My first acquaintance with the name Robin Milford
was many years ago, when, as a second-study recorder player, my recorder prof – the perhaps rather appropriately-named pedagogue Freda Dinn, at a time when the descant instrument was almost de rigueur
in the school classroom – suggested I had a look at Milford’s Sonatina for Treble Recorder and Piano. Even then I felt a real attraction to his music, with its personal, yet still very English style of writing, though not without some added piquancy thrown into the mix.
A long time later, the present revival of interest in his music has, until now, largely overlooked his quite charming chamber music, so this new release on Toccata Classics – champion of so many musical under-dogs – is a most welcome addition to the catalogue, especially since this particular genre embraces some of his finest pieces.
Paul Conway’s excellent sleeve-notes significantly add to the whole experience, and shed light on a composer who is probably less familiar if you’re not even a recorder player, given his output in this particular medium. Not surprisingly, certain aspects of his somewhat truncated life would seem to have a bearing on what you hear. Born in Oxford, Milford was educated at Rugby School and the Royal College of Music, studying composition under both Holst and Vaughan Williams, the latter becoming a close and cherished friend, as did Gerald Finzi. It would indeed be hard not to assign some of Milford’s ‘Englishness’ to the varying influences of these composers.
In 1939 he joined the army at the outset of the Second World War, which caused him to have a breakdown. However, a far worse trauma came along two years later when his only son, Barnaby, died a week before his sixth birthday, the victim of a road accident. According to Conway this had a ‘profound effect on Milford, who suffered from clinical depression and an acute lack of musical self-confidence throughout his life’. The deaths of Finzi and Vaughan Williams in 1956 and 1958 respectively, followed by the deletion of his music from the catalogue of his main publisher, Oxford University Press – which his own father had helped found – affected him profoundly. Milford took a fatal overdose on 29 December 1959. It would not, in fact, be difficult to cite numerous examples on this disc alone where extremes of emotion are often heard in close juxtaposition.
The CD sensibly does not present the works in chronological order, but opens with a particularly representative composition, the Phantasy Quintet
– a work for clarinet and string quartet. Although the various elements in the work might appear stylistically somewhat dissimilar, Milford ensures that everything is seamlessly welded together into an utterly charming composition, and so full of delightful melodic invention. The Idyll
, for violin and piano, inspired by Thomas Hardy’s novel Under the Greenwood Tree
is wistfully melodic and owes much to the English folksong heritage, especially with its use of modality. The ensuing Trio in F
for clarinet, cello and piano, is certainly one of Milford’s most agreeable pieces. Again modality and interesting, yet totally coherent harmonic progressions, ensure the listener’s attention is held for all its eighteen or so minutes. After the bold opening ‘Allegro moderato’, the central ‘Adagietto affetuoso’ is an affectionate declaration full of eloquent passages from each instrument. The final movement – a Scherzo, marked ‘Vivo Brillante’ – has a typically jaunty jig-like tune, with occasional echoes of Britten showing through – its melodic lines often chromatic and wrapped in delicately zesty, yet never aggressive harmonies. Despite building to a climax, Milford veers off at the last minute, and ends this lovely work with a reappearance of the poignant theme from the preceding movement, closing quietly and softly instead.
for cello and piano is a richly-emotional, yet brief piece that rises to a short but heart-felt ending before a more drawn-out close. The Lyrical Movement
for clarinet and piano is headed by the first verse of the anonymous fifteenth-century poem ‘May in the Green-Wood’, and is a richly-emotional rhapsodic work, with much of the material coming from the opening soliloquy-like clarinet statement. The Prelude
for piano trio was dedicated to Vaughan Williams on his 85th birthday, and again is a short, yet striking movement which builds to an unrestrained climax before closing.
The Sonata in D for violin and piano
is a substantial four-movement composition, over twenty minutes long, and confirming Milford’s skill in successfully handling a large-scale work. The opening violin theme of the first movement is simple, yet so utterly heartfelt, before it enlarges its harmonic canvas to take on board the poignantly effective chordal juxtapositions, which feature in much of the composer’s music. The closing bars, where the violin sustains a top B for some nine bars, over a contemplative melody from the piano, are particularly effective. The following ‘Romanza’ begins with a slightly-altered quotation (acknowledged in the score) from Sibelius’s Romance in D flat for piano and again builds in intensity as it moves towards its close. It would be hard to imagine someone not being at least slightly moved by the glorious moment at 3:21 (Track 10) when the main theme blossoms out in the major key. After all this heady music, the simplicity of the ‘Tempo di Minuetto’ provides a perfect foil, with its folk-like main theme. The ‘Vivace’ finale combines fireworks with good humour, but yet again Milford predictably chooses a deeply-felt meditative and hushed ending to this most appealing work.
Toccata Classics has already brought the music of less well-known composers to the attention of the general listening public, perhaps some more deservingly than others. Whether or not you are already acquainted with the works of Robin Milford, have a particular penchant for English music, or just a fascination for the less-familiar, this superb CD offers over an hour of sheer enjoyment and distraction from the woes of today’s world. It is something that you will surely return to, again and again, and is bound to prompt you to investigate more of Milford’s
With outstanding performances throughout, excellent recording and presentation, this is one of the best recent CDs of its kind.
Philip R Buttall