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Paul Lewis (b.1943)
Serenade and Dance: The Romantic Harmonica Music of Paul Lewis

The Secret World of Polly Flint (1987) [4:15]
Woof! Fantasy [4:38]
Two Miniatures: Loves [2:09]; Lark [1.03] (1970s)
Impromptu for Harmonica and Harp [5:03]
Spring Suite: Jaunt [3:10]; Romance [2.36]; Jig [2:40].
Tea for Three [2:15]
Pavane (c1971) [4:35]
Seal Morning (1985) [3:08]
Serenata [11.2]
A Somerset Garland [12:08]: Bridgwater Shanty [2:27]; Martock Jig [2:35]; Muchelney Ham Lament [2:35]; Huish Episcopi Sarabande [2:48]; Langport March [2:33].
Norfolk Rhapsody (1972) [8:43]
Serenade and Dance (1997) [3:30]
The Benny Hill Waltz [2:16]
James Hughes, harmonica; Elizabeth Jane Baldry, harp; Dana Preece, piano; Delamere String Quartet (James Davis and Arnold Goodger, violins; Nicola Akeroyd, viola; Sylvia Knussen, cello); Paul Lewis, wind chimes and "musical director"
rec. Old Bakehouse, Honiton, Devon, and St. Andrews Church, Charmouth, Dorset, 30 June, 1 July and 24 July 1997. DDD
British Composer Series
CAMPION CAMEO 2024 [74:28]

People of my generation think of the harmonica in terms of John Lennon. We remember his playing in such songs as Love Me Do and Please, Please Me. Or perhaps we recall the Hohner adverts in the Meccano Magazine: the personality clutching the ‘harp’ was Stevie Wonder! Or maybe, more disturbingly there is a mental image of the Somme or Passchendaele: desolation and death and destruction. Then suddenly from a trench came the sound of ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ played by an exhausted Tommy on his battered mouth organ. Or possibly it was the old gentleman playing the Gaumont Cinema queues in Sauchiehall Street: to a Scotsman it would always be a ‘moothie.’

Classically the only excursions were those great but novel concertos by Messrs Jacob, Arnold and Vaughan Williams. And of course, the latter’s clever instrumental simulation in the scherzo of the London Symphony. And lately those enthusiasts of that ‘twilight’ programme – 'Last of the Summer Wine' will know that the reminiscent theme music is played on the harmonica.

And it is perhaps this last intimation that is the philosophy underlying much of the music on this disc – ‘A Land of Lost Content’. Of course it is not all ‘looking back at life flown’ type of reflection but perhaps it makes a good psychological starting point.

Two comments. Do not put this CD into the player, start at track one and play to the end. At the finish of the 74 minutes you will be punch drunk with the sound of the harmonica. And secondly, note well that the title of the CD suggests that it is a compilation of the romantic harmonica of Paul Lewis – which it is, but often as arrangements from other media. For example the lovely Two Miniatures were originally conceived for oboe and chamber ensemble and the Pavane was formerly an organ prelude. But of course Lewis is in good company when he chooses to ‘dish up’ earlier works in new guises – think about Percy Grainger, for example.

Paul Lewis has excellent credentials for writing for the harmonica. He worked with the great Tommy Reilly for more than twelve years: Reilly was the soloist in the incidental music for ‘Woof’ a TV series mentioned below. When he was too ill to continue the session work the present harmonica-ist, James Hughes, took over. Hughes also plays that memorable theme on Summer Wine ... so it is a long-standing connection with the instrument that led to this CD.

But let’s look at the music. I do not propose to comment on every track in great detail – as a few of these pieces are quite light if not flippant. Nor will I look at them in track order, for there is no apparent rhyme or reason behind the batting order.

Consider the last track. Now I am not P.C. in any way – but I know a lot of people who are. Benny Hill was not to everyone’s taste – but I confess to enjoying his humour ...

Paul Lewis composed a waltz entitled ‘Ballroom’ for a compilation LP project in the late ’sixties. Now as a waltz it is not bad, but when the producers of The Benny Hill Show took up the piece and played it a bit faster and used it to highlight the comedian’s chases and romps it became better known as the Benny Hill Waltz. I cannot now recall if the TV version used the harmonica – but the composer notes that this is one of the few times that the listener can hear the work at its intended speed!

The eponymous track was composed as a test piece for the 1997 World Harmonica Championships. It is a cute little work that tests the skill of the player to a great extent. I do not know all the tricks of the mouth organ trade – but I do recognise a bit of good playing when I hear it. Lots of double stops and great long runs! The Serenade and Dance would make a fine encore!

The Norfolk Rhapsody is an arrangement. Of course all of us will hark back to the similar title by Vaughan Williams – not necessarily to compare – but as a point of reference. The present work in its original form was composed for flute and harp for a BBC TV documentary called ‘The Vanishing Hedgerows’. As music it is lovely – full of suggestive echoes of a lost generation and landscape. But Oh boy! do I look forward to hearing the fine flautist Rachel Smith play this on a forthcoming release – but in a different incarnation. I should point out that the Rhapsody turns out to be the first movement of Lewis’s Norfolk Concerto for Flute Harp and Strings. I guess that will be a great pleasure to listen to. Lewis is never a man to waste a good idea! I wonder if he has considered arranging the Rhapsody for Oboe and Piano?

The Somerset Garland is an arrangement of five folk tunes collected by the great Cecil Sharpe back in the early 1900s. In many ways this is one of the loveliest works on this CD. I am not sure that the harmonica is necessarily better than any other instrument at pointing up these tunes. But there is a timelessness and introspection about them that seems to fit in with the ‘trench bottom’ mood I noted above. And the piano part is well stated.

The Serenata is an interesting piece. It was composed for Tommy Reilly and the harpist Skaila Kanga. It is an ultra-romantic work, displaying the harmonica in its most beguiling aspect. And it has the distinction of being the longest piece here. This is the one work that I cannot imagine being re-arranged for any other combination – it just seems to suit both instrumentalists so well. The faster central section which is signed ‘allegro alla zingara’ (in gypsy style) is charming - although I fear a little padded in places. The ‘romantic’ tune recurs and the work closes with a satisfying reminiscence of earlier musings.

The Pavane is an evocative piece – and everything tells me that this is probably preferable to its organ loft original! Quite lovely from end to end.

The TV scores are a little less essential than the concert works although I do know that the composer is very keen on writing for this particular medium. He told me that he is always suspicious of composers that adopt one voice for the film/TV world and another for concert works. Lewis has only ever committed to writing for the medium when the music has allowed him to express something of his own personality.

Seal Morning is a transcription from a flute original written for a television serial which I am glad I did not watch. It all sounds a bit sentimental – the story of how a girl found and raised a seal. But the music is quite captivating – with the composer on the numinous sounding wind chimes!

These percussive instruments are used in the arrangement of the theme music to The Secret World of Polly Flint. This was TV serial about a lost village in Nottinghamshire in which the bells of the church could be heard on Christmas Day – a kind of Sherwoodian ‘Brigadoon’ if you like. The music is full of magic and certainly well transcends any stereotypes we may have about the sound of the harmonica. This is not Howlin’ Wolf or Bob Dylan!

Woof! Fantasy is just one of those pieces that are fun – without any pretensions to deeper meaning. It is from a TV programme that followed the exploits of a boy who spends some of his life as a dog! Interesting to hear soloist and string quartet sounding canine-like!

Tea for Three was originally written for a ‘mood music library’. This is the weakest piece on this CD – unless as an example of pastiche of the most amateur type of ‘end of the pier’ orchestra! It was used for Kit-e-Kat commercials in the Netherlands for several years – so perhaps it sounds like a cats' chorus. Once again this work is an arrangement; the original being scored for palm court trio.

The Impromptu for Harmonica and Harp was originally a piano piece that took its current form after a visit to the composer by the harpist Elizabeth Jane Baldry. Not my favourite piece on this CD but it certainly deserves a hearing. It retains too many of the formal ambiguities of the original improvisation on which it was based?

Now to the best two works on this CD! The Spring Suite and the Two Miniatures are far and away the most enjoyable and effective numbers. Every note counts – every tune sounds like an old friend. It is music that we seem to half remember from a simpler and more innocent age.

The Spring Suite has three delightfully contrasting movements – Jaunt, Romance and Jig. There is not a note too many here. The Jaunt is just that – a kind of ramble through the English landscape on a warm April day. Only Somersetshire and not Yorkshire is the countryside behind this music. The Romance reflects on some half-recalled days with a beloved. Walking down a country lane, perhaps or lying on a hillside watching the sunset or visiting an old church... The imagination can run riot – and with impunity. This is sentimental music after all! And the Jig sums up the ‘happy days’ mood of this fine music; British light music at its very best.

And last but not least the sheer perfection of the Two Miniatures. Once again my sentimental mind allows the delightful music of ‘Lovers’ to wash over me. As I sit here I can truly feel a tear creeping into the corner of my eye. It is that beautiful! Perhaps I am back many years dreaming of what ‘might-have-beens’ with ... And Lark – well this is music culled from ‘Boyhood’s End’. I am not sure whether it refers to the bird or not – but for my money it is two friends ‘Larking about or thinking up some adventure or innocent mischief. We have come the full circle – this is definite ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ music – and none the worse for it. If these Two Miniatures were the only works that Paul Lewis had ever written he should be a proud man. It is not often a composer writes such effective and evocative music. I can safely say that Two Miniatures will be on my Desert Island Discs list for a long time.

John France

see also review by William Trotter

 

 



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