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Doreen Carwithen’s Violin Sonata

The fortunes of a piece of music can change significantly over time. In 1952, a violin sonata by the young composer Doreen Carwithen was rejected by the BBC Music Panel – a powerful gate-keeping body who decided which new works were suitable for broadcast. But 65 years on, a recording of the same sonata by Fenella Humphreys and Nathan Williamson was given a five-star review by BBC Music Magazine.

If you’re new to Carwithen’s music, an inescapable fact of her life is her relationship with the composer William Alwyn, with whom she settled down in the 1960s and later married. Thereafter, her young ambitions in composition were mostly laid aside as she focussed on supporting him.

It’s a depressingly familiar story. And it’s of no disrespect to her remaining works to say that this early sonata is both a beautiful piece in its own right, and also a poignant suggestion of what more might have been.

Still, we should be grateful for the music we have. And perhaps it’s a fitting time of year to discover this impressive work – there’s an autumnal melancholy to the first movement, with a windswept piano part that rises into whirlwinds of blustery passion, as the violin line surges high above.

The music certainly wears its heart on its sleeve. But this is a sonata with a disarming habit of soft endings. In a coda of unexpected serenity, the movement turns quite magically to the major-key, beautifully realised by Humphreys and Williamson.

There’s no such calm in the second movement, which jumps out at us in a rapid machine-gun of notes, lightened by clownish piano chords. A mercurial scherzo – but the first movement’s billowing moods burst through, in chilly gusts of deeper feeling.

It’s quite the roller-coaster ride in these sure hands, and for a few bars it sounds like we’re heading for a triumphant climax. But at the last Carwithen pulls the rug, and the music tip-toes away with a wink.

After two energetic movements, Carwithen ends the sonata with a slow one, and an expressive melody in the violin’s lower register suggests that passion has become sorrow. But a fit of increasing agitation leads to an extraordinary transition – a delicate wonderland of tinkling runs on the piano, and sustained high notes on the violin. It has the naive innocence of a childhood memory, and quickly fades away before a brief cadenza, and a fragile close.

Another composer might have added a fourth movement, to tie this sonata together more emphatically. And while I don’t know the BBC Panel’s rationale for their rejection, perhaps they found this structure unsatisfying.

In any case, I’d question this assumption – as much as I’d question the larger edifice of social values under which women like Carwithen ended up sacrificing their creative ambitions.

Some things in life do wane away, and end in repose. There are fractures and unexpected endings, and sometimes we have to cherish the moments of serenity when they come.

And when the passage of time gives us new perspectives, we can also be thankful. To have a recording that is such convincing advocate for this sonata is, perhaps, a triumphant ending enough.

Download the whole album from Chandos, read the liner notes here

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Kurt Schwertsik at 85

     By Peter Davison

2020 has been most notable for a disruptive worldwide pandemic, but it is also the year of Kurt Schwertsik’s 85th birthday. Kurt is one of Austria’s most respected living composers and a figure of historical significance because of his relationship with the post-War avant-garde, centred around the Darmstadt summer schools in the 1950s. His recently published memoir, Was und wie lernt man? (What and how do we learn?) reveals the amicable tensions between himself and Karlheinz Stockhausen, as he diverged from modernist orthodoxy and returned to tonal composition.

After hearing one of Schwertsik’s ‘regressive’ works, Stockhausen tossed him a packet of sugar which he had picked up in a coffee bar. Seemingly this music was too sweet for the great man, but Schwertsik recalls that Stockhausen then drew his attention to the printed message on the packet, Bitte beehren Sie uns bald wieder (Please honour us by coming again soon).

When I first came to know Kurt, I was immediately struck by his friendliness, his modesty and dry humour. He is genuinely interested in people and life, managing somehow to avoid the divisive polemic so characteristic of our times. His instinctive diplomacy should not be mistaken for vagueness, since he is true to his humane values, which he pursues without stridency or preaching, accepting the validity of paths which are not his own.

The breadth of his musical associations proves the point. Schwertsik is happy to champion his former teacher, Joseph Marx, whose richly coloured scores drip with impressionistic harmonies and emotional subjectivity. Yet he remains sympathetic to his late English friend, the dedicated Marxist, Cornelius Cardew, whose main goal was to dismantle the conventions of bourgeois musical life. Kurt himself enjoys being simultaneously a transgressor and a traditionalist. Like grit in the oyster, such fissures in the human psyche are a primary source for his creative material. 

Kurt Schwertsik has long been held in high regard in Britain, where he also feels very much at home. Many of the country’s finest ensembles and performers have commissioned works from him, including orchestras in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Schwertsik was also a featured composer during the 1993 Alternative Vienna Festival in London.

His affinity with Britain may be the consequence of his mother being born in London in 1907, the illegitimate child of his Belgian grandmother. These personal links may have granted Schwertsik a creative affinity with several talented Englishmen. Cornelius Cardew has already been mentioned, but Schwertsik also owes much of his international success to the late David Drew, who was his publisher at London-based Boosey & Hawkes until 1992.

During the course of the last century, the notion that any individual composer might realistically aspire to world-historic significance in the manner of Beethoven or Wagner grew more and more implausible. Historical events had exposed the dangers of elevating any visionary individual to cult status. In our own times, a composer may only realistically aspire to personal authenticity. Beyond that, the artist has become increasingly powerless. Kurt Schwertsik soon discovered that solidarity and entrepreneurial spirit were valid responses to the collapsed cultural consensus.

In 1958, he founded the avant-garde performing group die reihe (the row) with his friend, Friedrich Cerha. A decade later, no longer committed to modernist orthodoxy, Schwertsik worked with his fellow instrumentalists, H K Gruber and Oskar Zykan, to form the MOB art & tone ART ensemble. The latter group, according to Schwertsik, was dedicated to playing new works with broad appeal written in a tonal musical language. Here is a work from that period, his Symphony in Mob-Style (1972), with its witty allusions to jazz and the pop music of the day.

There is also a darker side to Schwertsik’s music. The invocation of a dream or fairy tale suggests a desire to reconnect with something lost to everyday consciousness; a bitter-sweet nostalgia for childlike innocence, for an idealised past, for certainties long gone. Schwertsik’s most Mahlerian work, his five-movement symphonic suite Nachtmusiken – ‘Nocturnes’ (2009) was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester for a performance paired with Mahler’s First Symphony.

Schwertsik’s music has haunting Viennese qualities, with its unashamed embrace of the sentimental and its witty even irreverent allusions to Mahler’s music. The first movement pays homage to Janáček and is entitled Janáček ist mir im Traum erschienen – ‘Janáček appeared to me in a dream’. It is dominated by an angry rhythmic motto with a Slavic linguistic accent, typical of Janáček’s musical idiom. But the surging intensity of the music is more Mahlerian, as waves of pathos reach an ominous climax.

In a Viennese context, the appearance of a Czech nationalist composer suggests a dialogue with the outsider or, in psychological terms, the wounded shadow is permitted to approach. This juxtaposition of Viennese and Slavic elements in Schwertsik’s work relates well to Mahler’s First Symphony, in which the narrative voice consistently identifies with the alienated victim. We gain the perspectives of the hunted rather than the hunter, the peasant rather than the urban elite.

Schwertsik’s hero, if that is the right word, is the eccentric French composer Erik Satie. Satie was the trickster deflating Wagnerian excess, the hoaxer and social radical blurring the boundaries between life and art. Yet, in his modest way, Satie influenced several generations of composers from Debussy to John Cage. His life and art intentionally mocked the grandiose attributes of the romantic genius.

In the cantata Socrate (1919), Satie depicts through delicate understatement the death of an outsider, executed for his wisdom and probing scepticism. Socrates is resigned to his fate, and there is no sense of grand tragedy. The powerlessness of the thoughtful man is accepted without defiant rage. Here is Schwertsik’s Adieu Satie (2002) for string quartet and bandoneon, a work dedicated to the subversive power of understatement.

A consistent theme of Schwertsik’s work has been to give voice to nature. Once he had abandoned his association with Darmstadt, he was able to return to established symphonic forms and to rediscover the musical possibilities of tone-painting. In true Mahlerian style, the natural world could again provide a source of inspiration.

In Schwertsik’s imagination, nature is not always pretty or pastoral – it possesses a threatening but vital energy. His orchestral cycle Irdische Klänge – ‘Earthly Sounds’ (1981) begins with a two-movement richly textured symphony which owes something to Stockhausen’s Trans for orchestra and tape, while also revealing debts to a variety of other musical sources such as Philip Glass, popular music, jazz and The Rite of Spring

The Fünf Naturstücke – ‘Five Nature Pieces’ (1984) that constitute Part 2 of Der irdischen Klänge are more picturesque, especially the flowing lines of Wasser (Water) and the exuberant chatter of Vogel (Bird). The final work of the series is Das Ende der irdischen Klänge (1991), a single movement which concludes with a frightening side drum riff, as if Nature’s voice is silenced by human tyranny.

Schwertsik’s most impressive work in this vein is Uluru (1992); a deeply felt response to the red rock which forms a sacred site for local Indigenous Australians. From nocturnal shadows, the dawn slowly awakens, culminating in a climax of Sibelian grandeur, as spirit once again seems to infuse matter.  For Schwertsik, the relationship with nature is both personal and spiritual, a mirror to his own inner life and the wider human drama. 

For all that Schwertsik is uncategorisable, he is not a post-modernist without allegiance to tradition. His outlook is closer to Stravinsky’s, another of his eclectic musical influences. For both composers, tradition is an Urquelle or original source from which one may draw nourishment, but to which one is not obligated. Like Stravinsky, Schwertsik borrows from a wide range of sources, encompassing not only the classical masters of the past, but also jazz, cabaret and other forms of popular music which have caught his ear.

In this manner, Schwertsik acknowledges that modernity has been a unique historical moment, but not a Utopian climax, as many had hoped. Indeed, Vienna’s decline as a power-centre and its loss of cultural dominance have liberated him, allowing him to be open to wider influences. Schwertsik has found fields of activity beyond the polemic of entrenched political and aesthetic positions, seeking the intersection between his commitment to social ideals and his search for personal authenticity. 

His most recent works possess an inner freedom which suggests an artist with nothing to prove and nobody to please but himself. His suite of miniature piano pieces Am Morgen vor der Reise – ‘The Morning before the Journey’ (2017) displays a Schumann-like inventiveness and fluency. Avoiding virtuoso display, he captures intimate and spontaneous feeling in a richly nuanced tonal language that sounds fresh yet familiar.

To conclude, we should let Schwertsik’s lyrically expressive music speak for itself in his Three Late Love Songs, Op.64. They combine the sensuality of Gabriel Fauré with more than a hint of Viennese melancholy, yet we are not allowed to become too comfortable. We are reminded of Schwertsik’s modernist roots which may still be heard in the tone clusters of the work’s middle movement.

Peter Davison is a concert programmer and cultural commentator who was formerly artistic consultant to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

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The Raven Ascending

Back in the days before online streaming, one of the first pieces of classical music I bought on CD was the Naxos recording of Telemann’s viola concerto. It’s a lovely Baroque work for an instrument that doesn’t get a huge amount of solo exposure.

Nonetheless, twenty years on, I still think there’s something strange about the sound of a solo viola. The middle-child of the string family doesn’t quite have the sweetness of the violin, nor the richness of the cello. There’s a certain inbetween-ness about it, a tone of adolescent awkwardness. But that itself can lend it an unusual poetic quality.

Holst’s Lyric Movement for viola and small orchestra was written in 1933. It was the year before the composer died, when he was frequently in hospital and (according to his daughter Imogen) keeping to a diet of milk. It would be tempting to link the thin-skimmed textures of this music to his weak state of health. But throughout his career, Holst often used an austere, pared-back approach, and this beautiful late work fits squarely within this tradition.

His tendency for remoteness and beguiling mystery is unmistakable here. Holst uses his forces sparingly, but to eerie effect. He hangs thin notes in the air – tendrils of mist, narrow slits of light.

Ambiguity reigns over a landscape of strange half-forms, where nothing is quite one thing or another, and the dusky strains of the viola could be its native tongue. We begin with a loose solo, which slowly rises until it reaches a rocking melodic figure, and then swoops down in an arpeggio. A flute answers, flying higher and falling further in a chain of thirds.

Is this melody, or diffuse impression? At first it’s unclear. A comparison might be to the violin acrobatics of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, but this is heavier, darker, more furtive. Perhaps we are closer to W.B. Yeats’s ‘ravens of unresting thought’ than George Meredith’s exultant songbird, glimpsed through broken branches.

A gathering of soft orchestral pitches condenses out of the air, and woodwinds take up the rocking figure. It sounds like familiar, English pastoral territory. But while the melody is trying for a lilting compound rhythm – a sort of Siciliana feel – it’s continually cut off by the 4/4 metre.

It’s as though we’re hearing something half-forgotten, not quite fully grasped. Then a stark chord interrupts, clashing with the melody. The music seizes up, as if in pain, a moment that recurs several times in the piece – it could be a traumatic memory.

As to where all this is leading, Holst keeps us guessing. We are denied any intuitive flow. The viola part pivots between gentle dance, sorrowful declamation, and scurrying scales. Melodic lines appear, only to dissolve into still notes. Shapes evaporate. Elements gather pace, and then peter out.

When at last the orchestra and soloist find an affirming major chord, it feels like a flash of longed-for sunlight. But the culmination that follows is the model of austerity.

In an adagio cadenza, the viola exorcises its demons alone. A tussle of double-stopping leads to a final reprisal of the rocking theme, both loud and slow. It’s a moment of intense concentration, and painstaking determination.

The struggle is cathartic, and the few remaining bars offer a faint but serene conclusion. The viola remains a strange, rare bird, but it seems at last that it has earned the right to sing with confidence.

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Bonny Kathern Loggy

Here’s an ear-worm to start your week. The Queen’s Delight, a new album by François Lazarevitch and Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien, explores songs and country dances from 17th- and 18th-century Britain. The liner notes offer a fascinating background to the repertoire – of how broadside ballads and country dances bled into each other in a spirt of creative freedom, and how some tunes even crossed the Channel to influence French court music.

The opening track is Bonny Kathern Loggy, a ballad sung by Fiona McGown. It’s given some folky instrumentation with dulcimer and pipes – and it’s got plenty of oomph. I shared this on Facebook yesterday, and someone commented that they’d only heard this tune done instrumentally before. Well, listening to McGown valiantly tacking the lines with barely a pause for breath, I’m not surprised.

While in many ways it’s a typical ballad tune (see my recent blog on Slane) it’s also very memorable. It has a driving, earthy start, but the ear worm’s prime real estate is the high running scale figure in the third phrase, which crowns it all elegantly. I also love how none of the lines come to rest on the tonic – the tune keeps flying up at the end with a Saturnalian abandon, always ready to start again. And it’s so much fun that each time the track finishes, I’m ready to listen again too. Find out more about The Queen’s Delight here.

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Murray’s Magic Mozart

In 2018, I was in the Albert Hall for the BBC Proms on the evening that the American violinist Tai Murray was the soloist in Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. Like many people, I love that piece, but because it’s performed so often I was pretty sure I knew what to expect from it.

How wrong I was. Murray’s playing was enthralling, and somehow made this very familiar work sound fresh and free, as if I was hearing it for the first time. As if she was improvising it out of the warm air.

So it was with no hesitation whatsoever that I caught up with Murray’s recent lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall, a series which the venue management have kindly allowed to be streamed on YouTube during the pandemic period. She was accompanied by the pianist Martin Roscoe.

Bartók and Brahms were on the programme, but the opening work was a short Mozart sonata in E minor, K. 304. ‘A little gem that isn’t performed that often’ as the Radio 3 announcer Martin Handley described it, in only two movements. It was certainly new to me.

Truth be told, I sometimes find string sonatas a bit abrasive and strident – particularly the more big-boned later ones. In moments where the soloist strains over a thundering piano part, it doesn’t always seem like an ideal partnership. So it was refreshing then to discover this Mozart piece, which shares much of the poignant restraint that Murray conveyed so well in the Vaughan Williams.

As Handley’s introduction also mentioned, it’s thought (but not known for sure) that Mozart may have composed the sonata in the aftermath of his mother’s death. And there is certainly darkness here, with both movements in the minor key.

There’s even a nocturnal quality. The smooth opening theme is quietly announced by the violin and piano in bare octaves. Then comes a faster, agitated reply – but still without any harmony.

What follows is so sensitively balanced, and while Roscoe has barely three notes to sound together, Mozart shows up the redundancy in the enormous anachronism of the Wigmore Steinway. The textures are especially magical in several hushed cadences in the first movement, where a sustained note on the violin is set against little florid melodic figures.

A more affirmative theme appears in the major key, decorated with dancing dotted rhythms that might have been composed for carefree whistling. The exchange of ideas that follows is like listening in to an intelligent conversation – the back-and-forth between Murray and Roscoe is so economical, the music’s turns from severity to jollity so distinctively characterised. Of course, Mozart makes it sound like child’s play.

The second movement is a minuet, and the wistful theme is introduced on the piano so delicately that it could be a music box. The violin takes up the tune with real passion, and a serenely tender major-key section is very touching. But it leads to a brief and unexpectedly emphatic close, which seems to dispel the music’s dreaming.

This dramatic turn adds something of a sense of finality to what is an unusually short sonata. I can only assume that its truncated form goes some way to explain its relative rarity in concert programmes, but I have no complaints. I only hope Tai Murray continues to deliver the unexpected.

Tai Murray’s recital took place on September 17th and is available to watch for 30 days.

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Solemn Tones

A wonderful thing about radio is the way that even when you’re pre-occupied with other tasks, it can creep up on you unawares. You can be barely paying attention at all, when something slowly treads upon your consciousness.

This recently happened to me when Radio 3 was playing in the background. I probably hadn’t registered the soft piano chords, but when unison female voices came in over the top, and the piano part added a complementary line, I began to be drawn in.

What was so fascinating about it? There was something unusual in this blend of sound. You expect a choir, accompanied by piano, to break into harmonies at some point – but the vocal line remained united. Neither did the piano part assert itself much. It plodded on, a few passing notes here and there, quietly bolstering the unspooling melody with rich harmonies.

That’s another funny thing about discovering music on the radio in this way – the state of rapt ignorance, of having to guess at what you’re listening to before the announcer comes back on. But there was a clue here. Because there’s one tradition where we expect to hear the sparse sound of unison singing, and that’s plainchant.

As it turns out, I was listening to Roxanna Panufnik’s arrangement of the Salve Regina chant, in the Solemn Tone. It was composed for the 80th birthday of Dame Raphael, a Benedictine nun who she knew from visiting her former abbey on retreats.

Panufnik says that she arranged the Salve Regina in a ‘very unplainsongy way’. But I think this is only partly true. It seems to me that she very shrewdly worked with the meditative qualities of this singing tradition.

Other composers might have toiled harder with this chant – transforming it into variations, using polyphony or other technical tricks – for a less compelling result. But Panufnik shows the power of finding the right slant on a theme, of subtly repositioning it so that it’s left fascinatingly poised.

Listen to those first simple piano chords. Before the voices begin, for all you’d know it could be the start of an Adele ballad. But Panufnik does not make this a solo setting – she retains the plainchant’s unison evenness, which subsumes the individual into the group.

When the choir does join in, the piano finds beautifully expressive harmonic contexts for their wandering line. Like a heartbeat, it brings warmth and immediacy to this ancient, austere tradition. And suddenly – miraculously – it seems that plainchant isn’t million miles away from the soulful outpourings of the singer-songwriter.

This setting treads a fine line between our musical associations: of the medieval and modern, the sacred and secular, the collective and subjective. At the same time, the dark hues of the piano complement the silvery women’s voices – they coexist peacefully, a yin and yang.

It all sounds so natural. Is this the music of a solemn retreat, or an impassioned entreaty? For a few uncanny minutes, both speak as one.

Salve Regina is available from Signum Records. Purchase the score from Edition Peters.

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Airy Musics Of Strains

My haul.

As the bibliophiles of South London will know, Bookmongers is a venerable Brixton institution. Run by an affable American with a penchant for classic rock records (and singing along to them), it’s an increasingly rare example of the independent second-hand book store in an age of ubiquitous charity shops and cheap online retailers. For many years it was co-staffed by his late dog Rosa, a customer favourite who is much missed – today an adopted cat takes her place.

The music section is small, but on a recent visit I was surprised to discover some volumes gifted by someone with an evident interest in early English music. There were two classic instruction books: Thomas Morley’s Plaine And Easie Introduction (1597), and Christopher Simpson’s A Compendium Of Practical Music (1667). There was also the collected writings of Roger North (c.1651-1734) – a key source on musical life in 17th-century England.

Not the finds in your average Oxfam! These books weren’t cheap, but in a rush of enthusiasm I parted with the lot (‘I’m supporting an independent retailer’, I told myself). I bought them less for their technical content than their insights into the intellectual currents of the period, and the endearing quaintness that runs through them (why, for instance, do our textbooks no longer feature introductory poems? It’s so charming. Yes I’m looking at you Rosen! No wonder I struggled with Sonata Forms!).

And then there’s the personalities. As it happens, Roger North passed judgement on both of the other two authors. Morley’s Introduction was already old in his day, and he deemed it a useful enough artefact of that time, but found its writing style ‘stuft with abundance of impertinences’. This is undeniably true. Exhibit A is Morley’s preface, where he discovers the ‘Planning Fallacy’ and the horrible truth that writing is actually really hard:

concerning the book itself, if I had before I began imagined half the pains and labour which it cost me, I would sooner have been persuaded to anything than to have taken in hand such a tedious piece of work, like unto a great sea, which the further I entered into the more I saw before me unpassed…

Nothing if not honest. As for Simpson, beside the Compendium he also wrote The Division Viol, which is still a key guide to viol technique in his time. But North damns both books with faint praise: ‘doubtless very good, and worthy as could be expected from a meer musick master’. Ouch.

Relatively little is known about Simpson’s life. A Yorkshireman, he fought for the Royalists in the Civil War under William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle, and was later employed by Sir Roger Bolles in Lincolnshire, as his son’s tutor. In the Compendium, Cavendish receives the obsequious dedication which was seemingly obligatory in those days:

I had the honour to serve under your Grace’s command when you were general of the gallantest army that I think was ever raised in these dominions…

This brushes over the fact that Cavendish fled the country in 1644 after the defeat of Marston Moor – but never mind, the Restoration had ensured his return, and Simpson certainly knew who wasn’t to blame for all that unpleasantness:

If others by your example had shown the like loyalty, gallantry and industry, those rugged times had come to a shorter period.

Commending his book are two letters from fellow composers Matthew Locke and John Jenkins. But hang on, what’s this? Locke spends half his letter on a bizarre rant about other less practical theorists:

our new lights (of which this age has been monstrous fruitful) who can speculate how many hairs’ breadths will reach from the top of Paul’s steeple to the centre of a full moon and demonstrate that the thousandth part of a minute after, there will be so many thousand more hairs necessary by means of the earth’s or moon’s motion…

Believe it or not, this is his way of praising Simpson’s concise writing style. I’m desperate to learn the story here, but whatever Locke was carping on about, it’s true that the Compendium is admirably to-the-point. From the outset Simpson makes clear that he has no time for the more speculative side of music theory. Here he is defining the degrees of the scale:

These degrees are numbered by sevens. To speak of the mystery of that number were to deviate from the business in hand. Let it suffice that music may be taught by any names of things…

My happy accident of finding this book caused me to revisit some of Simpson’s own music for viols. There isn’t a huge amount. But in 2015, the Chelys viol consort released a disc which included twenty ‘ayres’ by him. These were only transcribed in 2009 – mostly from part-books in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Confusingly, some of these 20 ‘ayres’ bear that same title, while others have dance names. But the Compendium offers an explanation. You see, Simpson’s favourite form of instrumental music was the contrapuntal ‘fancy’ (or ‘fantasy’) -‘the chief and most excellent for art and contrivance’ – but it had fallen out of favour since Morley’s day:

This kind of music (the more is the pity) is now much neglected by reason of the scarcity of auditors that understand it, their ears being better acquainted and more delighted with light and airy music.

Such ‘light and airy music’ is the next step down in his hierarchy, and Simpson describes some of its forms: Pavanes, Galliards, and other dances:

In these and other airy musics of strains which now pass under the common name of airs, you will often hear some touches of points of fugues, but not insisted upon or continued as in fancy-music.

So ‘air’ (or ‘ayre’, or ‘aire’ – spelling wasn’t such a big deal back then) could mean any form of lighter, less rigorously contrapuntal music. And Simpson, ever the practical man, was at least giving people what they wanted.

It turns out that he was also really quite good at it. These works are delightful, and Simpson actually hits on why: by not insisting too much on the ‘touches of points of fugue’, instead the moments of imitation are effortlessly integrated into a more flowing, melodic style.

In the sensitive hands of Chelys, we can hear precisely why viol music had evolved towards these ‘airy strains’. Backed up by continuo players on their album, Chelys give the music gentle bounce, with the ‘light and shade’ extolled in Simpson’s motto: Neque lux sine urba. Their ornamentation is informed by his writings too. The disc has rightly attracted rave reviews.

In the liner notes, Alex Parker describes his excitement at finally hearing the music that he had taken such pains to transcribe. Old theory books may have their charms, but much credit goes to him and Chelys for bringing back to life these graceful airs from rugged times.

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Colourful Banners

Tibetan prayer flags, photo by Nico van Geldere.

When we think of chamber music, the most familiar canonical repertoire tends to cover a small range of instruments. Members of the violin family dominate, with or without a piano.

Of course, many composers have explored more innovative arrangements. December Chrysathmum, a new release by French group Les Temps Modernes, features chamber works by the Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye. And the opening track immediately dazzles with a kaleidoscopic array of colours.

Basong Cuo is scored for six instruments, including a zheng, a Chinese plucked zither with a distinctive twang. But it also calls for harp, a mellower but similar sound. In fact, Ye’s scoring is built around three pairs of timbral near-neighbours, with flute, clarinet, violin and cello completing an ensemble equally comprised of plucking, blowing and bowing.

The colour contrasts that arise, with subtler shades of differentiation within the pairs, create an intriguingly balanced palette. The opening is a vivid constellation of bright bursts and tactile flourishes – like a child with a new box of toys, Ye seems impatient to discover what all these instruments can do. But it soon passes into more shadowy realms, with eerie tremolo strings and woodwind trills.

Born in 1955, Ye was part of a legendary class that graduated from Beijing’s Central Conservatory, which included figures such as Tan Dun and Guo Wenjing. In an interview, he explained this illustrious intake as the accumulation of untutored talent during the institution’s ten-year closure in the Cultural Revolution.

His music on this disc has a sense of immediacy – ideas seem to unfold in a spontaneous stream. But composing like this has structural limitations, which perhaps explains why all of the works are single tracks that barely exceed the ten-minute mark. Ye’s wizardry is in making it so compelling.

For all the frenetic energy in Basong Cuo, it does have something of a downward arc – it eventually subsides into a long, low tremolo on the zheng. Other works stay closer to this more tentative world. The piano trio Colorful Sutra Banner starts delicately, coming together in sudden unison eruptions, but mostly staying poised and restrained. Stranger is the mixed-ensemble piece Hibiscus, which has something of a false ending – a climax is followed by a long pause, then a curiously deflated epilogue.

One puzzle, for me at least, is how to square this mercurial music with the simple, postcardy titles Ye chooses – two of the works, including Basong Cuo, are named after Tibetan lakes, another two are named after flowers. The composer’s own liner notes elaborate on these simple images in quite broad-brush terms, mentioning emotions and spirituality, which doesn’t much help.

Perhaps something is lost in cultural translation. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating disc of beguiling music. Listening to Basong Cuo, it seems the ensemble’s centre of gravity has levitated. So much of Western classical music is built from a strong bass, the root of harmony, and resolves itself in thunderous depths. But the lower tones of the harp and zheng are dusky, while the cello is outnumbered here by the higher instruments – in fact both of the strings recede somewhat from the foreground.

Ye’s cleverly paired scoring results in a different balance – an airy swirl of colour and sensuousness in the middle and high registers. And although the sound of the zheng falls on Western ears as a familiar symbol of the ‘Far East’, it doesn’t act like one: it’s integrated into the ensemble as one segment of a colour wheel.

A different dynamic is found in Gardenia, not on this disc, but available on YouTube in a performance from La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest 2017. The work combines the pipa, a Chinese lute, with string quartet. Listening to Wu Man and the Miró Quartet in the video, the two make for equal forces in a free-flowing dialogue. Gardenia is the symbolic flower of Yueyuang City – more flora! – and Ye incorporates folk music from Hunan province, so the pipa’s presence here seems to play a more traditional Chinese role.

And yet, much like Basong Cuo, Gardenia ends with a long, quiet tremolo on the pipa. It’s an effect he’s evidently fond of, only this time it’s at the top of its register, accompanied by ethereal high notes from the strings. Another ten-minute conjuring act trembles away into silence.

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Semyon Barmotin: Mysterious Preludes

If you’ve never heard of the Russian composer Semyon Barmotin (1877-1939), then you’re not alone. Neither had I, until I discovered Christopher Williams’s new recording of his Op.12 piano preludes for Grand Piano Records – a world premiere recording, no less

Two mysteries are described in the liner notes. One is the date of the composer’s death, which eluded Western scholars until the discovery of a handwritten obituary from 1939 in the St. Petersburg city archives – the location he died in still remains unknown.

The second mystery lies in the structure of the work itself. The history of the prelude form is a strange one – while it began as an introductory warm-up piece, it evolved into a self-contained composition, which no longer ‘led’ anywhere.

By Barmotin’s time, composers such as Chopin had popularised a different role for the prelude: publishing sets which traversed all major and minor keys, much like Bach had done, twice over, with his Forty-Eight Preludes And Fugues.

But as Gérald Hugon writes in the booklet, what is confounding about Barmotin’s Op. 12 set is that each prelude is in a different key, but at twenty preludes, he stops just four short of completing a full chromatic cycle. They were published, so presumably it can’t be a case of them being left unfinished. Why didn’t he go all the way?

We don’t know, but it’s interesting that they were published in a different numerical structure, issued in four books of five preludes each. And with plenty of contrast within each book, they sound rather like four little suites run together.

One bonafide feature of the prelude that Barmotin retained is its brevity. All of them come in at under five minutes in this recording. While some of them employ a sectional form, often he will simply take a short idea for a wander around modulations, seeing how far it will go.

Particularly striking is his graceful way with melody, and moments of disarming directness. The first prelude could be a Gondolier’s song – just a wistful tune over rolling chords, but very memorable at that. No. 13, marked Andante religioso, suggests a tranquil chorale in call-and-response, while no. 3 – Moderato con morbidezza – uses an offbeat echo with a creeping bass line to ghostly effect.

Others are charmingly decorated. No. 8, Allegro con grazia, takes a strait-laced melody and elaborates it with in chromatic triplets. The similarly light and airy opening of no. 2 bends its material through the sort of subtle modulations you’d expect in a Schubert scherzo.

All told, these preludes reveal the querying of keys to be not much more than an academic distraction. As a listener, what stands out is how well-crafted and delightful these little works are. And so comes the third and most important mystery: how on earth it is that they only now have their world premiere recording?

Visit the album website at Grand Piano Records.

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Be Thou My Vision

Slane, harmonised by Erik Routley, The English Hymnal.

I’ve always enjoyed the hymn tune Slane. It’s probably best known as Be Thou My Vision, though I learned it in school as Lord Of All Hopefulness. It’s a traditional Irish tune, and a very beautiful one too.

But what makes a tune beautiful? That’s impossible to answer fully, and your opinions may differ from mine. But if we take time to look closely, we can identify how a tune creates patterns of pitch and rhythm, how it blends unity and variety, and how together this can tell a story.

The basic proportions of this particular hymn are very ordinary: sixteen bars in four-bar phrases, with four lines of lyrics. But while many folk tunes would use formal repetition – AABA for example – all four phrases here are distinct.

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Nonetheless, various elements create internal patterning. Most clearly, the phrases of this tune all have a ‘rhythmic rhyme’ – they end with three crotchets and one minim. This ties the tune together.

Another common feature is the arcing pitch shape. From the opening E flat the melody gradually climbs to the E flat an octave higher at best in the third phrase, and eventually comes back to the low E flat at the end. This kind of form makes intuitive sense to us – it’s like a life in miniature: growth, culmination, and decline, returning to where we started.

So far, so broadly symmetrical, you could say. But there is also a story of transformation here too.

Specifically, there’s a change in the way the melody moves. It uses the pentatonic scale, albeit embellished with a D in the third phrase. But the first two phrases only move by pentatonic step. This makes them easy to sing, with no interval larger than a minor third – but not especially dramatic. The tune seems to be feeling its way.

But after the peak at best, we gain the ability to bound larger intervals. This culminates in a rising arpeggio that takes successive leaps in the final phrase (both waking and sleeping).

In other words, the melody opens up. It moves from tentativeness to confidence. 

Now let’s look at the smaller details in each phrase. Because they reveal just how much a sixteen-bar hymn tune can teach us about intelligent musical construction.

In the first phrase, there are two patterns which help to ground us in the 3/4 metre. The first two bars are identical in rhythm, and a repeated E flat marks out the ‘strong’ first and third bars – Be thou and Lord of.

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At the same time we have quaver couplets, which give the phrase a gently ambling feel. But these quavers have a role to play: whenever they appear, the line changes direction. They make the melody undulate with a little kick of energy.

A playful tension arises: since these quavers are on the last beat of the bar, the switch in direction creates contours that don’t align with the metre. The words emphasise these shapes too – my vision goes down, O Lord of my heart comes back up. (And how wonderful that a third quaver couplet pops up at the upbeat to the second phrase, like a delayed punchline – ‘here I am again’!)

Compare this to the next line. After the upbeat, the ambling quavers disappear. We have four F crotchets – all else but naught. In one sense, this is a development of the repeating note pattern from the first line. But more importantly, it’s withholding movement, and making us wait.

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As the rest of the phrase unfurls out from these Fs, it seems to have a new gravitas – the character of this tune is evolving. But even as the pitch movement is slowly released, the rhythm remains stubbornly plodding. And this is all to better dramatise the climax that comes next.

The third phrase begins with another variation of the repeating note pattern, but now it flows into the longest run of quavers, leading up to the summit. It’s also the first time the ‘leading note’ D is heard. This combination makes a fine expressive flourish – even better, its united with the word best.

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But the height of the climax is followed by a long drop down. This is doubly dramatic, and also balances out the phrase. It’s the start of the melody’s transformation to expansiveness.

And yet there is even more patterning woven in as the melody descends. Look at thought in the day. It uses the same pitches as save that thou art in the previous line. The climb up to the peak has become the climb down.

What’s more, that the dramatic dip at the end of the phrase is another echo – it’s none other than uppermost best thought in, transposed down an octave and rhythmically augmented, blurred into the upbeat for the next phrase.

This is especially poetic, because low pitch combined with slow speed is something we associate with decline and death (think dirges). So there is a little allusion of transience here: the point of highest energy has directly transformed into the lowest ebb.

Finally, with the bounding arpeggio of the fourth phrase, the tune feels liberated. Loose ends can be tied up: the quaver couplets from the first phrase return, but now on the ‘strong’ first beat of the bar at sleeping. The tension between pitch-shapes and metre is emphatically resolved.

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The final couplet also makes a longer rhythmic rhyme with the first line (O Lord of my heart / thy presence my light), cementing an extra sense of circularity. And the repeated-note pattern which started the first three phrases also sneaks in at the very end.

There’s much more that could be said about this hymn, not least its wonderfully sensitive harmonisation by Erik Routley in the English Hymnal, which I absolutely love – it complements the melody beautifully.

This is by no means a total explanation of why Slane is an enduringly popular hymn tune. But I hope I’ve shown some of the ways that, even just with pitch and rhythm, a short melody can create a compelling musical structure.

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