Tuesday, July 22, 2008

English Music

For the last two weeks or so, Joshua and I have been listening to four discs of English music whenever we have had the chance, a preparation of sorts for our upcoming trip.

English string music by Bridge, Butterworth and Parry, performed by the English String Orchestra under William Boughton, on the Nimbus label

Elgar’s Violin Concerto, performed by Pinchas Zukerman and the Saint Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, on the RCA label

British band music by Holst and Vaughan Williams, performed by the Eastman Wind Ensemble under Frederick Fennell, on the Mercury Living Presence label

Anglican Church Music by Herbert Howells, performed by The Choir Of King’s College, Cambridge, under Stephen Cleobury, on the Argo label

The Nimbus disc consists of Frank Bridge’s Suite For String Orchestra, three compositions by George Butterworth—The Banks Of Green Willow, Two English Idylls and A Shropshire Lad—and Hubert Parry’s Lady Radnor’s Suite.

The disc is a disappointment. None of the compositions is strong, and only a master musician can bring these wilted pieces to life. William Boughton is not such a musician.

Boughton was the virtual house conductor for the Nimbus label during its short-lived existence. Boughton recorded for Nimbus a wide array of English music with Birmingham-based pickup ensembles before the label halted its recording activity and Boughton sank into oblivion. I have several of Boughton’s Nimbus discs, and they are, on the whole, a pretty unimpressive lot. It is understandable that, outside the Nimbus recording studio, his career went nowhere (he currently is conductor of the nonprofessional New Haven Symphony).

A little over a year ago, Josh and I listened to another of Boughton’s discs, orchestral music of Benjamin Britten, and that particular disc was one of the least impressive Britten discs I have ever heard. I wrote about that disc on April 1, 2007.

The Nimbus disc of English string music parallels last year’s Nimbus disc of Britten's music in that the performances lack polish, drive, energy and character.

Frank Bridge is remembered today, if he is remembered at all, as the teacher of Benjamin Britten. His Suite For String Orchestra is skillfully written but has nothing else to recommend it. Hubert Parry’s Lady Radnor’s Suite is a little more interesting, if for no other reason than it was inspired by Baroque dances, but it is a pretty faceless and unimaginative composition all the same.

Many Englishmen believe that George Butterworth might have turned into an important composer had he not been killed in his youth (he died in the trenches of France during World War I). The Banks Of Green Willow and A Shropshire Lad are undeniably charming compositions, and they capture the beauty and poignancy of the English countryside, but they are hardly major pieces and they do not display an individual voice in the process of emerging. Butterworth’s pieces are pastoral compositions, offering the musical equivalent of paintings of the English countryside. Such works have never been able to export themselves beyond the British Isles and have never acquired non-British advocates (although Carlos Kleiber, for some reason, liked to conduct Butterworth’s English Idyll No. 1).

If these pieces are to work, they must receive magical treatment. There is no magic in the Nimbus performances.

The RCA recording of the Edward Elgar Violin Concerto, from 1993, was Pinchas Zukerman’s second recording of the work. It is the only recording ever made of the Elgar Violin Concerto involving an American violinist, an American orchestra and an American conductor.

The performance is dull beyond belief. Zukerman does not appear even to be remotely interested in the proceedings—he plays the notes, as written, but he displays all the vitality, emotion and commitment of a telephone operator. His work here is mere noodling, pure and simple. Someone should have poked Zukerman with a cattle prod while this recording was being made. I am surprised the release of this disc was even approved.

Zukerman made a fine recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto for Sony in London in 1976 under Daniel Barenboim, and anyone who wants to hear Zukerman in Elgar is far better served with his earlier effort. This remake is a total dud.

Leonard Slatkin does not help matters. The performance lacks “Englishness”—there is no “Englishness” in the orchestral sound and there is no “Englishness” in the music-making—and Slatkin and the orchestra, like Zukerman, simply go through the motions. Of Elgarian melancholy and nobility there is none.

There is a brief and irrelevant coupling, Elgar’s Salut D’Amour in its orchestral guise. In Zukerman’s hands, it does not surmount its inherent salon-music nature.

The Elgar Violin Concerto is a very great work, but it is a supremely difficult work to bring off. I have never heard an adequate account of the score, and the finest recorded versions of the work—Kyung-Wha Chung on Decca and Zukerman I on Sony—are far from perfect (I have not heard the recent Hilary Hahn).

Josh and I chose to listen to Zukerman II on RCA because we had heard an immensely disappointing performance of the Elgar Violin Concerto back in April, and Josh wanted to hear the work again, but in capable hands (I wrote about that particular concert on April 25, 2008). We deliberately chose a modern recording with good sound—and the sound on the RCA disc is excellent indeed—but I had forgotten how listless was the Zukerman remake. I doubt I shall forget in future.

The disc of British band music includes Gustav Holst’s Military Suites Nos. 1 and 2 and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite and Toccata Marziale. (The disc also includes compositions by American composers Peter Menin, Vincent Persichetti and Owen Reed, but we did not listen to the American works on the disc.)

The Holst pieces, written early in the 20th Century, virtually define the band repertory in the English-speaking world. There was no serious repertory for wind ensemble before Holst wrote these amazing pieces, but there has been a proliferation of excellent pieces ever since.

For whatever reason, the wind ensemble is taken seriously only in the U.S. and the U.K. and, consequently, it is primarily American and British composers who have written fine pieces for winds. French, German and Russian composers have more or less ignored the medium (although Paul Hindemith wrote a fine symphony for concert band during his U.S. years), and yet the wind ensemble continues to thrive in the U.S. and Britain.

At least one composer, Alfred Reed, got rich writing for wind ensemble. His 1944 “Russian Christmas Music” may be the single most profitable piece of concert music written in the 20th Century. His royalties for that single piece, from Japan alone, are mind-boggling.

On the Mercury Living Presence disc, the finest composition is the Holst Military Suite No. 1. The Suite has three movements, all using the same melodic cell, and yet Holst created one of his greatest masterpieces from the material. The work has a unity, a variety of expression and an economy of means that remain startling after a century of exposure. I think it is the finest composition ever written for military band, yet to be equaled.

In comparison, the Military Suite No. 2, in four movements, is much more conventional (and much easier for nonprofessional musicians to play). The second Suite is based upon English folk song. It is pleasant, tuneful and zippy, but not the work of imagination, originality and power its predecessor and companion was.

Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite, likewise, is based upon folk song. It is a nice piece, full of good tunes, but it lacks the harmonic invention, rhythmic interest and wizardry of orchestration of Holst’s pieces.

Vaughan Williams’s brief Toccata Marziale, a makeweight, is an empty piece, too opaquely orchestrated to boot. It seems never to come off, and it does not come off here.

This particular Mercury Living Presence disc was one of the most famous recordings of the early LP era. Issued in 1955, it was the first disc recorded by the Eastman Wind Ensemble and Frederick Fennell. The disc was an immediate best seller and has acquired legendary status over the years. Some commentators insist that these performances have never been bettered.

In fact, the Fennell/Eastman performances HAVE been bettered. The performances of the London Wind Orchestra under Dennis Wick on the ASV label, recorded in 1978, are markedly superior to the Fennell/Eastman efforts. The London ensemble is tighter, with purer intonation and a vastly superior sound quality, and plays with much greater characterization and much more rhythmic flexibility than these old Fennell/Eastman performances. The Wick/London performances are brilliant; the Fennell/Eastman performances, in comparison, are sturdy.

The difference is most apparent in the most difficult of the works, Holst’s Military Suite No. 1. The London performance has a firmer grasp of the counterpoint that underlies the score, there is a wider, more sophisticated range of timbre and volume, and the players know how to spring the rhythms of the second and third movements exquisitely. The Wick/London performance is thrilling; the Fennell/Eastman performance is serviceable.

The Argo disc of Herbert Howells church music is titled “A Celebration Of Herbert Howells”. Many of the compositions on the disc were written for The Choir Of King’s College, Cambridge, the choir used on this recording.

The disc includes psalms and anthems, and music for Matins, Evensong and Communion Service, as well as works for solo organ (the organ works are divided between Stephen Cleobury and Peter Barlow). All of these works may be inserted into Anglican Service, and most of the compositions are only a few minutes’ duration.

Josh and I selected this disc because we will be visiting several British churches and cathedrals, and attending Anglican Service, and we thought it would be appropriate to hear Anglican church music from one of the 20th Century’s most esteemed practitioners in the field.

In an Anglican Service setting, these short, tidy works no doubt serve their purpose honorably, leavening the readings and providing worshippers with an opportunity to pray or contemplate or gaze upon some interesting feature of the church structure while the choir sings its portions of the Service.

As a home listening experience, however, these works are some of the blandest music ever written, bereft of all musical interest, lacking a single satisfactory—let alone memorable—compositional idea. I doubt that I have ever heard more generic, banal works. The music is one part Gerald Finzi and four parts water, dull and deadening stuff indeed, music of the most astonishing triteness. It is easy to understand why this music has never been successfully exported beyond the British Isles.

It is almost painful to listen to this bloodless music for more than a few minutes at a time because it is so startlingly unimaginative. It single-handedly supports (and perhaps even proves) the notion, held among many, that the British are not a musical people.

The Howells disc made Josh’s teeth grate.

It simply made me numb.


  1. Zukerman lost it years ago. I don't know why he bothers to keep going.

    Wikipedia says the Holst Second is more difficult than the Holst First, by the way.

    I find it hard to believe that Alfred Reed, whoever he is, received more royalties for a single piece than Stravinsky, R. Strauss or Ravel.

  2. I don't object to Howells. He may not have been another Byrd or Tallis, but within his niche he was very capable.

    Boughton is not big here, either. He spends most of his time in the States, leading small regional groups.

    It is possible that Butterworth would have turned into a major talent. No one will ever know.

  3. Dan:

    Wikipedia is wrong about the Holst. The Second Military Suite is well within the capability level of the typical high school sophomore. The First Military Suite requires professional musicians to make its effect.

    Reed's most famous piece has sold hundreds of thousands of full scores, with parts, all over the world for over sixty years. Schools probably have to replace their parts every three, four or five years. Every high school in the country probably maintains the score (and parts) in its active music library, and plays the piece at annual Christmas concerts at two-, three- or four-year intervals.

    Since the piece is performed most often in amateur performance, the royalty is built into the cost of the score and parts, which is not insubstantial.

    The work is also part of the official high-school curriculum in Japan, which accounts for an astounding number of copies sold.

    Reed is famous for saying he made a mint on the piece, and could have retired on the piece had he wanted to (keep in mind that he long worked in music publishing, and was highly successful in the field).


  4. Calvin:

    I think Herbert Howells was less talented and less important than Lennox Berkeley, if that says anything.


  5. Late to the discussion again.

    I played "Russian Christmas Music" in high school. It was the most difficult piece we played when I was in high school. If it was one iota more difficult, it would be too difficult for high school bands to play.

    We also played the second of the Holst suites. It was a snap. Only the tricky rhythms of the second movement posed any problems. I don't think, however, we would have been able to handle the first Holst suite.

    Andrew, I have never heard the ASV recording you mention. Is it better than the Cleveland/Telarc recording? I know that old Mercury recording, but the newer Telarc is better. Is the ASV better than the Telarc?

    Andrew, are you aware that Slatkin was in charge of the Cleveland Orchestra's summer activities at Blossom for several years? He was put in charge because he works quickly, not because he has any depth. For the summer concerts, Cleveland will have one, occasionally two, rehearsals for a full program, a quick run-through of the pieces and that's it. Such a schedule is ideal for Slatkin. Slatkin would not be able to obtain better results in four rehearsals, so he was perfect for the situation.

    The guy's a hack. I'm not surprised that Elgar recording is poor.

    Have you looked at the Detroit Symphony programs for the coming season? They are pretty bad, but I don't know what hand Slatkin had in the programming.

    I'm surprised Detroit couldn't get anyone better than Slatkin. It will be Neeme Jarvi, Act II--lots of skimming over the top of scores, lots of facile interpretations, lots of gimmicks, nothing probing, nothing challenging, nothing memorable.

    At least Detroit passed on Andrew Davis and Mark Wigglewsorth. That was wise. But Leonard Slatkin is not the answer to Detroit's problems.