Antony HOPKINS (b.1921)
Portrait of a Composer
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1945) [14:15]
Rondo from Piano Sonata No. 2 in F sharp minor (1945) [2:59]
A Humble Song to the Birds-cantata, for high voice and piano (1945) [8:02]
Partita in G minor for solo violin (1947) [10:10]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in C sharp minor (1946-48) [15:54]
Suite, for descant recorder and piano (1952) [6:06]
Pastiche Suite, for treble recorder and piano (1944) [3:44]
Three French Folksongs, for soprano, recorder and piano) (1947) [6:20]
Tango for piano (1948) [2:35]
Three Seductions for recorder and piano (1949) [3:59]
First Love from Early One Morning, for soprano and piano (1980) [3:32]
I've Lost my Love from Hands Across the Sky for soprano, recorder and piano (1953) [3:31]
A Melancholy Song, for soprano, recorder and piano (1945) [1:04]
Four Dances from Back to Methuselah, for recorder and piano (1946) [4:03]
Three Poems (?) [7:58] read by the author.
Eight Tributes (2011):-
Andrew PLANT On How to Sing, for soprano, recorder and piano [2:03]
David MATTHEWS (b.1943) A Little Pastoral, for solo recorder [1:46]
David DUBERY (b.1948) Evening in April, for soprano, recorder and piano [3:28]
Anthony GILBERT (b.1934) Above all That, for recorder and piano [2:52]
Gordon CROSSE (b.1937) CantAHta, for soprano, recorder and piano [3:07]
David ELLIS (b.1933) Head Music, for recorder and piano [1:53]
Joseph PHIBBS (b.1974) Pierrot, for soprano, recorder and piano [3:43]
Elis PEHKONEN (b.1942) Pieds en l'air, for recorder and piano [1:57]
Two extracts from Johnny the Priest starring Jeremy Brett (1960) [6:35]
Trio from Three's Company, an opera by Antony Hopkins, libretto by Michael Flanders. OBE (1953) [3:38]
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor), John Turner (recorders), Paul Barritt (violin), Matthew Jones (viola), Philip Fowke (piano), Michael Hampton (piano), Janet Simpson (piano), Antony Hopkins (speaker); Jeremy Brett, Stephanie Voss and Phillada Sewell (vocals) (Johnny the Priest); Elizabeth Boyd, Stephen Manton, Eric Shilling (vocals) and Antony Hopkins (piano) (Three’s Company)
rec. 24 January 2011 Bedford School (A Humble Song); 27 October 2011 St Thomas’ Church Stockport (Partita); 17 December 2011 Whiteley Hall, Chethams School, Manchester (Piano Sonata No.3 and Tango); 12-13 November 2011 Purcell School, Bushey (All other tracks)
DIVINE ART DDA21217 [67:37 + 57:52]
For many people there is a confusion between Anthony Hopkins the actor (now revealed as a composer) and the 91 year old gentleman who is celebrated in these two excellent CDs. However, my misunderstanding was slightly different. I hate to admit it, but I thought the composer and the author of many extremely helpful books, articles and broadcasts about music were two different men!
Looking at CD catalogues reveals a sad lack of interest in his music. However, one rarely sees a good second-hand bookshop that does not have at least one of his many books. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little in the way of publicity for the composer: I was unable to find a website dedicated to his music. There is only a short note in the current Grove. Therefore, it is difficult to get a handle on Hopkins’ biography and his catalogue of works and music.
This is not the place for a life history; on the other hand, a few notes may be of service. Antony Hopkins was born on 21 March 1921. After study with Cyril Smith and Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music (1939-1942) he took up lecturing at Morley College. However, he soon discovered that he had ‘an unusual gift’ for composing incidental music for stage, radio plays and films. His initial success was highlighted with the scores for Louis MacNeice’s productions of The Golden Ass and Cupid and Psyche. Grove includes references to his scores for the radio productions of The Oresteia and The Song of Roland alongside music for some fifteen Shakespeare plays. His film scores include The Pickwick Papers. On a larger scale, there are a number of operas including Hands across the Sky, Lady Rohesia, The Man from Tuscany and Three's Company (1953). There is also a ballet Café des Sports that may well deserve revival in a concert version.
Alongside his composing career Hopkins made an important contribution to popularising classical music. His major achievement in this direction must be the radio series 'Talking about Music' which ran for 36 years. It is his ability to discuss the ‘history, content and structure’ of music in an engaging, straightforward but never condescending manner. They are a model of musicology, which is designed to help the listener and not to hinder them, as some more esoteric examples of musical analysis tends to do.
In his compositional style, Hopkins also exhibits the desire and ability to communicate to a broad public. His music is a careful balance between tradition and a well-considered modernity. It is no criticism to suggest that he is a master of pastiche. It is this capacity to absorb and synthesise that gave him his considerable reputation as a writer of incidental music.
The first CD contains what may be regarded as the heart of this recording project. It includes the superb Viola Sonata, the Partita in G minor for solo violin and the considerable Piano Sonata No.3 in C sharp minor.
The Viola Sonata was composed in 1945 and was dedicated to Jean Stewart who at that time was a ‘notable’ viola payer with the Menges Quartet. This well-wrought work sounds as fresh as it must have done nearly seventy years ago. The work is in four balanced movements: - March, Ground, Scherzo and Epilogue. There is a spaciousness about the formal structure of this piece that belies its quarter of an hour time-frame. The composer explains that there is a ‘motto theme’ running through the work, however this disintegrates in the last movement. It is a work that is stylistically conservative without ever becoming old-fashioned. I am surprised that with the relative dearth of Viola Sonatas that Hopkins’ essay has not entered the repertoire. I found this work well-balanced, interesting and often moving. The performance by Matthew Jones and Michael Hampton is outstanding.
The musical press greeted Hopkins' Piano Sonata No.2 in F sharp minor with a mixed message. The reviewer in Tempo (December 1946) suggested that the composer’s works, ‘given at Queen Mary Hall showed little achievement, but considerable promise ...’ He continued by noting that ‘their ingenuity, a little too self-conscious, hardly relieved the dryness or disguised their frequent shortness of breath ...’ however he suggested that the Piano Sonata ‘… came near to mature composition. Its vigour and obvious delight in the keyboard, lead one to hope that when he has liberated himself from confused traditions, a mature Hopkins may emerge, thought he will probably instantly withdraw this ‘promising’ work’.
The Sonata was dedicated to Hopkins' friend, Michael Tippett. Alas, we are treated only to the final movement on this current CD. Neo-classical, I guess the music is, however the composer assures us that it ‘consciously tries to imitate his [Tippett’s] idiom’. I enjoyed this Rondo; it seems well-structured with a broad theme that swings along. Some of the episodes are a little darker but a reprise of the exuberant principal tune brings the movement to an end. The excellent soloist here is Michael Hampton.
James Gilchrist and Janet Simpson give a telling account of the beautiful cantata A Humble song to the Birds (1945). If this piece had been composed by Benjamin Britten it would have found a permanent place in the repertoire. I am not suggesting that it is pastiche, but I was reminded of the older composer’s music. The words, which are not provided in the liner-notes, are from a poem by Rosencreutz. I must confess that I am not sure who this poet was. It sounds a very difficult piece to bring off, although the present soloists give what appears to be a definitive performance.
The Partita in G minor for solo violin is a lovely work. It was written in 1947 for Max Salpeter’s concert at the Wigmore Hall and was dedicated to Neville Mariner. It is an extremely short piece; however there is a concentration and intensity of material that makes the work appear much more imposing than the ten minutes duration would imply. I have a sneaky feeling that this Partita may be the most impressive work on these two CDs. It appears that this is a minor masterpiece: I will be interested to see if anyone else agrees with me. It is finely played here by Paul Barritt.
The Piano Sonata No.3 in C sharp minor is a serous work. It was completed in 1946/48 for the pianist Noel Mewton-Wood who sadly died before he was able to give a performance. Unfortunately the liner-notes give no analysis of this piece. It lasts for quarter of an hour and has three movements. The mood of the entire work is ‘exploratory’. One feels that the composer has found the very style that the Tempo reviewer felt was lacking. It is a strong sonata that sounds quite chromatic and occasionally wayward without sacrificing its classical simplicity. The middle Largo has ponderous, deeply felt music that strains upwards before descending into tranquil repose. There is a disturbed, hard-edged, middle section before the sense of calm reappears. This mood continues in the opening of the finale before the work concludes with a flamboyant display of pyrotechnics. It is a balanced, finely wrought piece that ought to be in the repertoire. Yet again, how many piano sonatas from British composers are a part of the canon? It is brilliantly played by Philip Fowke.
The Pastiche Suite for treble recorder and piano dates from the war years. Hopkins notes that during the 1940s he was often involved at Morley College. At that time, the choir’s accompanist was Walter Bergmann, who also happened to be an enthusiastic recorder player. There are three attractive movements, an opening ‘allegro molto giusto', a sadder ‘alla siciliano’ and a toccata like ‘vivace non troppo’. It is delightfully played by John Turner and Janet Simpson who recognise all the twists and turns of the ‘pastiche’. I guess the only problem is that the piece is over all too soon.
The simply named Suite (1952) for recorder and piano is quite an involved work that sounds difficult to interpret, however it is given an accomplished performance by Turner and Simpson. There are four movements – a Prelude, a Scherzo, an introverted Canon and a final jig. The musical language is subtly retro, whilst having a whiff of modernity. Some would call it eclectic; I would suggest it is a good fusion of overlapping styles. This is one of the most enjoyable things on this retrospective. The work was also composed for Walter Bergmann.
The Three French Folksongs were written in 1947 for soprano and piano. They were devised for a tour of France and Switzerland which had been organised by the composer and Sophie Wyss. The songs are ‘Les Trios Rubans’, ‘Gai Lon La’, and ‘Quand mon mari se fachera’. I was especially taken by the second song, which tells of a nightingale singing in the garden for girls with no husbands. However, the vocalist reflects that she does have one; alas he is a prisoner in Holland. It is a beautiful song. These simple arrangements feature the lovely voice of Lesley-Jane Rogers. The recorder part was an unnecessary addition to the original scoring.
The second CD opens with a delicious Tango for piano (1948). It was composed for Vivien Leigh’s ‘seductive’ entrance in Act 2 of Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of our Teeth. This is pure pastiche at its very best. The mood lingers with Hopkins’ Three Seductions (1949) for recorder and piano. They were originally composed for ‘beginner’ flute and piano. The first piece is a ‘Wanton Waltz’, which does not really live up to the title, charming as it is. The second piece is quite definitely a ‘Flirtatious Fancy’, whilst the final number, ‘Sensuous Sarabande’ is much more serious and introverted.
Three songs follow – ‘First Love’ from the choral work Early One Morning is a faultless synthesis of words and music. ‘I’ve Lost my Love’ is a moody number, however I am not sure about the plot of the ‘opera’ Hands across the Sky from which the song is excerpted. It is all about a green-skinned alien crashing his spaceship and a besotted scientist, Miss Fothergill. The recorder part was originally played by the oboe. ‘A Melancholy Song’ is a miniature setting of traditional words. Once again Lesley-Jane Rogers sings them beautifully.
The Four Dances (from Back to Methuselah) for recorder and piano are a delight. They were written in 1946 as ‘brief curtain raisers’ for a production of George Bernard Shaw’s play. It was originally conceived for spinet and recorder; however, Hopkins now prefers the current recorder and piano version. The four dances are a ‘Farandole’, ‘Sarabande’, ‘Wilman’s Grounde’ and an ‘Air’. They would be perfect in either arrangement.
Three poems from the composer’s pen are then presented. Two are rather good – a ‘golfing’ pastiche on ‘Good King Wenceslas’ called ‘Good King Jack Nicklaus’ and a rather fine little number about a string quartet performance of Op.147 (Beethoven) and Bartók. However the second poem, ‘Charlie’s Revenge’ is a little politically incorrect, if amusing.
One of the most remarkable parts of this CD is the Eight Tributes to Antony Hopkins which was presented to the composer in 2011. They were gifted by eight contemporary composers. Andrew Plant’s jeu d’esprit, ‘On How to Sing’ is a little gem. Written for soprano, recorder and piano, it tells of an argument between the Frog School of Song and that of the skylark. It is beautifully sung by Lesley-Jane Rogers. The ‘Little Pastoral’ for solo recorder written by David Matthews left me cold: it meanders aimlessly and sounds more like a dirge than a pastoral. Things get much better with David Dubery’s delicious ‘Evening in April’ for soprano, recorder and piano. It is based on a poem by David Gibson from his collection The Singing Earth. This is heart-achingly beautiful. Anthony Gilbert’s fine ‘Above all that’ for recorder and piano inhabits a totally different sound world to that of Dubery – yet in spite of the over-inflated description in the composer’s programme notes, this is an attractive piece written in an uncompromisingly modern style. I have always had a soft spot for Gordon Crosse since being introduced to his Changes many years ago. His present ‘CantAHta’ is a ‘miniature cantata’ that bases it vocalised text simply on ‘AH’ - the composer’s initials. Not quite pastiche and not really a parody, it nods towards Handel and Telemann in its concept if not its musical attributes. It is surprisingly beautiful. David Ellis’s ‘Head Music ‘is reflective in mood. However, I am not too sure where the ‘Head’ bit comes in! I have never come across Joseph Phibbs. His pointillist score for soprano, recorder and piano has a ’seventies feel to it. However, the music is a haunting and near-perfect setting of the text by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933). The final tribute is ‘Pieds en l’air’ for recorder and piano by Elis Pehkonen. Apparently, this is one of Antony Hopkins’ favourite tunes. All in all this is a very attractive and competent tribute. Whether it will be played in the future as a ‘group’ or as individual pieces remains to be seen.
The final section of this Hopkins’ celebration is two extracts from the musical Johnny the Priest which was composed in 1960. The first is ‘Vicarage Tea’ and second is ‘Be not Afraid’. The show starred Jeremy Brett, Stephanie Voss and Phillida Sewell. The final track is the Trio from Hopkin’s one act opera Three’s Company.
There is no way that these ‘show’ numbers are profound music, however they are attractive and have just about stood the test of time. I guess that they could be described as being a little bit ‘Friday Night is Music Night’. However, that is no bad thing.
This is a superb retrospective of Antony Hopkins’ achievement as a composer but also recognises his talent as a poet. It is well-produced and allows the listener to approach a considerable variety of musical moods, styles and genres. There is a considerable stylistic gulf between the ‘Partita’ and the ‘Tango’. However, both works are suffused with technical skill and sustained interest. The same applies to virtually all the music on these CDs.
A few minor criticisms probably seems churlish. However, three things should be mentioned. Firstly, most of Hopkins’ pieces heard here date from the 1940s. There are a couple from the early fifties and one written in 1980. Unfortunately, I do not have access to a ‘works list’ so I do not know what other music has been written since 1953, however it would have given a wider perspective of Hopkins’ achievement if a broader range of works had been included.
Secondly, I wish the ‘programme notes’ had been a little bit more detailed. Most of these works would seem to be ‘premiere recordings’ so are not in the public domain. Little critical reception appears in the pages of The Musical Times, Tempo and other contemporary journals about the major works.
Lastly, I fear that the recorder features just a little bit too much in some of these pieces. Where the work was conceived for that instrument that is fine, however where it has been added or has been substituted for the original ‘flute’ it seems to be unnecessary.
The performance of all this music is excellent. I will single out the beautiful voice of Lesley-Jane Rogers and the inspired playing of Matthew Jones on the viola for special mention. However all the soloists impressed me. Finally, I have to pay tribute to John Turner. He conceived the project, organised it and plays on a number of tracks. All this reveals his unquenchable enthusiasm and massive musical ability. It is a major achievement.
A major achievement.