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S. H. Smith

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4.0 out of 5 stars corp dhammapada, 11 April 2011
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This review is from: Dhammapada (Audio CD)
"Dhammapada" (roughly translated, "way of truth") is an extended setting for unaccompanied chamber choir of selections from a compendium of wisdom sayings attributed to the Buddha. There are several short choral movements interspersed with recordings of various Buddhist bells and cymbals at different holy sites. In one sense, the use of these percussion instruments sounds a little incongruous in this particular work because, despite the Indian origin of the text, the settings are rooted firmly in the English choral tradition. In the sparest moments there are glimpses of late Holst, but the mesmeric repetitions are more akin to John Tavener (who, coincidentally, also occasionally makes use of temple bells and gongs). The music, on the whole, is characterised by a calm, unhurried dignity totally appropriate to the wisdom teaching in these texts, so that the occasional passionate outburst makes all the more impact. It would be easy for this kind of work to lapse into monotony, but Corp deftly avoids this by skilful use of subtle tempo changes, dynamics, and inventive part-writing for the choir.

My one reservation is with the translation he has chosen to set. It is, in fact, a paraphrase by Francis Booth whose insistence on forcing the words into English rhyme-patterns seems to me to act as a straitjacket on the expressive power and spirituality of the Buddha's sayings. It might have been better to set one of the more acknowledged translations that gives the spiritual sense of the Buddha's supposed "ipsissima verba" full rein.

Another slight quibble is that although the text is reproduced in full there are no liner notes explaining the inspiration behind the work, and how it all came together. No doubt the music speaks for itself, but here, too, the more technically-minded might have welcomed some comment.

The performers on this disc, the eight-member Aspara, are excellent, and Corp's own involvement as conductor assures us of an authoritative interpretation. Those who enjoy the unaccompanied choral music of composers such as John Tavener and Arvo Part will probably enjoy what is on offer here.

Forever Child And Other Choral Music (Corp)
Forever Child And Other Choral Music (Corp)
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5.0 out of 5 stars Corp Choral Works, 7 April 2011
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Although Ronald Corp now has recordings of orchestral music, chamber music, and songs to his credit, it is with this disc of choral works that he first began to make his name as a composer. The piece that lends the recording its title, "Forever Child" is a set of seven settings of poems about children, or with them in mind, written in memory of a young boy who died of a brain tumour. Naturally there are some elegiac moments, somewhat in the bittersweet style of Herbert Howells, but there are pieces of a more celebratory nature, too. All in all, this is a touching tribute to a young person whose life was all too brief.

"Verbum Patri", written in the style of a medieval carol, has an infectious refrain, while "Give to my eyes, Lord", one of Corp's best-known works, is notable for its melodic freshness - just right for the New London Children's Choir for whom it was originally composed.

In setting Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach", Corp must have known that he would be in competition with the much better known version by Samuel Barber, and it is difficult for those who know this piece not to hear Corp's effort in the light of it, even though the forces used are different. The texture is quite dense, and one is required to stand back, as from a painting, in order to appreciate the overall effect. The highlight, for me, comes towards the end where the sombre sentiments of Arnold's final lines are well-matched by the subdued nature of Corp's music.

The two part songs, "Heraclitus" and "I strove with none", are valedictory in mood, as is evident from Corp's setting, while the Four Elizabethan Lyrics (to texts by Jonson, Dekker, Tichborne and Shakespeare) cover a greater range, perhaps nodding in the direction of some well-known earlier settings of this kind of poetry. The Tichborne setting, with its icy piano ostinato, is particularly effective.

In "Fear no more the heat o' the sun" Corp is again competing with some fine previous settings - notably those by Finzi and Quilter - but his sensitivity to the words is never in doubt, with a touch of asperity at the "lightning-flash" and "thunder-stone".

The "Missa San Marco" is so-called because it was written for a Highgate Choral Society tour of Venice during which it was performed in St. Mark's Church. The unaccompanied voices have an austere effect similar to that created in the Vaughan Williams Mass and in the Renaissance polyphony which was surely the ultimate model.

The "Requiem" to the well-known words of Robert Louis Stevenson was originally intended as an ending to "Forever Child", but appears here independently as an apt conclusion to the selection as a whole. The choir on this recording, Voces Cantabiles, performs beautifully throughout and, as Corp is the conductor, one could not ask for a more authoritative interpretation of these lovely works.

York Bowen, Alan Bush, Havergal Brian - Cello Concertos
York Bowen, Alan Bush, Havergal Brian - Cello Concertos
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brian, Bowen, Bush Concertos, 7 April 2011
This two-for-the-price of one Dutton recording consists of three rare English works for cello and orchestra. It is perhaps only their rarity that they have in common, for they are stylistically disparate. Whereas many composers struggle for recognition, achieving it, if at all, only posthumously (Havergal Brian being a case in point), York Bowen (1884-1961) was the complete antithesis to this. As a young man he enjoyed a brilliant career both as performer (he was a pianist) and composer, meeting with considerable success. It was only in later life and in the years following his death that he fell out of favour; but the balance has recently been redressed by some fine recordings of his symphonies and concertos, especially on the Dutton and Hyperion labels.

The Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra is a concerto in all but name. Its romanticism, cast in a European rather than a distinctively English tongue, is typical of Bowen's writing. This work oscillates between passionate outbursts and more tranquil episodes in which the cello is allowed to sing from the heart. Despite the more robust and dramatic moments, it is the quiet, haunting lyricism that eventually wins the day as cello and orchestra end on a note of calm. Bowen handles his forces with consummate skill, and although the orchestra is a full one, it is never allowed to swamp the voice of the solo instrument.

Alan Bush's lifelong communist sympathies won him few friends at the BBC who banned performances his music altogether during the Second World War. In time-honoured Marxist tradition, however, he was committed to writing music that he felt would be accessible to the people (although he had a more academic side, too), an aim which is certainly achieved in the Concert Suite recorded here. Unlike the Bowen rhapsody, it harbours a nationalism in the sense that it glances back to the techniques of English music-making employed during the sixteenth century, although the sound is thoroughly of its time (1952). The centrepiece of the work is the heart-rending third movement (entitled "Poem") in which the cello is allowed its full lyrical voice. The finale is full of vigour and energy, with some more serene interludes, and the work ends with a skip and a flourish.

Havergal Brian's Cello Concerto was written in 1964 amidst a period of feverish symphonic writing. After its first performance in 1971, it was characterised by Meirion Bowen as "... a largely lyrical conversation piece for soloist and small orchestra, a deckchair dialogue on a sunny afternoon". Certainly, the small orchestra and near-absence of percussion (there is a side drum, very sparingly used) is most uncharacteristic of Brian at this or any other time. The work is cast in the usual three movements: a buoyant allegro with a reflective conclusion; a singing andante; and a lively rondo finale with a subdued coda.
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Howells: I Love All Beauteous Things - Choral and Organ Music
Howells: I Love All Beauteous Things - Choral and Organ Music
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Howells Choral and Organ Muisc, 6 April 2011
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Over the years there have been several recordings of Howells' shorter choral and organ pieces, so that some of them (The Psalm Preludes, Organ Rhapsodies 1-3, Three Carol Anthems, some of the Evening Services, and so forth) have become well-known to lovers of English music. "I Love All Beauteous Things" takes a refreshing dip into the waters of Howells' less familiar works (although all but one have been recorded previously). The two chief compositions here are the Missa Aedis Christi and the Six Short Pieces for Organ, the various movements of which are interspersed, so that the ear is never exposed to too much of one thing at a time. The effect, perhaps, is that of working through a fine lunch of several courses, with the occasional sourbet to cleanse the palette.

The works on this disc are full of quintessential Howells fingerprints - soaring melodic lines reaching to the rafters (the composer often wrote with specific churches or cathedrals in mind), sensuous, shifting harmonies, meandering melismas, a sense of quiet restraint, and a prevailing bittersweetness of mood. There is so much to enjoy here that it is impossible to comment on everything. The Missa is the centrepiece. Given the constraints of church tradition under which he was working, Howells manages to maintain musical interest with a considerable range of invention. The Six Short Pieces for Organ, too, are designed to show off the instrument in all its various moods - from quiet contemplation to awesome majesty.

Howells' well-known setting of the hymn "All My Hope on God is Founded", along with the Hymn to St. Cecilia, demonstrate his ability to turn out an effective hymn tune, and two further examples on this disc ("This World, My God, is Held Within Your Hand", and "Holy City, Seen of John") merely serve to confirm this observation.

Virtually all the works on this recording were written to commission, a fact which emphasises the esteem in which Howells was held as the foremost composer of church music in the twentieth century. From Haec Dies (1918), written when Howells was just 25 years old, to "I Love All Beauteous Things" and "Hills from the North Rejoice" (1977), two of his last completed works, the composer's consummate craftsmanship is evident from start to finish - a fact to which this Signum recording bears full testimony.

Corp: String Quartets 1/ 2/ Country Matters
Corp: String Quartets 1/ 2/ Country Matters
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4.0 out of 5 stars corp string quartets, 6 April 2011
Naxos has so far presented us with Ronald Corp as choral conductor and as a composer of choral and orchestral music. There is also a recent Stone recording of a range of Corp's songs with piano. On the present disc he makes his debut as a composer of chamber music. The two string quartets here share a fundamental lyricism and have an immediate melodic appeal (one of Corp's great strengths), although he has promised us a third quartet which will be markedly different. The first quartet is subtitled "The Bustard" in honour of a bird which, though hunted to extinction in nineteenth century Britain, is successfully being reintroduced into the wild. Although Corp, an amateur ornithologist, urges us not to regard his quartet as a specific description of the bustard, one can nevertheless imagine its flight by listening to the soaring lines of the various strings, and the dignified nature of some of the themes.

The String Quartet No.2, we are told, was written to celebrate the birth of a particular baby boy, with the consequence that the music is predominantly joyous in nature. The slow movement is more muted and rather militates against the prevailing mood with its occasional abrasiveness, but, as Corp himself explains, the shadows soon clear, and the quartet ends in the sunlight. The music, which has an instant impact on the listener, really speaks for itself.

The remaining work, "Country Matters", is a setting of seven poems by Steve Mainwaring for tenor and string trio, in which the singer hovers between singing and recitation. Mainwaring is apparently a longstanding friend of Corp's, and one wonders whether the latter would have set these words at all had this not been the case. The poems are slight and to some extent nonsensical, and I cannot think that these settings will add to Corp's growing reputation as a song composer. A much better appreciation in this regard can be gained by listening to the Stone recording mentioned above. It seems to me that Corp would have been better served had Naxos recorded one of his more serious cycles in which the texts require a deeper emotional response. Elgar argued that the task of the composer in setting a text was to enhance the poem, a task which was unnecessary if the poem was great enough to stand on its own feet. No doubt this is true, but it does not mean that the composer should go to the other extreme by setting unashamedly indifferent poetry, or even doggerel, as Holst did (and was rightly criticised for) in the third movement of his Choral Symphony (no matter that the doggerel there is by Keats).

The four stars instead of five is for the dubious inclusion of "Country Matters", and not for the performances by Mark Wilde and the Maggini Quartet which are highly accomplished.

Gordon Jacob - Complete Music for Viola & Orchestra
Gordon Jacob - Complete Music for Viola & Orchestra
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Price: £10.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jacob Viola Music, 24 Mar. 2011
Gordon Jacob (1895-1984) was a prolific composer, the majority of whose works, remarkably, were written to commission. He wrote for every conceivable instrument or combination thereof, including the then unfashionable recorder. He was a much underrated composer who was perhaps better known as a teacher (he held his post at the RCM for 42 years), but he had an almost uncanny feel for the instruments for which he was writing, made all the more remarkable by the fact thast he played none of them himself! It is fascinating to be able to delve into the highways and byways of his oeuvre and be pleasantly surprised by some previously undiscovered gem. Personally, I had no idea of the existence of the five works recorded here, and their neo-classical charm has proved something of a revelation to me.

The earliest piece, the Viola Concerto No.1 (1925), has distinct echoes of Jacob's teacher at the RCM, Vaughan Williams, and in its more lyrical moments the Lark Ascending is not far away. The work is essentially in one movement, broken by a viola cadenza, and the capabilities of the solo instrument, now "rugged and virile", now "gentle and singing", are exploited to the full. All in all, the English pastoral scene with its familiar modalism, is very much in evidence.

The Concert Piece for Viola and Orchestra (1977) was written over 50 years later, yet the same lyrical beauty is there and, despite the title, is just as substantial a work as the earlier concerto. There are eight short movements, each exploiting different characteristics of the viola. Highlights include a folk-inflected Andante, a lilting slow waltz and a deeply-felt Largo in which the viola theme is woven against a gentle string accompaniment.

The Three Pieces were originally written in 1930 for viola and piano, and orchestrated by Graham Parlett in 2010. They consist of a meditative elegy, a meandering theme on the viola against a spectral ostinato in the strings, and a final energetic scherzo.

The Viola Concerto No.2 of 1979 uses a string orchestra only. The solo instrument begins proceedings, but is soon joined by the strings in somewhat fretful mood until Jacob's trademark lyricism wins the day. The second movement livens up proceedings with scurrying semiquavers on the viola before the third movement Adagio returns us to the mood of the opening. The final movement is a lively Allegro in which the viola has ample opportunity to show off, especially in the main cadenza.

The Passacaglia Stereophonica (1960) was written for the BBC stereophonic trial broadcasts of that period, and during its three-minute span, ensures that each family of instruments has its say.

Havergal Brian - Symphony No.10, Symphony No.30, Concerto for Orchestra, English Suite No.3
Havergal Brian - Symphony No.10, Symphony No.30, Concerto for Orchestra, English Suite No.3
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brian symphonies, 24 Mar. 2011
This CD includes the first recording by a professional orchestra of Havergal Brian's Symphony No.10 (first recorded by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra under James Loughran back in 1972, and the subject of a documentary prior to Brian's death). As this was my personal introduction to the composer's music (at a Halle concert under Loughran in 1973) I eagerly anticipated this new recording and was not disappointed. Although we are now blessed with CDs of several Brian symphonies, the No.10 is still the one I would choose if I wanted to introduce a newcomer to quintessential Brian, for it has all the composer's distinctive hallmarks - gruff, brass-dominated marches, trumpet fanfares, plangent woodwind passages, and moments of absolute serenity that Brian's great champion from the BBC, Robert Simpson, compares to that part of the human mind that quietly observes whatever turmoil is going on around it. The symphony requires the usual large orchestra with a battery of percussion, including both thunder and wind machines, and yet, almost in contradiction, the symphonic form itself is characteristically condensed, everything happening (and a great deal does happen) in the space of less than 20 minutes. It beggars belief that Brian was aged 78 when he wrote it.

The other symphony on this disc is the No.30 of 1967. Again, the now 91-year old composer uses a very large orchestra, but the ideas in the symphony are, if anything, even more condensed than in No.10. The two movements are played without a break and lead, by way of a series of grim marches and fragmentary episodes, to a final huge climax. There are frequent mood-changes and, as in much of Brian's music, it is these, rather than any traditional symphonic development, for which the listener should be on the look-out.

The English Suite No.3 was written between 1919-21, at the time of Brian's comic opera "The Tigers". As the title suggests, it is lighter in mood and less intense than the tough-minded symphonies, with plenty of lyricism. Although there is some measure of parody, there are passages of deep feeling, too, especially in the first and fourth movements ("Ancient Village" and "The Stonebreaker"). Listen out for the splendid ad lib organ towards the close of the latter movement.

The remaining work, Concerto for Orchestra (1964), is not the kind in which each instrument or family of instruments is allowed its moment of glory, although there is some intricate writing for the winds. Brian himself considered naming the piece Sinfonietta before lighting on the current title, and Malcolm MacDonald has noted, with some justification, that in many ways it is really another symphony.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, plays splendidly throughout. All in all, this is a most satisfying disc, showcasing three works that are being recorded for the first time. Hopefully, it will maintain public interest in the continuing Brian phenomenon.

Hardy's Wessex [DVD]
Hardy's Wessex [DVD]
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hardy's Wessex, 11 Mar. 2011
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This is a decent attempt at a succinct biographical presentation of Thomas Hardy, and certainly a good deal better than its rival in the "Classic Literature" series, with its intrusive music and monotonous commentary. The main presenters on this DVD, Martin Seymour-Smith and James Gibson, manage to piece together the life and work of Hardy in an interesting way, and retrace his steps not only throughout Dorset, but also into Cornwall to cover his early relationship with his future wife Emma Gifford - a period which is not always sufficiently dealt with in mini-biographies of this sort. The film of evocative landscapes helps the viewer to enter into Hardy's Wessex, and the various locations shown are linked to Hardy's various poems and novels. There are brief extracts from a few of the poems, although one could have wished for a few more. Also, although the commentary is informative and intelligent, there are just a few points over which some people - even Hardy enthusiasts - might want to take issue, as, for instance, whebn it is suggested that Hardy is second only to Shakespeare as an English writer. Surely one cannot seriously make a claim of this kind without first breaking down his oeuvre into novels, poems, short stories, and the like. I have always been attracted to the subject matter of Hardy's poetry, with its underlying meliorism, but even in his own day, some of the language would have been considered anachronistic. Similarly, Hardy would never have got away in this day and age with the techniques he used in writing short stories, so heavy on description at the expense of direct speech. So it seems to me that the sweeping claim made on this DVD requires a lot more justification than it receives. Still, this does not detract significantly from the quality of the presentation overall and, as there are precious few DVDs on the market to serve the same purpose, we can be grateful that this one is available.

The Songs of Ronald Corp
The Songs of Ronald Corp
Price: £12.24

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Songs of Ronald Corp, 11 Mar. 2011
Ronald Corp is perhaps best known as the inspirational conductor of the New London Children's Choir with whom he has appeared on record (e.g. the Naxos disc, "Pigs Could Fly"). He is less well-known as a composer, but is evidently a prolific one. The songs on this CD represent but a small proportion of his total song output, if his own testimony is anything to go by, and the wide range of his chosen texts reflects his lively interest in all facets of English literature.

There are 39 songs on this disc, most of them very short. Some, like the beautifully melodic "Give to my eyes, Lord" (written for his New London Children's Choir) are individual offerings, while others are gathered into substantial collections devoted to the work of a particular poet, and headed, "The Music of...". The poets so treated here are Housman and Whitman, but there are apparently similar song collections (not, strictly, cycles) to texts by Keats, Byron, Yeats, Drayton, and Catullus, among others. A collection entitled "Flower of Cities" (recorded here) consists of songs on well-known texts about London, and there are some light-hearted individual songs - "The Owl and the Pussycat" and "The Irish Pig", for example. The wide variety of texts ensures a range of moods in the music so that, despite the large number of songs on the disc, interest never flags. Certainly, it cannot be said that Corp lacks courage and ambition, for he fearlessly sets John Fletcher's poem "Sleep", regardless of the fact that Ivor Gurney and Peter Warlock produced two of the finest songs in the English repertoire using this same poem. As Corp himself remarks in acknowledging this: "[I] hope that my song will not be submerged under their great shadow."

What about the music itself? Here we are very much in the English song tradition. Clearly, Corp thinks intelligently about his song collections, and does not merely lump the individual items together. For instance, "Flower of Cities" begins and ends in celebratory fashion with the Dunbar poem (a setting not unlike the better-known version by George Dyson). In between are three brisk settings by Byron, Blake and Carey, separated by two beautifully lyrical renderings of the Wordsworth texts. The effect is of a perfectly balanced whole, and a sensitive interpretation of the poems.

The Housman settings offer a fresh approach. Traditionally, Housman interpretations (like those of Somervell, Butterworth and Vaughan Williams) have been lyrical and comparatively restrained. Corp, however, chooses to set very short poems throughout, so that the effect is epigrammatic. Many of them are more abrasive than has been the custom, and the piano is treated as an equal partner with the singer, having a crisp, brittle quality less evident in the cycles of, say, George Butterworth. The use of baritone rather than tenor also adds to the more muscular approach adopted by Corp. Similar techniques are brought to bear on his Whitman collection. As to the song "Sleep" - does it hold its own against the Gurney and Warlock masterpieces? Yes, I believe so - although it is informed by them.

Havergal Brian Live Studi
Havergal Brian Live Studi
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brian Symphonies, 11 Mar. 2011
Havergal Brian's short biography is well-known. Born to working class parents in Dresden, Staffordshire in 1876, he worked for a coal mine and a timber firm, before cobbling together a career as a music jounalist and copyist. As a composer he was largely self-taught, and, for most of his long life (he died at Shoreham-by-Sea in 1972 at the age of 96) almost entirely ignored. Yet his music was admired by no less a figure than Richard Strauss, and his Gothic Symphony once featured in the Guinness Book of Records under "largest symphony" (it requires some 800 performers, and lasts for about 1 hour 40 minutes). In fact, the sheer scale of Brian's early works was no doubt one reason why they were seldom ever performed. Remarkably, all but five of his 32 symphonies were composed after he had reached the age of 70. By this time, however, he had become as succinct as he had once been expansive, most of these later symphonies lasting well under half an hour, although still requiring a very large orchestra.

The present disc was made possible with financial assistance from the Havergal Brian Society, and includes recordings of three live broadcasts made by the BBC in 1959. Obviously the sound quality is not up to modern standards, but this is more than outweighed by the historical interest of the performances, and Michael Dutton has done his usual excellent remastering job.

"Dr. Merryheart" is named after an English eccentric whose whimsical character is well-expressed in Brian's music, with its sudden changes in tempo and mood. Brian describes the piece as a comedy overture, but, in structure, form and length it is really a Straussian tone poem, written at a time (1912) when he was most under the influence of the great man.

The two symphonies, Nos. 9 & 11, were written in 1951 and 1954 respectively, and are typical examples of the composer's late and relatively succinct style, with some rather gruff writing in the brass and skipping moments in the woodwind, interspersed with brooding, reflective passages in the strings. The well-known music critic Lewis Foreman judges that the Symphony No.11 "would surely be rated as one of the great British symphonies of its time were it not for the fact that most music lovers are put off by the sheer quantity of Brian's later symphonies." High praise indeed! As to the quantity, all but one of the first twelve symphonies have appeared on CD in fairly recent years, plus Nos. 15-18, 20, 25, 30-32 - not to mention three others (Nos. 14, 22, 28) currently available on YouTube! So there is plenty of opportunity for listeners to evaluate Brian's symphonic oeuvre. Rather than being intimidated by his prolific output, lovers of English music should savour what is there; each symphony is a distinctive example of Brian's unique and inimitable style. The disc under review presents three contrasting works performed by the excellent London Symphony Orchestra under two sympathetic conductors, Harry Newstone and Norman Del Mar, and is to be highly recommended.

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