I first came across the music of Arthur Somervell some forty
years ago. The local choirmaster and organist had suggested
performing that composer’s The Passion of Christ
cantata and had a ‘run-through’ with the choir.
However I believe that the concert was abandoned: it was probably
deemed too ‘modern’ compared to the usual diet of
John Stainer and John Henry Maunder. It was many years later
that I heard Somervell’s A Shropshire Lad (Terfel;
dating from 1904: I was surprised to find that it was probably
one of the earliest cycles setting Housman’s texts. However
I had to wait until 2005 before hearing an orchestral work -
the Violin Concerto in G minor (1930). It was released on the
Hyperion ‘Romantic Violin Concerto’ series (Hyperion
CDA67420)and was coupled with the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Concerto. Somervell’s work was, to quote Lewis Foreman,
‘a straightforward and heart-warming work’.
The liner-notes of this present CD give a good biography of
the composer; however two or three points may be made about
Somervell’s life and works.
He was born in Windermere in the Lake District in 1863. After
an education at Uppingham School he studied music at King’s
College, Cambridge where his composition teacher was Sir Charles
Villiers Stanford. After a period of study in Berlin he attended
the Royal College of Music under Friedrich Kiel and Hubert Parry.
Somervell’s career was to be in two important parts -
one was as a composer and the other was as a musical educator.
He was appointed Professor of music at the RCM and later became
Inspector of Music at the Board of Education and Scottish Education
Department in 1901. Latterly, he was Principal Inspector for
the Board of Education and duly received his knighthood in 1929.
The second point to bear in mind is that he enjoyed considerable
success in his ‘day’ with a number of important
cantatas and oratorios - The Forsaken Merman, Intimations
of Immortality and The Passion of Christ. However,
if he is recalled nowadays, it is largely for his two major
song cycles - A Shropshire Lad and the Tennyson settings
On the other hand, there was a great deal of other music written,
including the Thalassa (Sea) Symphony, a number
of light operas including Thomas the Rhymer and The
Enchanted Prince. Other orchestral works include the Ballad:
Helen of Kirkonnel and a suite In Arcady. Additionally
there was a number of chamber works including a Quintet for
Clarinet and Strings.
And thirdly, his musical style was somewhat ‘retro.’
Although there are echoes of Stanford, Elgar, Parry and even
Vaughan Williams in his music, the main influences would appear
to be Mendelssohn and Brahms. His musical style did not develop
greatly during his lifetime of composition.
The Normandy Variations were first performed at the Queen’s
Hall, London on 17 February 1913 with the piano solo part played
by the composer’s friend, Donald Francis Tovey. The London
Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Arthur Nikisch. The composer’s
Thalassa Symphony was also given at that concert.
The Variations are based on a rather dark Normandy folk-tune
of some character, although it did not impress the reviewer
of the concert in the Musical Times. The tune was collected
from the village of Varengeville-sur-Mer, near Dieppe.
Lewis Foreman notes the dual structure of this work. On the
one hand it is a set of ‘successive free variations’
however on the other hand ‘listeners will soon be aware
of a shadowy outline of what we might consider a four movement
symphony: introduction and Allegro-slow movement-scherzo-finale’.
Whatever the value of the ‘theme’ the composer has
managed to create a varied and interesting work that has much
to hold the listener’s attention. There are passages of
great beauty, especially in the ‘slow’ movement.
Both the orchestration and the piano part are well contrived
and always musically interesting.
I find the Piano Concerto in A minor Highland dating
from 1921 a little bit more problematic. This is not to say
that there are not some lovely moments in this work. Certainly,
the work is well constructed with some good melodies and attractive
writing for piano. However I do worry a little about the use
of tunes that seem to be ‘highlan’’ folk-tunes.
At times there seems to be just a little bit too much of the
‘scotch snap’ about this work: it is almost like
a parody of Scottish music. Lewis Foreman assures the listener
that all the themes are original although they are ‘based
on such strong traditional Scottish elements as to make one
constantly find the title of a familiar tune is on the tip of
The first movement is massive and vacillates between ‘pesante’
dance tunes and a romantic ‘second subject’. It
is really a set of variations; yet again it does appear to have
a sonata form structure. The opening of the slow movement is
‘misty’. However the composer has suggested that
this is more ‘Scottish’ than ‘Highland’.
There is a lovely pentatonic melody which dominates much of
the musical development of this movement. Actually, this is
heart-achingly lovely music that would ‘bring a tear to
a glass eye.’ As a Scot myself, I find this music is really
a tone poem that paints a picture of a ‘lowland landscape’
possibly the Solway - Somervell would have known that area as
a Westmoreland lad - or the Clyde Estuary on an autumn day.
It is certainly a deliciously romantic mood that reminds this
particular listener of many happy days with remembered friends
in Scotland. The finale is a successful balance between the
vitality of dancing and the continuation of the romance. It
is a great way to bring this concerto to a conclusion.
I guess that my overall impression of this Piano Concerto is
that it has the qualities of film-music. It could be used as
a soundtrack to a piece of highland jiggery-pokery such as Brigadoon
or the Gathering of the Clans. That does not make it
a bad piece of music: it just suggests that it is a wee bitty
full of ‘clichés.’ However, in spite of one
or two reservations, I will return to this largely impressive
and often beautiful work in the future. It is a good connection
with my Scottish roots and brings many memories back to this
If someone had suggested forty years ago that any work by Sir
Frederic Hymen Cowen should be recorded as a part of a major
series of piano concertos (and concerted works) they would have
been laughed out of court. Cowen was even further down the list
of ‘worthy but ultimately ‘boring’ English
composers that included Stanford, Parry and Macfarren. In 1990,
Polo records broke this jinx by presenting The
Butterfly’s Ball and the Scandinavian Symphony.
A few years later the now defunct ClassicO
label issued Symphony No.6 The Idyllic. Both CDs showcased
a composer who was worthy of further exploration.
Interestingly the seventeen-year old Cowen wrote a Piano Concerto
in A minor. Unfortunately, along with his first two symphonies
the score has been lost. Some thirty years later, in 1897, he
composed his Concertstück for the Polish pianist
Paderewski. I think that this is a really impressive work that
defies the listener (and critic) to explain why it has been
lost to view for many years. One cannot help thinking that if
this work had been by Liszt it would have been well established
in the repertoire.
The music is written as one continuous movement, however there
are clearly ‘marked’ sections, including a good
cadenza. The heart of the work is the ‘tempo tranquillo’
that is beautifully written and is often touching. There are
many gorgeous episodes throughout the work that exploits the
soloist’s skill and with attractive and often sensitive
orchestration. The end of the work builds up to an exiting ‘prestissimo’
before ‘the final dash to the end contains brilliant passagework
which goes on and on as if neither side is willing to give up.’
This is an important release for enthusiasts of British music
and for those listeners who specialise in romantic piano concertos.
Everything about this CD is exceptional. There is the excellent
playing by Martin Roscoe and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Martyn Brabbins. This is a committed performance
of three works that are not really in the public domain. Listeners
have nothing to compare these premiere recordings with, but
I am convinced that they are definitive realisations of works
that have been forgotten for far too long. The sound quality
impressed me, with every nuance of the piano discourse being
clearly heard. The liner-notes by Lewis Foreman are, as usual,
a model of their kind. Everything the listener needs to understand
for an intelligent appreciation of these works is presented.
Finally, this is the 54th volume from Hyperion’s
most welcome series of Romantic Piano Concertos. Already they
have produced fine performances of works by Parry,
and others. One thing is certain; there are plenty of other
piano concertos hidden in the musical libraries. For example
concertante works by William Baines, Rosalind Ellicott and Harry
Farjeon, to name but three.
Romantic Piano Concertos series reviews