruses which were not recorded. The previous volume of Hyperion’s Bantock had included the Prelude from this huge undertaking, and that had created considerable enthusiasm for now exploring some 40 minutes of the complete work. Bantock enthusiasts will know "Day 2" from the Dutton historical CD of Laelia Finneberg singing it as a solo scena in a 1936 broadcast conducted by the composer. Now it was sung as Bantock intended, as a duet, and Vernon Handley was remarkable in doing it in exactly the same time that Bantock took, though perhaps without all of Bantock’s excessive rubato. Elizabeth Connell was notably enthusiastic, and she told me she had been out and bought the Dutton historical CD and said that given the opportunity she would love to sing that version in concert. Now heard as a duet, with the orchestra in digital sound, it really is a strong recommendation for doing the work complete, whatever "complete" may be.

The second vocal extract was the closing scene – for those with the vocal score from the bottom of page 279 to the end. At the beginning William Prideaux, still a student at the Royal Academy of Music, sang the 4-bar walk-on baritone role of the Watchman, and then the soloists launched on their tremendous – very Straussian - final love duet which in the event ran 14’ 48". It is quite impossible to have any idea of the sheer sumptuous colour of this from the vocal score, and it was a great success. Later, at the end of the second day of recording, the orchestra recorded an extended orchestral interlude from the "Third Day" (vocal score 156-163) which ran just over 7’ to link the vocal sequences on the CD. Various starting points were tried and the final edit will depend on the total running time, the extract having been chosen to be flexible to ensure the whole programme did not over-run.

Apart from the problems of chosing a programme which worked as an entity on CD, this project also had considerable problems in finding the music and sourcing performing materials for the sessions, an exercise which altogether took me over two years. Fortunately Swan & Co’s original parts of The Song of Songs from the 1920s survive and were available to allow the recording to take place, thanks to Sean Gray and the hire library at Weinberger’s, the present owner of the work.

In selecting the orchestral works for the programme it seemed a good idea to have one or two better-known works alongside the rarities, and for this reason Juga Naut which had been carried over from Volume 5 when its companion Processional had been recorded was carried over again. Vernon Handley brought a characteristic sympathy to the two previously recorded works, and in the sympathetic acoustic at Watford, both ran slower than on the competition, though in fact Nicholas Braithwaite’s LP Lyrita recording of Greek Tragedy has never been reissued, and has not been available for many years. A wonderful two days: Hyperion tell me they are going for release in the Autumn.


ELGAR WASN’T OSCAR PETERSON

At a CD launch at the Savile Club sponsored by Elgar Editions on 4 April, the pianist David Owen Norris introduced his pioneering programme of Elgar’s piano music, tantalisingly headed Vol 1. Here is a production where the booklet, by the pianist, is almost as important as the performances in discussing Elgar’s relationship both to the keyboard and to his inspiration. Early and late: here we have four early pieces and a succession of late one including David Owen Norris’s transcription of Elgar’s piano improvisations, made in the small Queen’s Hall on 6 November 1929, but not issued commercially until EMI’s historic LP set "Elgar on Record".

In his notes the pianist reminds us that a keyboard improvisation by an orchestral composer of Elgar’s imagination launches ‘on an unknown sea of spontaneous creation, unconstrained by notation’, and admits that his ‘own second thoughts on Elgar’s behalf are also the work of ear and hand alone’. Thus where Elgar was clearly constrained by the ending of a 4½ minute side Norris has to decide where to stop. His solution is eminently artistic, not to say Elgarian: ‘The last Improvisation follows an intricate pattern of thought, with quasi-recapitulations and fleeting thematic references. I'm convinced that Elgar would have wanted to recall his beautiful melody, and so I bring back its second phrase in combination with the opening rising thirds, and I play the falling sequences from its beginning in a circular imitation similar to a passage in the Finale of the First Symphony. Then I return to Elgar's final cadence, with its unmistakable and moving reference to the word "wiedersehen" in the soprano aria in Brahms's Requiem.’ In discussing the limitations of Elgar’s piano technique, Norris suddenly produced my musical aphorism of the month: ’Elgar wasn’t Oscar Peterson’. Well no, but the flavour of Elgar’s improvisations come from his idiosyncratic pianism, though without the ultimate in virtuosity, and a fertility of invention which he shares with Peterson.

Framing the whole programme is the Sonatina, dating from 1889 but revised for publication in 1930 and fascinatingly analysed by Norris. Here also is In Smyrna, the source of "Hail Immemorial Ind!" in Crown of India, and piano transcriptions of the Imperial March and Three Bavarian Dances. The other discovery of the programme is Elgar’s Concert Allegro, possibly thought by many Elgarians to be one of his few duds, and certainly viewed in that light by critics at the first performance by the celebrated Fanny Davies a pupil of Clara Schumann. Frankly, even in John Ogden’s celebrated recording this is a piece that has never loomed large on my Elgarian horizons. This is music in which Elgar bowed to the suggestions of his pianist, and David Owen Norris believes that Fanny Davies played the piece at anything down to half speed. As he writes in the notes: ‘The clues lie in Fanny Davies's pencilled suggestions on the MS. As a pupil of Clara Schumann's, she had been 'properly trained' - something of which Elgar's particular genius had never known the need. To take one example, the classic style of piano playing frowns at putting the thumb on a black note. As I know from my recreations of his improvising, Elgar had no such inhibitions. And the Concert Allegro is full of passage-work where the obvious thing to do is to preserve the finger pattern you first thought of, which means that the thumb often ends up on a black note. In many of these places, Fanny suggests alterations that would enable her to twist her fingers round in a different way, often at the expense of Elgar's harmonic integrity. . . . The gulf between her musical world and Elgar's couldn't be clearer. Fanny's finicky fingering would immediately slow down the glorious rush of Elgar's semi-quavers. And for anyone out-of-tune enough with Elgar to attempt to curb his rhetoric, there's a pitfall right at the opening of the piece, where the crotchet chords are marked risoluto and look (to a pianist) as if they should be played in a heavy, deliberate manner. It takes more than a moment to see beyond one's assumptions, and realize that Elgar has specified two beats in a bar, not four, and put a swift metronome mark of Minim=88.’

This a wonderful example of practical musicology by a pianist totally in sympathy with his subject – intelligent, idiomatic playing, a sympathetic eminently realistic recorded sound and the promise of other volumes to follow; it could not be better. Recommended.

LEWIS FOREMAN

DAVID OWEN NORRIS plays ELGAR – vol 1 (Five Improvisations; Skizze; Presto; Waltz "Enina"; Chantant; Griffinesque; Sonatina; Imperial March; In Smyrna; Three Bavarian Dances; Serenade; Concert Allegro; Adieu.) Elgar Editions EECD 002


MALCOLM WILLIAMSON: obituary

Malcolm Williamson, Master of the Queen’s Music, died on 2 March after a long illness. In the 1960s he had been one of the biggest names among the younger generation of composers active in the UK, with a constant stream of new works, and yet by the 1980s he seemed to be in decline and in the 1990s had become almost faded from view. Why this should be, for he remained an active composer, is likely to be the subject of endless research and discussion, for his music forms one of the most approachable and accessible bodies of work of his time.

Williamson was born in Sydney on 21 November 1931, the son of a Protestant clergyman. He began composing as a child, and like many another musical son of a church family achieved his first successes as organist at his father’s church when very young. He soon went to the Sydney Conservatoire ("the Con"), where he is remembered as being full of himself as a student piano wizard – he loved to play the brilliant opening of the then new Khachaturian Piano Concerto, and needed little excuse to show off with it. This did not endear him to some of his contemporaries. When the opera Judith by his composition teacher Eugene Goossens was staged at "the Con" most people remember it for the first public recognition of the student Joan Sutherland in the title role – but if one looks carefully at the list of orchestral players in the programme, Williamson will be seen listed at the end as the celesta player.

Williamson came to London in 1950 and discovered a new world of music – the then newly empowered serial avant garde and the music of Messaien – of which he had previously been ignorant. Settling permanently in London in 1953, from then to 1957 he studied with Elisabeth Lutyens and with the Schoenberg disciple Erwin Stein. Yet while he explored serialism, it was not long before he embraced a personal eclecticism encompassing popular elements, both rhythmic and melodic. He was soon within the orbit of the Britten circle and was represented at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1955 by the song Ay flattering fortune sung by Peter Pears, and in 1956 appeared himself to play his sparkling new first Piano Sonata. He scraped a living by working in Harrod’s and playing in a night club. Converting to Catholicism at the age of 20, he was also a church organist, successively at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street and at St Peter’s, Limehouse.

In Paris he was in the circle of Messaien and Boulez, and as a champion of the former’s organ music it was to Messaien he turned for a language to articulate his newfound conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, in such large-scale organ pieces as Fons Amoris, the six movement Symphony for organ, and the Vision of Christ-Phoenix in which the emotional impact of the charred shell of the old Cathedral seen from the new Coventry Cathedral impelled the composer to produce a wide-ranging set of variations founded on the ‘Coventry Carol’, which was often played by Allan Wicks soon after it first appeared. Soon afterwards the short Epitaph for Edith Sitwell, and then Elegy for J F K had a topicality which ensured many performances at the time.

Williamson was very prolific, and his music encompassed almost all conventional forms. These included 9 operas, 6 ballets, 10 cassations (his term for music, particularly for children, involving audience participation), 7 symphonies, 4 piano concertos, concertos for organ, violin, 2-pianos and saxophone; a huge number of vocal works, a large body of church music, chamber & organ music, and several substantial cycles for solo voice and orchestra. Williamson was not so prolific when writing for voice and piano, though the Brittenesque Stevenson cycle of 12 songs From a Child’s Garden has Williamson’s endlessly inventive piano figurations supporting the easy lyricism familiar from his children’s music.

Between 1957 and 1962 Williamson produced a succession of concertos, the first Piano Concerto appearing at Cheltenham in 1958 and reappearing at the Proms in 1959. This was criticised at the time by critics who could not reconcile his exploration of the new with a popular lyricism. His short Sinfonia Concertante for piano, three trumpets and strings took two years to bring to fruition, and at this time, hearing rather late in the day of a competition in Western Australia for a concerto for piano and strings, Williamson wrote what became the second piano concerto in 8 days and won the competition. In the Third Piano Concerto, Williamson is on a grander scale, with four movements, and he remarked about the finale: "the tears have gone, the curtained privacy of the slow movement is shattered with the Caribbean sunlight . . . in a combative dance’. It was a formula he often used.

In the 1960s one was constantly encountering new works by Williamson, possibly one of the first for me was the Organ Concerto at the Proms on Friday 8 September 1961, when it was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult in what now seems a strange programme consisting of Beethoven Symphony No 8, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (with Myra Hess), Brandenburg No 3 the Williamson and ending with Ravel Daphnis and Chloe suite No 2. "The organ Concerto was a labour of love" recalled the composer, explaining "it was written in honour of Sir Adrian Boult." In fact the motif ACB is heard throughout. When it was recorded by Lyrita in the mid 1970s it was coupled with Williamson playing his Third Piano Concerto (which had been premiered by John Ogdon). Although offered to Sir Adrian, he declined to conduct the Piano Concerto and Leonard Dommet stepped in to complete the record. In 1964 Williamson’s Violin Concerto was written for Yehudi Menuhin and as a memorial to Edith Sitwell, and although not well received by the critics in 1964, it became one of Williamson’s most performed works, and the composer was delighted to be warmly congratulated by Sir William Walton after the London premiere.

Williamson’s setting of Graham Green’s entertainment Our Man in Havana, was first produced in 1963 and revived the following year, before being seen in Germany, Belgium, Hungary and the USA. It is surely the most purely enjoyable British opera of the last forty years, and the most demanding of revival of all the many new operas, most of them disasters, which were commissioned from British composers during the quarter century after 1960. The ‘operatic entertainment’ English Eccentrics after Edith Sitwell, was a great success at the 17th Aldeburgh Festival in 1964 and it seemed both entertaining and new-minted at the time. Listening to a recording, I thought it had worn less well than some of his other stage works, though a student revival by the Trinity College of Music at King’s College in the Strand in 1990 underlined the sparkle of Williamson’s invention and his catchy parodies of the popular music of its day. Williamson’s opera The Violins of St Jacques at the London Coliseum in 1966 seemed to be a triumphant synthesis of the operatic tendencies of the time, and it was given for four consecutive seasons and then filmed in Australia. It seemed to underline at the time that here indeed was Britten’s operatic successor.

In 1965 the magazine Music & Musicians ran an extended feature on Williamson in which Stephen Walsh referred to his "graduation to the status of a household name". This was reinforced by the fact that Williamson also found a sympathetic vein writing for children, with The Happy Prince, after the Oscar Wilde short story and Julius Caesar Jones, which was recorded. A full length score, Lucky Peter’s Journey, took a fairy-tale play by Strindberg to make Sadler’s Wells Opera’s 1969 Christmas show at the London Coliseum. "What goes on" said Williamson "is as serious as in Die Zauberflöte or Die Frau Ohne Schatten, but it should float past the listener as lightly as a feather. After all, I was asked to compose an operatic pantomime, and I chose a serious subject so that it would be entertaining." Given 14 performances in its initial run, it has not been heard now for many years.

I was first introduced to Williamson by Malcolm Smith when I called one day at the hire library at Boosey & Hawkes, perhaps twenty or more years ago. First meeting Malcolm Williamson at that time was a memorable experience: a charming manner, and a wonderful flow of conversation and sympathetic comment. His reminiscences were fascinating, of Edith Sitwell, Britten and all the names of the time. Later I spoke to him on the phone on various occasions and found this same spiel became wearisome on the fourth or fifth repetition. Once, he found himself speaking to my wife on the phone, never having met her, but held her captivated for some 50 minutes. "What a fascinating man" she remarked.

Soon after he was appointed as Master of the Queen’s Music (a political appointment if ever there was one), Williamson appeared on a BBC Radio Three programme introducing music by his predecessors in the post, Bax and Walford Davies. I still have a tape of that programme, and no man has ever seemed more ill-at-ease than did the new Master of the Music making those introductions on that occasion. He seemed unable to decide what tone to take, and adopted a stiff and unnatural formality. He seemed like a fish out of water.

Williamson became Master of the Queen’s Music on the death of Sir Arthur Bliss in 1975, yet after 27 years one has difficulty in remembering any pieces written by Williamson in his official capacity. This is unlike his predecessor, who revelled in the role and did much to reinvent it. However, the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977 did result in Williamson producing several works for the occasion, even if it also saw him fail to meet a particularly high-profile deadline, which gave him an unfortunate reputation of not completing commissions on time.

Williamson’s big commission for the Jubilee celebrations in 1977 was the Fourth Symphony which failed to be ready, and after one performance has not been played since. This was compounded by the same problem over the 70-minute Mass of Christ the King. Commissioned for the 250th anniversary of the Three Choirs and dedicated to the Queen on her Silver Jubilee, this was eventually sung incomplete, at Gloucester, the completed score not being heard until November the following year. However, when it was first heard in full at Westminster Cathedral and later at the Perth (Scotland) Festival in 1981, and was also seen on BBC television, it was widely praised. "A Mass worth waiting for" announced David Cairns’ review in the Sunday Times.

In fact Williamson had a very active and otherwise successful Jubilee year, it was the PR that went wrong. Underlining a more Brittenesque role, during 1977 two smaller works were heard: the Jubilee Hymn, to words by the poet laureate John Betjeman, and Ode to Music. Both were sung by a Suffolk Schools Choir at Ipswich on 11 July 1977 an occasion later broadcast. There was also an orchestral suite The House of Windsor and an opera for children, The Valley and the Hill, performed before the Queen and Prince Philip in Liverpool. The same year came an organ piece, The Lion of Suffolk, for Benjamin Britten’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey. Perhaps Williamson’s most active performance during the Jubilee was the presentation by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes of his 1964 collaboration with Ursula Vaughan Williams in his pageant cantata The Brilliant and the Dark, which was recorded by NFWI choirs (auditioned from across England) specially to commemorate the Jubilee. It would be hard to imagine a more high-profile way of Williamson being seen as the successor to Vaughan Williams and Britten as the unofficial as well as the official musical laureate.

Later Williamson wrote the five-movement Ode for the Queen for the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday. Played by the Scottish Baroque Ensemble director Leonard Freedman, this was first performed at the Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh in 1980 at a private concert to mark the 80th birthday of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Its first public performance came in a BBC broadcast in November the same year. Tuneful and rhythmic, it is rather like a latter day St Paul’s Suite. Here the opening movement is dubbed ‘Act of Homage’ and the fourth ‘Majesty and Beauty’ suggesting that Williamson was, perhaps, working hard to discharge his royal role. That Williamson could tap a deep vein of emotion, even in occasional works, was especially notable in his spontaneously written Lament in Memory of Lord Mountbatten of Burma for violin and strings.

If Williamson’s profile began to wane from the late 1970s, one broadcast concert from February 1979 underlines that his fertility and vitality were undimmed. This was from that year’s Milton Keynes Festival when Williamson’s orchestral movement Fiesta and his orchestral song-cycle Les Olympiques were both heard in the UK for the first time, under the direction of Lionel Friend. The boisterous brashness and constantly driving rhythm of Fiesta has some of the exotic colour of an orchestral work by Villa Lobos. It reminds us that the one work of Williamson which at one time seemed poised for the permanent repertoire was the tuneful overture Santiago de Espade, certainly Australia’s answer to Bernstein’s ever-popular Candide. That neither Fiesta or his earlier success are still heard is most unexpected.

The song cycle Les Olympiques, also written in the Jubilee year of 1977, is one of several remarkable works for voice and orchestra that Williamson has produced, including the Hammarskjöld Portrait of 1974, and the Tribute to a Hero of 1981. In Les Olympiques, in a work the composer described as "nocturnal", Williamson sets words by Henri de Mantherlant, a poet who hymned athleticism but was wounded during the First World War; Williamson’s verse-sequence is like a journey through life and it was first performed at the Festival of the Ruhr in 1977.

In 1986 I worked for the Department of Trade and Industry and found myself involved in the planning for the celebrations of the bi-centenary of the foundation of the Board of Trade. In this capacity I was responsible for commissioning an anthem for the centenary service in St Margaret’s Westminster. My immediate thought was the Master of the Queen’s Music – what could be more appropriate. Never having commissioned music before from a leading composer, I consulted a variety of musical sources on how I should go about it, the fee, and most important of all, who should be commissioned. Throughout the musical world I was strongly warned off Williamson on the grounds that he probably could not meet my deadline and that as a civil servant I could not take the risk. In the end I rang Bill Matthias and asked him if he could do it and he delivered in three weeks. It was an eye-opening experience as to how a composer, even the most celebrated, can lose his support.

In the days of LP Williamson’s music was constantly recorded, yet when I reviewed a new collection of Williamson’s popular church music (News 80) in December 1998, the accompanying booklet claimed it to be the first new recording of his music for 19 years. It included the short cantata Harvest Thanksgiving which I must have bought over 35 years before when it was recorded by Brian Alldis and it seemed very new, and was certainly the best of then fashionable "church jazz" started by Geoffrey Beaumont in the 1950s. It reminds us that Williamson made a speciality of such things and his Five Cantatas were for some time thought the best church music of their kind.

In recent years Williamson reconnected with his Australian roots, being commissioned to write the massive Sixth Symphony in 1982 written for the (then) seven orchestras of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, linked electronically. The Seventh Symphony, this time for strings, was commissioned to mark the 150th anniversary of the State of Victoria in 1984, and in 1988 the Australian Bicentennial produced two more substantial works not yet heard in the UK, The True Endeavour for speaker, chorus and orchestra with words by the historian Manning Clark and The Dawn is at Hand, a choral symphony on words by the Aboriginal poet Kath Walker. Williamson had comparatively few performances during his last twenty years, certainly compared to the activity of the previous two decades. Yet he was never completely out of view. The wonderfully entertaining orchestral suite from the opera Our Man in Havana was heard from the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Proms in 1988. In that year the BBC broadcast a series in which all six Williamson ballet scores were heard in sequence. In the 1995 Proms, the premiere of the song-cycle The Year of Birds for soprano and orchestra setting words by Iris Murdoch, proved to be unexpectedly moving. The same year also saw the first performance of With Proud Thanksgiving his tribute to the 50th anniversary of the United Nations which he dedicated to the memory of his former friend Harold Wilson.

There are signs of a revival, not least the championship of Christopher Austin at Bristol who has been programming his orchestral music for the last seven or eight years, and has recorded the Seventh Symphony. We need to hear Williamson’s many works that have not yet been played in the UK. This is surely an opportunity for the BBC, with Composer of the Week or one of their invaluable one composer surveys.

Malcolm Williamson was appointed CBE in 1976, and Honorary AO in 1987. He married Dolores Daniel in 1960 and had one son and two daughters. They were divorced in 1978.

LEWIS FOREMAN


Ted Perry Obituary

The following is the unedited script of Lewis Foreman’s obituary first published in The Independent, which has been slightly expanded in respect of Ted Perry’s contribution to the exploration and revival of British music on the Hyperion label, for its reappearance here.

Ted Perry, the founder-owner of Hyperion Records died from lung cancer on 9 February. He was 71.

George Edward Perry was born in Derby in 1931 and was at first apprenticed to be a printer, a background that influenced his entire career in the record industry, giving him a lifelong sympathy for typography. A childhood illness left him with a characteristic limp only relieved by a hip-replacement operation long after the foundation of Hyperion. He inevitably countered any enquiries about his health by saying ‘I always feel like Bernard Shaw, never ask how someone was, they might just tell you’.

Without formal qualifications he had a succession of jobs in the record industry. He came to London in 1949 and worked in the EMG record shop, and gradually acquired a collector’s knowledge of recordings and music. ‘He was a terrific record buff’ recalls Quita Chavez, a colleague at the time, and to the end he could quote numbers of significant LPs from the history of recording from memory. Eventually he moved on to the newly founded Heliodor label in 1956, but feeling his career was not developing, the following year he went to Australia where he worked for Festival Records, which not only recorded new repertoire but also distributed British records in Australia. Returning to London in 1961 he worked for one of the first independent labels, Saga, in an industry then dominated by the big names, and for them made very early recordings of Janet Baker and John Shirley Quirk in then unrecorded music, including British music, notably by John Ireland and Vaughan Williams. His repertoire also included one of the first widely-disseminated recordings of the Bartok String Quartets, by the Fine Arts Quartet. In doing so he developed the two principal strands of his later success: being able to spot talented artists early, and having a vision of repertoire needing development which he recorded on gut-instinct without any clear evidence of whether it would be financially successful.

In 1963, unhappy with the record industry, he gave it up and had a succession of casual jobs, including driving an ice cream van. Returning to records nine years later, he worked for Saga again and then jointly founded the Meridian label with the recording engineer John Shuttleworth, making the first recording by an independent to win a Gramophone Award. However, nearing fifty, it pointed him towards achieving his lifetime’s ambition, by starting his own label, and in 1980 Ted founded Hyperion Records, literally at the kitchen table.

His first record was Dame Thea King’s performance of the Finzi and Stanford Clarinet Concertos, which he licensed from the player, soon followed by her award-winning recording of the Mozart Concerto and Quintet, where in the concerto she played the basset clarinet, then a significant innovation. He had the problem of all newly founded independent record companies: lack of capital, the high cost of orchestral recordings, establishing himself in the market and the slow returns while building a catalogue. Yet Ted Perry had acquired that instinctive lifetime’s experience of his customers which gave him an unchallenged feel for his market, the ability to choose talented artists and explore worthwhile unknown repertoire. Ted was not the man for flashy offices or expensive publicity launches, though, as all who attended the Hyperion 20th anniversary party in 2000 will remember, when it came to it Ted knew all too well how to push the boat out. But in the early days he financed his label by driving a minicab at night, and he recalled that for this the weekends were the most financially rewarding part of the week.

Gothic Voices’ pioneering recording of the twelfth-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen, to which Hyperion gave the title A Feather on the Breath of God, was an unexpected success, a success which has continued over the years, selling approaching 350,000 copies. Effectively this capitalised Hyperion for years, Ted remarking about new projects ‘Oh don’t worry, St Hildegard of Hyperion will pay for it’. Effectively it allowed him to make a few mistakes. Ted’s method of working was remembered by Gothic Voices director, Christopher Page, who sent Ted a cassette of a Radio3 broadcast of Hildegard. Ted had, in fact already heard the broadcast in his minicab and he accepted the idea, and Hildegard was done in one long day at St Jude’s-on-the-Hill in Hampstead, featuring a then unknown Emma Kirkby. The session was made all the more personal by Ted’s wife, Doreen, bringing an enormous picnic for the performers. At the time Hildegard was known only to a few scholars, and the recording’s successful championing of it was a significant straw in the wind of what would follow. Such was the integrity of Ted and the regard in which he was held, Page remembers that although eventually he made 23 records for Hyperion he never had a contract, remarking ‘you could always phone Ted and get a straight answer’.

Ted had a special feel for singers and also evolved a marketing strategy of developing series, sometimes of the most unlikely material, ranging from Vivaldi and Purcell to Schumann’s songs and the music of Robert Simpson. Probably the most remarkable of these was Graham Johnson’s epic survey of Schubert’s songs which was finally completed in 37 volumes. Here Ted’s belief in the highest production values, with booklets which were allowed to find their own length (one was a monograph of 37,000 words!), was a significant contributor to the series’ enormous success, winning two Gramophone and numerous other industry awards. Ted’s feeling for voices and for casting really came into its own, and, having been involved in the beginning of Janet Baker’s recording career he was proud to have been able to launch the series with one of her last recordings. Later he managed to record future big names such as Christine Schäfer, Ian Bostridge and Matthias Goerne, and win international awards with them before they became more widely known. The choice of singers across the series is a remarkable portrait of the art of singing at the end of the twentieth century.

The current Hyperion catalogue runs to over 250 pages and, as the outcome of one man’s vision, it represents an enormous achievement. It is impossible to mention here many of the distinguished names that contributed to it. As Graham Johnson has pointed out, Hyperion came on the scene at the moment when BBC patronage of the middle ground of British musicians receded, and Hyperion was instrumental in giving international voice to a generation of artists. In repertoire, too, Hyperion’s championship of unknown music has varied from Romantic Piano Concertos, masterminded by Mike Spring and still ongoing after 31 volumes, Leslie Howard’s 95-disc traversal of the complete Liszt Piano Music. Peter Holman’s ‘The English Orpheus’, a remarkable series of 47 discs with the Parley of Instruments gave voice to English music from the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which was completely forgotten. This was totally unexplored repertoire which prospered owing to the high quality of both music and performances. The Hyperion list of award-winning pianists includes Tatyana Nikolaieva, Angela Hewitt, Marc-André Hamelin and Stephen Hough.

Totally different was the series of Sir Granville Bantock’s orchestral music, which prompted a critical revaluation of Bantock as a composer, thanks to sympathetic performances from Vernon Handley and the RPO and Hyperion’s remarkably high production values. Before the fourth of these which was devoted to Bantock’s Sappho Songs, Ted asked me to advise what he should record. I suggested Sappho but Ted was not keen, until he was persuaded to attend Stephen Banfield’s revival of the cycle at Birmingham University, which was nothing short of Ted’s road to Damascus. He came out converted. ‘I’m going to do it’ he announced enthusiastically and within a few months sessions were underway, Ted playing his masterstroke by casting the mezzo-soprano, Susan Bickley as the soloist. Sales of over 9,000 copies for such little-known music was remarkable. I last spoke to him in the Office two days before he died about the next volume of this very series which we had been working on for nearly three years: I had no idea it would be the end.

He was an impulsive person, totally reliant on his instinct, and would always back his hunch. Robert King, later to make many superb recordings with the King’s Consort for Hyperion remembers first sending Ted four tentative ideas for recordings. Early the next morning Ted telephoned to say ‘Hi Robert, Ted here – we’ll take them all. When are you going to record them?’

Ted Perry, the tousled ‘sweet natured utterly honest man’ as Dame Thea King remembers him, was a records man through and through, and was always excited by the new, even to the extent of personally unpacking newly delivered CDs. Like all self-made men he could be difficult, but he inspired huge loyalties in his associates. He believed in the record industry as something much more than a business to make money, and he demanded quality. If a project made artistic sense he would back it, an approach which paid off, for as well as a host of other awards, in 22 years Hyperion won 24 Gramophone Awards including 3 Records of the Year. ‘Ted was unique in the record business, he made Hyperion feel like a big family – one to which you were so happy to belong’ remarks the pianist Angela Hewitt, and he is warmly remembered by all his artists and all his associates. Ted Perry was appointed MBE in 1999 for services to music.

LEWIS FOREMAN

 

 

 

 



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