Let me not beat
about the bush. This is one of the most important British chamber
music releases for a number of years. It was first published
in 2004 but I understand that for various reasons it has not
‘flown off the shelves.’ And this is indeed a huge shame.
Firstly it presents
three major English chamber work classics of the 20th
century. Secondly it introduces two works that deserve to be
seen on the same level and last but not least this is a beautifully
produced and brilliantly played recital. All the works here
have the fine playing of Leon Goossens as their inspiration,
if not their raison d’être.
It is hard to imagine
the Daily Telegraph running a chamber music competition in today’s
climate. Without delving too deeply into the pros and cons of
political correctness, it would seem unlikely that any contemporary
event would confine itself to ‘string quartets’ and ‘wind quintets’;
there would have to be equal status for entrants writing works
for didgeridoo and Tibetan nose flutes. But the world was a
different place in 1932 and Elizabeth Maconchy won an
award in the competition with her excellent Oboe Quintet.
Her work was a precursor to the great cycle of String Quartets
that the composer was to write throughout her career. In the
same event the young Benjamin Britten received a commendation
with his Phantasy Quartet.
The Quintet opens
with a declamatory phrase from the oboe followed by urgent string
chords - this dissolves into some discursive music where oboe
and strings vie with each other to gain the upper hand. Much
of this first movement is quite reflective. The harmonies are
rather astringent yet there is a sense of Arcadian pastoralist
even amongst this Bartók-tinged music.
The second movement
continues the meditative mood. This is the heart of the piece.
There is no sense of the archetypical 'cow leaning over the
fence' here - but neither does the prevailing modernism destroy
the pervasive sense of Englishness. There is even a hint or
two of folk-tunes - perhaps a nod in the direction of her composition
teacher Ralph Vaughan Williams.
This folk idiom
comes to the fore in the last movement. The programme notes
refer to the suggestion of ‘moto perpetuum’ about the music.
True, but there is still that strain of melancholy that has
suffused the entire work. And lookout for the exciting cross-rhythms
that cause considerable technical difficulties to the performers.
However George Caird and his friends certainly seem to iron
out any problems. The movement finishes with reminiscences of
what has gone before.
Sir Arthur Bliss
is not really that well represented on CD considering his
position in the pantheon of British Music. His magnum opus the
Colour Symphony is only available in two versions. Strangely
it is a chamber work that has the greatest number of recordings.
The Pastoral for clarinet and piano is available in some
seven versions. Yet it seems that nowadays Bliss is not as well
regarded as he ought to be. Read and consider these words from
an interview between George Caird and Jeremy Polmear: "...Arthur
Bliss, is not really known for anything much these days, I [Polmear]
ventured. Was he ever?” Fortunately George strongly disagrees.
He points out that “in his day he was very well known as a virtuoso
composer, with great facility and ease. This popularity may
have contributed to his being made Master of the Queen’s Music
in 1953 ... his music is overdue for a re-exploration, and this
[present] CD is a small contribution.”
I have always loved
Bliss’s Oboe Quintet. It seems to me to evoke an age
long past - perhaps from a time before the horrors of the trenches
with which he was so well acquainted?
The work came as
a result of the composer’s relationship with Mrs. Elizabeth
Sprague Coolidge. She was an American lady with great enthusiasm
for modern music who was prepared to put her money where her
heart was. Bliss was impressed with her patronage and intellectual
grasp of music and had dedicated his Two Interludes (1925)
for piano solo to her. And the respect was mutual: Mrs Coolidge
commissioned the present work for the 1927 Venice Festival.
Like all the pieces on this CD it was inspired by the playing
of Leon Goossens who gave the first performance in that city
with the Venetian Quartet. It is reputed to have gained an enthusiastic
response from Alban Berg.
We can hardly imagine
Berg using Connolly’s Jig as a part of any composition
– but of course some readers may be aware of an instance of
the Austrian master resorting to Irish folk tunes in his works!
But Bliss is quite happy to exploit this material for the finale
of his Quintet. It is not as simple as making the band
sound like a Celtic ceilidh. Bliss uses the theme as a mine
from which to extract phrases and motifs to be tossed between
strings and woodwind. Echoes from the first movement are heard
before the work comes to a conclusion.
The first movement
is written in loose sonata form. The easy-going opening theme
is soon challenged by more intense and urgent material; however
the movement ends with a quiet coda. Perhaps the heart of the
work is the fundamentally gorgeous and inspiring Andante
con Moto. This is everything we could possibly imagine English
music to be. Perfect equilibrium between the soloist and strings,
long-breathed tunes and delicious harmonies. The faster middle
section looks both backwards to the opening movement and to
the ‘Irishry’ of the finale. This is near perfect: I can never
tire of this music.
Perhaps the fundamental
beauty of this work is the balance that Bliss manages to achieve
between competing styles and influences. There is no doubt that
the impressionists in general and Ravel in particular are called
to mind. But there are certainly many nods to the prevailing
‘Georgian’ pastoral imagery. Occasionally jazz is implied and
perhaps something a little more astringent imported from Germanic
countries? Yet the balance of styles is perfect. This is an
extremely satisfying and ultimately beautiful work.
I must confess to
not being Benjamin Britten’s greatest fan - well at least
in relation to the later works. My interest tails off after
the Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact I am enthusiastic
about the composer’s early works and of course the Phantasy
Quartet (1932) is one of these. There is no doubt that it
is an extremely competent work for an eighteen year old composer.
It was written as
one of a long line of ‘Phantasies’ for the Cobbett chamber
music competition. Composers such as Vaughan Williams, Frank
Bridge and Herbert Howells had already submitted works to this
Leon Goossens gave
the first performance at the St John’s Institute in Westminster
on 21 November 1933 to an excellent critical reception.
Britten uses the
typical single movement form that W.W. Cobbett had specified
although the work is divided into five sections. The overall
structure comprises a fast movement sandwiched by two slow movements.
Interestingly enough the middle andante is written for strings
alone – the soloist not coming back onto the scene again until
the closing pages.
It is hard not to
notice the occasional nods to the English pastoral school or
Britten’s teacher Frank Bridge. Yet this is a work that is quite
definitely the composer’s own.
I do not intend
to say too much about E.J. Moeran’s delightful Fantasy
Quartet. I intend to write about this work more extensively
in the near future. However a few words are essential.
This work is the
latest on this CD: it was commenced in the New Inn at Rockland
St. Mary in Norfolk and was completed during 1946. In many ways
this piece is a reflection on much that had happened in the
composer’s life – most especially his boyhood memories of the
A number of folk
tunes have been detected in this work including Seventeen
come Sunday and The Pretty Ploughboy – however it
is not a set of variations on those tunes and not a setting
of them. Rather they are used as a basis for the generation
of themes and motifs.
Perhaps this is
the easiest work to come to terms with on this CD. It is always
a delight to listen to this very pastoral meditation. Of course,
anyone who knows Moeran’s biography will realise that by this
time the composer was struggling with alcoholism and the effects
of his war wounds. Further, his marriage with Peers Coetmore
was in deep trouble. Perhaps the innocence of much of this mature
and deeply felt work is to be understood against the composer’s
troubled life and subsequent death only four years later?
The greatest eye-opener
on this disc is the work by Dorothy Gow. Now here is
a name that is hardly known to music-lovers. She is certainly
not a regular on Classic FM. Look at the CD catalogues and there
appear to be none of her works available. There is only one
entry in the British Library Catalogue and that is for a String
Quartet. All in all there is not a lot of information with
which to build an informed opinion.
A little bit of
biography is essential here and I am relying on the sleeve-notes
for most of the information about Gow.
She was born in
London in 1893 and studied at the Royal College of Music with
R.O. Morris and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Her compositional style
was most influenced by her period with Egon Wellesz in Vienna.
Back at the Royal College she formed a club with fellow composers
Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy and Grace Williams. George
Caird writes that due to her ‘acute shyness, diffidence and
ill health she never enjoyed quite the same success as they
(her colleagues) did. However Ann Macnaghten has written that
Gow was perceived as being a composer of ‘great distinction
whose work became widely known and now is in danger of being
forgotten.’ Elisabeth Lutyens wrote that she was ‘utterly devoid
of malice or ambition. Her talent is original and her ear remarkable
and the few works she has written are, to me outstanding.’
Listening to this
Quintet it is impossible to imagine how a) it is not
already part of the standard repertoire and b) a composer of
a work of this stature remains virtually an unknown quantity.
I was a bit worried
when I read that it was a serial work, what with her Second
Viennese School credentials and study with Wellesz. But I need
not have been concerned. It may be a perfectly constructed serial
work but it never becomes hidebound by that particular compositional
discipline. What she manages to achieve is what many so-called
‘greater’ composers have failed to do and that is to use serialism
to construct the work but not to lose the listener’s patience.
In fact she manages to create a piece that is both emotionally
satisfying and intellectually challenging. It is a lyrical work
that displays great originality, technical prowess and sheer
The Oboe Quintet
is in one longish movement although it is divided into four
well defined sections. The theme or ‘tone row’ is presented
by solo oboe after the opening string chords of the ‘moderato.’
One cannot but be impressed by the competent way that all the
instrumental parts are written. There is a great sense of freedom
- yet each ‘voice’ has its part to play. There is never a moment
when the listener feels that the composer has resorted to padding.
Instrumental colour lends great variety to the unity of this
Perhaps the highlight
of the Quintet is the slow ‘andante tranquillo’ for the
strings – it is in such contrast to the intensity of the opening
pages. This is deeply moving music emerging from the very heart
of the English tradition of string writing. Yet the technique
used is one that harks back to both early music and to Wellesz:
this is basically a string canon!
Just beyond the
halfway point in this 14 minute work the music emerges into
the sunlight of the ‘scherzo’. This is where the soloist and
the quartet earn their keep. This is technically difficult music
– yet it never sounds pretentious. Soon the mood of the slow
movement is recovered and this leads to a reflection on the
opening material. The last few moments of the Quintet
are once more quite intense – yet it ends on a positive if restrained
There is no doubt
in my mind that this is a masterpiece – both of the composer,
but more importantly in the genre of British chamber music.
It is a work that both needs and deserves to be recovered for
the repertoire. It would not be too much to say that this is
a work of genius – and I never use that word lightly. And one
last thing – the remaining works of this remarkable composer
need to be unearthed and re-appraised as a matter of considerable
This is a lavishly
produced CD. It feels good. The cover picture is from an elemental
painting by Duncan Grant called ‘Dancers’. The programme notes
are extensive – some ten pages of close-written text describes
the works and the performers in some detail.
The sound quality
is perfect – every note counts. The playing is absolute inspiring.
If it is just for
the Dorothy Gow I would suggest that you drop everything and
rush out to the shops to buy this CD today!