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Dicky Bird Hop
Paul Guinery (piano)
rec. 20-21 March 2019, St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford EM RECORDS EMRCD064 [78:31]
This innovative selection of ‘light music’ classics for piano needs no apology. Some po-faced critics may regard much of this music as frivolous or even beneath contempt. I feel sorry for people who hold that view; they are missing so much that is entertaining, uplifting, deliciously sentimental, and easily approachable - but most important of all, this music is always well-written, displays rare craftsmanship and considerable inventiveness, characteristics that are sometimes denied even to the ‘Great Masters’. Not every piece here is a work of genius but for sheer delight there is nothing to beat them. One of the things that listeners can sometimes forget is that enjoyment is not a sin. I listened the other day to a CD of piano music by Arnold Schoenberg. I appreciated these pieces and made some effort to understand them and their place in the canon of music, but if I am honest, I did not ‘luxuriate in’ them. It was more an intellectual exercise than sheer indulgent pleasure - so, listen to these British piano miniatures, have fun, and maybe even shed a tear. This is a splendid introduction to a genre which once entertained many people and the wonderful thing is that there are stacks of sheet music in libraries and private collections which are equally as good.
The CD opens with Jack Strachey’s evocative ‘Theatreland’ (March), written in 1940, during the London Blitz. Unlike during present coronavirus period, the theatres largely remained open (apart from a compulsory closure in the first month of the war). In fact, the legendary Windmill Theatre prided itself with the notice “We never closed”. Strachey’s music carries a sense of optimism, which was quite hard to hold on to in those dark days.
Geoffrey Toye’s The Haunted Ballroom was originally a full-scale ballet, which was first danced in 1934 by the Vic-Wells company. The choreography was by the legendary Ninette de Valois. The story concerns the male generations of a dissolute family who are cursed to dance themselves to death in the ballroom. The number heard on this CD is the main waltz sequence. The music balances many emotions, including lost romance and macabre fear.
The title track, ‘The Dicky Bird Hop’ is a charming novelty piece. Originally a song, made popular by, among others, ‘Our Gracie’ [Fields], it was arranged for piano solo by Fred Hartley – there is lots of musical onomatopoeia with the pecking and dipping of the little feathered creature.
‘Prunella’ was composed by Benjamin Dale whilst he was a prisoner of war in Germany during the First World War. The liner notes explain that it was devised as an interlude for the play Prunella or Love in a Dutch Garden (1906) by the author Laurence Housman. This gentle and wistful piece echoes the love lost and found between Prunella and the Pierrot from a troupe of strolling players.
When I received this CD, I was particularly interested in hearing NoŽl Coward’s suite London Morning It is a work which I have been vaguely aware of but have never heard. The music was written for the tenth anniversary of the London Festival Ballet in 1959. As the liner note explain, ‘the dancer Anton Dolin, had the happy inspiration of inviting NoŽl Coward to create the scenario and music for a short ballet, stipulating that it be typical of England in general and of London in particular.’ The rather straightforward plot presents a variety of tourists and passers-by near Buckingham Palace, during the Changing of the Guard. The three extracts that Paul Guinery plays includes a ‘Mazurka’ originally danced by bowler-hatted gentlemen and ladies ‘up to town for the day’, a ‘Pas-de-deux’ which echoes Chopin, performed by a young American tourist and an amorous sailor on leave who falls for her. The third dance is a ‘Hornpipe’, also danced by the sailor. It is a great little Suite, and I only wish we could hear the rest of it. I understand that an orchestral version was issued on LP back in 1978 (DRG SL 518) but I have not heard it.
Richard Addinsell’s ‘Anniversary Waltz’ was composed in 1950 as part of the incidental music for Christopher Fry’s play Ring around the Moon. This was based on Jean Anouilh's play Invitation to the Castle (1947). The music is romantic and haunting and is one of the loveliest pieces on this disc.
No introduction is needed for Jack Strachey’s ‘In Party Mood’. It was the signature tune to the long-running BBC Light Programme series Housewife’s Choice. The liner notes remind the reader of the well-known presenters of this programme: Kenneth Horne, Sam Costa, Desmond Carrington, and David Jacobs. The once popular programme was discontinued when the BBC (wisely or unwisely) revamped its image in 1967. I have never forgiven Harold Wilson for getting rid of the Pirate Stations.
One of the most languid pieces on this CD is York Bowen’s ‘Serious Dance’. This ‘Lento’ is the middle movement of a set of three, op.51. Despite the delicious harmonies and exquisite poise of this music, there is nothing overtly sentimental or clichťd about it; it is a perfect miniature.
Haydn Wood’s compositions are fairly-well represented in the record catalogues. This ranges from his Piano Concerto on Hyperion and his Violin Concerto on Dutton Epoch. Many of his light music Suites crop up here and there on CD. In past years, Wood’s songs were ubiquitous: ‘Roses of Picardy’, ‘A Brown Bird Singing’ etc. I guess his original piano music has been less successful. The present ‘Lovelorn (Intermezzo)’ is new to me. It is one of many character pieces once found in piano stools all around the country; nothing special, but just quietly delightful. I hope that Paul Guinery will include Wood’s ‘An April shower at Kew’ for piano solo in a subsequent album.
Every lover of British light music knows and (presumably) loves Vivian Ellis’s ‘Coronation Scot’, so redolent of a past age of railway travel, and recalled by those of a certain age as the theme music for the wireless programme, Paul Temple. We hear Ellis’s ‘Alpine Pastures’ whose title bears no relation to the musical material. It is an enjoyable little ramble, though.
Alexander Galbraith "Sandy" Wilson is remembered today as the composer of the musical The Boy Friend (1953). His achievement was largely in the field of incidental music for radio and TV as well as several musicals. The present lugubrious ‘Centenarians Waltz’ is culled from the score to the play Valmouth (1958). This was ‘a brilliant evocation of the flamboyantly eccentric world of the novelist Ronald Firbank,’ The music accompanied ‘aged’ residents of the village as they dance and recall their ‘halcyon days.’
I discovered Billy Mayerl by way of the late Eric Parkin’s cycle of Chandos CDs issued in the late 1980s. Since then, there have been several other explorations of his music from Somm, Naxos and Erato. Guinery has noted that ‘Jill All Alone’ is far removed the ‘upbeat, syncopated high spirits normally associated with [this] composer’. Dedicated to Mayerl’s wife, this nostalgic waltz will remind the listener of Ivor Novello. ‘Jill’ was clearly a very beautiful and fascinating subject to inspire this musical portrait.
Madeline Dring’s Colour Suite: Five Rhythmic Studies for piano (1963) is my big discovery on this CD. Paul Guinery has chosen to play three of them. The first ‘Pink Minor’ creates the ‘cool’ jazz style redolent of the ‘existentialist’ 1950s, ‘Blue Air’ is a despondent blues number, suggesting a Soho jazz club, whilst the ‘Brown Study’ is a ‘frolic.’ The liner notes engagingly suggest that in this last number ‘Bach might have strayed into the bar and that this round is on him!’ I guess I am disappointed that Guinery did not play all five pieces. But which other pieces should have been omitted to make room…?
Many of Eric Coates’ ever popular orchestral suites have been issued in piano reductions or transcriptions, and they are typically far from easy to play. Original solo piano pieces are rare. Geoffrey Self, in his study of Coates, lists four examples: ‘Six Short Pieces without octaves’, ‘A La Gavotte’: Entr’acte, ‘The Mermaid: A Graceful Dance’ and ‘Three Lyric Pieces’. Guinery is dismissive of the first three, regarding them as ‘inconsequential trifles.’ I have not heard them or seen the scores. The ‘Lyric Pieces’ were composed in 1930. The first two are ‘A Fragment’ and a ‘Nocturne’. The third piece, a Valse, is given its premiere recording here. This is another example of Eric Coates consummate skill at writing waltzes.
Arnold Bax’s score to the 1948 David Lean film Oliver Twist is justifiably highly regarded. Despite the composer’s lack of enthusiasm for this project he has created music that compliments the progress of Dickens’s timeless story. ‘Oliver’s Sleepless Night’ is heard when the hero is planning to flee to London and strike out to make his own fortune. This haunting and harmonically sophisticated piano piece was the first of Two Lyric Pieces arranged by Bax himself. The other one was ‘Oliver and Mrs Brownlow.’ I think that these two fugitive pieces ought to be included in any subsequent surveys of Bax’s complete piano works.
I have not knowingly come across Geoffrey Wright before. According to the biographical notes in the booklet, he went up to Cambridge as an organ scholar, and became involved with the Footlights Dramatic Club. He produced the incidental music for three of their shows. Transferring his skill to London, he provided material for the then-popular ‘revues.’ The present ‘Transatlantic Lullaby’ was the ‘hit’ from the anti-Hitler mini ballet ‘Washing Up to Shoobert’ from the Schobert Gate Revue. We are told that this piece explores the dreams of a cockney charlady for a brighter future. This presumably involved a trip to the Good Ol’ USA…The ‘Lullaby’ is a subtle blend of Mayerl-infused harmonies and melodic devices.
The two ‘big’ pieces on this CD are Hubert Bath’s Cornish Rhapsody and Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto. The former was derived from the score of the Gainsborough Studio production Love Story (1944). I have never seen this film, but, having read the plot, would suggest the music is the best thing about it. It did feature a big cast, including Margaret Lockwood and Stewart Grainger. The entire film is a piece of wartime escapism and must be judged in this context. As for the score, it is timeless. It contrasts some splendid sea music with a powerful romantic tune, worthy of Rachmaninov.
Talking of Rachmaninov, the story goes that Richard Addinsell pored over the scores of the Russian composer’s concerti, before setting to work on his Warsaw Concerto. Certainly, this mini-concerto has all the hallmarks of the genre. There are lovely melodies, complex piano figurations and sweeping arpeggios. Guinery has arranged this piece to include some of the orchestral cues. Once again, the film, Dangerous Moonlight is pure distraction, produced during very hazardous and trying times. It has been a favourite of mine since first hearing it some fifty years ago and is superbly played here.
The CD booklet notes by Paul Guinery are ideal. They are presented in two halves. First, brief, but helpful biographical information is given about each composer. These are printed alphabetically. This is followed by notes about each work. All details required for an appreciation are included. There is the usual CV of the soloist, and photographs of eight of the composers and one of the pianist. The CD cover features a photograph of the Dicky Bird him or herself, taken by English Music Festival impresario Em Marshall-Luck.
The recording of this piano music CD is excellent. Every detail of the performance is clear. The piano is plummy in tone. The important thing to understand here, is that each piece has been played without any condescension or patronisation. Every number has been given the interpretative integrity demanded of a full-blown classical recital.
This captivating and charming CD is chock-full of old favourites, new discoveries and half remembered echoes of a time when life seemed so much simpler. I hope that this is the first of a long series of explorations into the past, with Paul Guinery at the piano. Finally, if he is lacking ideas for repertoire, which I very much doubt, I have many suggestions!
Contents Jack STRACHEY (1894–1972) Theatreland (March) (1940) [2:54] Geoffrey TOYE (1889–1942) The Haunted Ballroom (arr. Reginald King (1904-91)) (1934) [5:48] Ronald GOURLEY (1896–1957) The Dicky Bird Hop (arr. Fred Hartley (1905-80)) (1926) [2:41] Benjamin DALE (1885–1943) Prunella (Intermezzo) (1916) [3:54] NoŽl COWARD (1899–1973) from London Morning (1959), Mazurka [2:51]; Pas De Deux [2:53]; Hornpipe [1:24] Richard ADDINSELL (1904–1977) Invitation Waltz (1950) [3:32] Jack STRACHEY In Party Mood (Bonne Compagnie) (1944) [3:06] Edwin York BOWEN (1884–1961) Three Serious Dances, op.51, no.2, Poco lento (1919) [3:32] Haydn WOOD (1882–1959) Lovelorn (Intermezzo) (1926) [4:01] Vivian ELLIS (1903–1996) Alpine Pastures (1951) [2:44] Sandy WILSON (1924–2014) ‘The Centenarians’ Waltz (1958) [3:08] Hubert BATH (1883–1945) Cornish Rhapsody (1944) [6:34] Billy MAYERL (1902–1959) Jill all Alone (1955) [4:17] Madeleine DRING (1923–1977) From Colour Suite: Five Rhythmic Studies (1963), ‘Pink Minor’ [2:00]; ‘Blue Air’ [3:03]; ‘Brown Study’ [1:45] Eric COATES (1886–1957) from Three Lyric Pieces, (1930), no.3 Valse (World PremiŤre Recording) [2:03] Sir Arnold BAX (1883–1953) Oliver’s Sleepless Night (1948) [3:04] Geoffrey WRIGHT (1912–2010) Transatlantic Lullaby (arr. Billy MAYERL) (1940) [3:21] Richard ADDINSELL Warsaw Concerto (1941) [9:46]