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Reviewer’s Log: March/April 2008 

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

First, I must report on a world première performance of the Symphony in C by Maurice Blower that I was fortunate to hear on 29 March in Ferneham Hall, Fareham. Although this venue is about 10 miles from my home, I only heard about it through Ian Boughton (Rutland’s grandson) who circulated information to supporters of the Rutland Boughton Music Trust. This is probably more of a reflection on me than on the promoters of the Havant Symphony Orchestra since they managed to completely fill quite a large hall. In this respect, having the sweet-toned Taiwanese soloist Leland Chen play Bruch’s second violin concerto in the first half helped but I was assured by a regular of these concerts that the Blower was the reason why the hall was full. It was good to hear one of Bruch’s less well known concertos (he wrote three for the violin) – this is at least an interesting a work as the first concerto, despite being several million times less popular. The orchestra made a decent impression in the first half, opening with the Academic Festival Overture and then playing the second Wand of Youth suite with some panache under principal conductor Peter Craddock. For the Bruch he gave way to a young conductor – Christian Ludwig, recipient of the Bob Harding Bursary – and he proved a sensitive accompanist.

If the first half was enjoyable, the Blower symphony was something rather special. Maurice Blower (1894-1982) was long associated with the Petersfield Festival and is reasonably well known as a composer of mainly vocal music. He also composed a horn concerto for Dennis Brain. His symphony dates from just before the Second World War but lay unplayed and forgotten in a loft for over six decades until 2005, when it was discovered by his son, Thomas. It seems that nobody knew of its existence; perhaps, if and when it becomes better known it will become known as the Loft symphony! Thomas showed it to Peter Craddock and the enthusiastic response led him to produce a printed score and parts using Sibelius software. The work is fairly conventional in structure and musical language – four movements with scherzo placed second – but the idiom is original and the argument taught. Fundamentally a happy work (it is in C after all) there are bittersweet overtones in the slow movement and some marvellous writing for the brass in the finale. There is also some solo work for the leader and lead cellist, and all sections of the orchestra made excellent contributions. Indeed the woodwinds were outstanding throughout the evening. In 2005, I went to hear Boughton’s First symphony receive its first performance a century after it was written in similar circumstances and now we have a marvellous recording on Dutton. I certainly want to hear this work again and I very much hope that someone from the record industry gets to hear about this work.

In terms of recorded music, I must first confess a little more downloading – only about my third and fourth outings since I still don’t own an iPod and have simply been burning CDs. Somehow I just couldn’t wait to get my ears on Mackerras’s readings of Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 38-41 and downloaded them from the Linn website for £10 to cheer myself up one day. And these performances would brighten anyone’s day as they are simply joyous. I have only seen very positive reviews and critics are rarely so unanimous. I liked Nigel Simeone’s tale in International Record Review relating how he played this to his undergraduates and they burst into applause after one of the movements! The other download had a bit more justification as the music has not been available on CD for some time – John Ogdon’s Chandos 1984 recording of Alwyn’s Fantasy Waltzes and Preludes. These are marvellous works and I much prefer Ogdon’s powerful readings of the waltzes to Ashley Wass on a recent Naxos release. According to MusicWeb’s Alwyn discography, this is the only recorded version of the 12 Preludes and so it is an ideal coupling. The format is MP3 but it burnt to a CD without a hitch using Widows Media Player and the resulting disc sounds well enough.

A work which by contrast to the Mozart discs has had very mixed reviews has been Foulds’s World Requiem although I have been very impressed, as I made clear in my recent review. Another splendid disc I reviewed was Bernard Haitink’s Bruckner 7 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – the second release on the orchestra’s new label.

Of recent purchases, pride of place goes to Beecham’s Sibelius, a marvellous disc with the Pelleas and Melisande Suite a particular favourite despite it missing one of the movements. I have kept the LP of this despite having no turntable and missed its previous CD incarnation, and so was very pleased to see it return. The status of quite a few “GROCs” could be questioned but not this one.

Hyperion’s series of music for violin and orchestra by Martinů has continued with volume 2 and here resurfaced a piece I was waiting to hear on CD for the first time – the concerto for violin and piano of 1953. This is absolutely vintage Martinů, handsomely presented by Bohuslav Matoušek (violin) and Karel Košárek (piano) accompanied by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

I am gradually working my way through the CPO Villa-Lobos symphony series and enjoyed the coupling of numbers 1 & 11. I understand the 10th symphony has recently been issued and presume that this cycle is now “complete”. I heard Andrew McGregor play part of this on BBC Radio 3 and suggest that No. 5 is still to come but Grove online says the score is lost. So one of them must be wrong and my money isn’t on Grove. And whilst I am on the subject of sources that are supposed to be authoritative, my eyes just boggled when I saw in the May Gramophone on page 36 that Bruckner’s Fifth symphony was premiered in 1876 (part of a feature on that year). In fact, it was completed in that year but lay unperformed until 1894 and Bruckner never heard it. How can they just forget the difficulties he had in getting his works performed?

A recent MusicWeb innovation has been the introduction of the weekly quiz. I managed to find a couple of contributions, revisiting on the way a marvellous disc of Norwegian orchestral music that I had reviewed in 2004. The orchestral elegy The Churchyard by the Sea by Fartein Valen is one of the most wonderful pieces of atonal music I have heard. A sale of Simax discs prompted me to invest in his four symphonies – these are classical in proportion but slightly tougher nuts to crack, although I am fairly sure they will repay repeated listening. Whilst on the subject of atonal music I should also mention that I have finished working my way through the bargain 22CD box of Stravinsky conducting his own music that I was given for Christmas. Of course, his early music was tonal and then there was a neo-classical phase but in the 1950s he turned to atonality. Perhaps this was not entirely a success but there is so much wonderful stuff in this box it is still worth acquiring even if Stravinsky’s later music doesn’t appeal very much.

As ever, I have come across plenty of interesting new discs to stream from the Naxos Music Library. I tend to look out for cello compositions and Cyril Scott’s 1937 concerto on Chandos (CHAN10452) played by Paul Watkins was quite a find. Coupled with Scott’s first symphony this is part of an important series. The Albany label is now in the library with many recent additions including a disc called The American Cello (TROY648) with Paul Tobias as soloist and JoAnn Falleta conducting the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. In terms of the programme, Barber’s concerto was familiar to me from Wendy Warner’s Naxos recording but the couplings – concertos by Yi Chen and Behzad Ranjbaran were not. Both are worthwhile, particularly the latter’s work - he has Iranian origins according to Wikipedia. One drawback of the library seems to be that the discs not of Naxos origin usually don’t have any documentation other than the track listing. Finally in cello terms – it was good to hear Pfitzner and Reger’s sonatas played by Martin Hornstein (Challenge Classics CC72102). In this case, the documentation doesn’t even name the artists and their names are barely legible on the CD cover image.

Amongst notable discs I have heard from the Naxos Library which have already been reviewed on MusicWeb are the original and engaging contemporary orchestral music of Kenneth Fuchs, Shostakovich’s reconstructed film score Odna and Mahler’s 6th given live in Melbourne with the MSO conducted by Mark Wigglesworth (review). Reviews of the symphonies of Peder Gram and John Marsh, and CPO’s latest Saygun instalment – the cello and viola concertos – all appeared on MusicWeb on the same day, and I was able to listen to them as I was setting up the reviews. These are all splendid discs and a new Naxos disc J.C. Bach’s keyboard sonatas played by Alberto Nosè is also worth hearing. I was also very pleased to see that Avie discs are now appearing the Library and have been enjoying Trevor Pinnock’s recent Brandenburg Concerto recordings.

Recently I saw a quite remarkable television programme - A boy called Alex – about a 16 year boy with severe cystic fibrosis who realised his ambition to conduct Bach’s Magnificat in the chapel of chapel of Eton school despite having a severe exacerbation of his illness and being admitted to intensive care shortly beforehand. Musically, this was no gimmick – Alex Stobbs clearly is very talented. It was a pity that the constraints of documentary schedules didn’t allow the full performance to be broadcast.

My wife’s family reside at the other end of Hampshire in Farnborough and, thus we heard that Joanna MacGregor was come to the town to play in early February. The background was itself noteworthy – Farnborough’s longstanding music society was on the brink of folding when some of the officers were unable to carry on. The local sixth form college stepped in with its music department, agreeing to do some of the administration and – hey presto – the next thing you know they had a major artist on the schedule. Ms. MacGregor didn’t just play – she came and gave an introductory talk during which the sixth formers were able to ask lots of [good] questions, and then she stayed afterwards to meet them informally. This was the kind of thing that makes you realise great artists are human even if they don’t seem it when playing. And the playing was indeed phenomenal in a very well constructed programme of interwoven Preludes and Fugues by Bach and Shostakovich in the first half followed by various Brazilian pieces, including some of her own arrangements after the interval. To conclude she played the Gershwin songbook and a fabulous encore – Piazzolla’s Libertango which required phenomenal virtuosity. But memories of the quite haunting first half will linger longest, I suspect. Ms. MacGregor brought quite a few of her discs from the Sound Circus label with her and sold the lot – every student I saw was clutching one. I picked up virtually the last copy of Deep River but found the sound of Andy Sheppard’s saxophone disappointing. Her Scarlatti disc is, however, highly recommendable.

Speaking of Scarlatti reminds me of a You Tube link I came across in the blog On an Overgrown Path – to hear this you’ll need to scroll three quarters of the way down a very long page. It is of Scott Ross playing one of my favourites amongst his sonatas – Kk209. A couple of years ago I spent several months reviewing his wonderful complete set of the sonatas and it was good to be able to see him in action.

Finally, in relation to the disc of Judith Bailey’s music, which I have been involved in the producing, I was delighted to be able to hear the edited CD. The documentation is also now complete and it is scheduled for release on Divine Art’s Metier label in June. The reason for the switch from Dunelm Records is that Jim Pattison is retiring and his company being subsumed into Divine Art. A tribute in the form of “A fond farewell to Dunelm Records” can be read here.

Patrick C Waller





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