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Hyperion Records

CDA67420 - Coleridge-Taylor & Somervell: Violin Concertos

Recording details: February 2004
Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: February 2005
DISCID: 410F3D06
Total duration: 64 minutes 40 seconds


'If Anthony Marwood, Martyn Brabbins and the Scottish players learnt the works especially for this recording, then they've utterly fooled me. Totally at one with the idiom, Marwood's unflashy, sweet-toned playing lends just the right note of enchantment and authenticity to these forgotten scores. In short, this is Hyperion at its best' (Gramophone)

'Anthony Marwood is absolutely reliable in rhythm as well as pitching, though he still loosens up at appropriate moments; and Marwood's faster tempo for the slow movement, and more relaxed speeds for the finale, bring out more of their charm … Marwood is again the complete virtuoso in another assured and enjoyable performance' (BBC Music Magazine)

'For those who might prefer to hear reflections on the violin by a less frequently heard composer to discovering yet another violinist's attempt to comb out detail to personalize a war-horse recorded a hundred times over, Hyperion's series, and this installment in particular, should be especially welcome; for others, it could serve as evidence of highly intelligent life beyond the standard repertoire. Warmly recommended to listeners of all types' (Fanfare, USA)

The Romantic Violin Concerto
Coleridge-Taylor & Somervell: Violin Concertos
Adagio  [6'44]
Allegro giocoso  [7'47]

Hyperion’s record of the month for February is the fifth volume in our thrilling – and acclaimed – Romantic Violin Concerto series.

Born in Croydon in 1875, the son of a Sierra Leone-born doctor and English mother, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s childhood was a tough one. Yet, aged 15, he entered the Royal College of Music and studied composition with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. The interest generated by the music of ‘this new black Mahler’ soon put him on the musical map, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast being described as ‘one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history’. In 1904, at a time when it was still extremely hard for black Americans to fulfil their cultural aspirations, he accepted an invitation to America and found himself hailed as an iconic figure. Throughout his short life he found his role as composer complemented by one as political activist fighting against racial prejudice.

Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto is a highly attractive, captivating work. Comparable in sound with the violin works of Dvořák and Elgar, this piece is piled high with memorable tunes and melodies.

Arthur Somervell is best known today as a composer of songs. Very much a ‘child of his time’, he was taught by Stanford and Parry, and served for many years as Inspector of Music to the Board of Education.

The Violin Concerto is his last extended work and was written in 1930. Heart-warming and pastoral, this is the concerto’s first recording.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Croydon on 15 August 1875. He was the son of a Sierra Leone-born doctor who returned to Africa when he was young, after which his English mother remarried. His childhood was thus characterized by his being a black child of a white family. The violin was very much his key to a musical living in his youth. He studied the instrument with Joseph Beckwith in Croydon, and he sang in local churches. Picked out as a talented child, he was taken up by a local benefactor, Colonel Walters, and at the age of fifteen he became a violin student of Henry Holmes at the Royal College of Music. When he was sixteen his anthem In Thee, O Lord was published by Novello, the first of five anthems published in his mid-teens. He was so prolific that at the age of eighteen he was the pianist in a local concert of his own chamber music.

He was a favourite composition student of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, with whom he studied for five years. It was Coleridge-Taylor who successfully responded to Stanford’s challenge to his students to write a chamber work which did not show the influence of Brahms. Coleridge-Taylor produced his Clarinet Quintet, which—if not Brahmsian—was certainly influenced by Dvorák. Stanford was enthusiastic, ‘Ye’ve done it me b’hoy’, and took it to Joachim in Berlin. At the age of twenty Coleridge-Taylor was already on the map.

Elgar suggested to the Gloucester Three Choirs that they should commission Coleridge-Taylor for the 1898 festival. Coleridge-Taylor responded with his orchestral Ballade in A minor, and the appearance of a black composer in the cathedral generated much interest, with a remarkably cordial reception and wide press coverage. Heard again at one of Mann’s concerts at Crystal Palace on 4 November it was once more well received, and the following year Dan Godfrey programmed it twice at Bournemouth. A week after the Crystal Palace performance Coleridge-Taylor’s standing was established for all time with English audiences when Stanford conducted the first performance of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast at the RCM. The press reception was huge, and within two years he had produced two further parts of Hiawatha; one of the early performances of the complete score came at the 1900 Birmingham Festival when he had a standing ovation, in contrast to the mixed reception accorded Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius which had its imperfect first performance at the same festival. Unfortunately, hard up, he sold the copyright of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast to his publisher outright, for £15, unaware that he had written what was to be the most popular British choral work of its day. The vocal score sold over 140,000 copies before the First World War, and it was performed repeatedly by every choral society in the country. If only he had taken a royalty he could have lived in comfort. As it was he was scratching around for a living all his life.

He therefore accepted every opportunity to write music for ready cash, and this included a large number of salon pieces, often in the popular dance forms of the day, especially the waltz. These pieces were endlessly arranged for the piano and for the violin, for tea-shop trio, for brass band and for orchestra. His earliest published work in this vein appeared soon after he became a student of Stanford when in 1903 Schott published his Suite de pièces pour violon et orgue ou piano, Op 3. There followed many other works for the violin: Two Romantic Pieces and a Ballade in D minor for violin and orchestra in 1895, Two Gipsy Movements, Gipsy Suite, Valse Caprice, a Ballade in C minor, the Legende Op 14, and two Romances, one of them for violin and orchestra. Many of these emphasized the violin’s lyrical qualities, but he also produced violin encores in which the soloist could demonstrate his virtuosity, including an orchestral scherzo, the Hemo Dance, written in 1902, which was published for violin and piano. He also made various arrangements of spirituals for violin and piano, and a transcription of the Allegretto grazioso from Dvorák’s G major Symphony. Among other violin works were the Three Hiawatha Sketches, Op 16, for violin and piano, written in 1896 and published the following year; Four African Dances, Op 58, published in 1904; and a substantial Violin Sonata in D minor, Op 28, which did not become known until taken up by the celebrated English violinist Albert Sammons after Coleridge-Taylor’s death and published in Sammons’ edition in 1917. Even a popular orchestral work such as his well known Petite suite de concert, Op 77, of 1911 appeared in a version for violin and piano.

Coleridge-Taylor’s musical career was short, for he died on 1 September 1912, but in the dozen or so years of his maturity he produced a succession of cantatas for the music festivals which, until the First World War, were a feature of every summer. However, he never repeated the success of Hiawatha. Of the cantatas that followed only two have been revived in modern times: Meg Blane, a Grace Darling story of shipwreck with some gloriously vivid sea music, first seen at Sheffield in 1902; and A Tale of Old Japan, first performed at Queen’s Hall in 1911. The others have probably been unheard for three quarters of a century: The Blind Girl of Castel-Cuille (1901), The Atonement (1903), Five Choral Ballads (1904), Kubla Khan (1905) and Endymion’s Dream (1910). His later orchestral music included several scores in which he explored African tunes and rhythms in the context of European concert music, doubtless taking his cue from Dvorák. They included the Toussaint l’Ouverture (1901), the Symphonic Variations on an African Air (1906) and the Rhapsodic Dance The Bamboula (1910).

Coleridge-Taylor also developed a career as a conductor, at festivals and with local choral societies and orchestras, the latter exhausting for him to slog through week after week as they involved constant travelling to rehearsals. In 1910 he was invited to Litchfield, Connecticut, to conduct at the Litchfield Festival, where he was described as ‘the Black Mahler’. Coleridge-Taylor did have a regular teaching job for much of his life, lecturing in composition at Trinity College of Music from 1903 and then also at the Guildhall School of Music from 1910. Nevertheless, his was a life of grind, even if largely congenial drudgery, possibly the reason he did not survive pneumonia in 1912.

In the United Kingdom Coleridge-Taylor seems to have been widely followed for his music and for his friendly and sympathetic personality in musical circles, no matter how humble. Yet when he accepted the first of three visits to the USA in 1904, as a conductor, he found himself hailed as a black musician, an iconic figure and a sudden power in the land. The Washington correspondent of The Georgia Baptist reported: ‘When Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, of London, walked upon the platform of Convention Hall last Wednesday night, and made his bow to four thousand people, the event marked an epoch in the history of the Negro race of the world.’ In Washington DC a Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society was founded for black singers. His growing exploration of his cultural heritage was explored in various works which quarried African melodic and rhythmic material—though heavily disguised for an Edwardian popular audience. In this he was stimulated and encouraged by the black American poet P L Dunbar, whom he met in 1897.

Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto was his last major work, written for Maud Powell, who was the soloist at the first performance at the Norfolk Connecticut Music Festival on 4 June 1912, but not published until later the same year, after his death. On the same day a local performance was given in Croydon by W J Read—not Elgar’s ‘Billy’ Reed—for the purpose of establishing copyright in the UK. The formal British premiere was given at the ‘Proms’ at Queen’s Hall, on 8 October 1912. The soloist was Arthur Catterall and the conductor Sir Henry Wood. It was five weeks after the composer’s death, and if for no other reason it made a great impression. It was heard in the USA, Maud Powell having five dates with it in the following season, including New York and Chicago, but in Europe, where the composer himself had been booked to conduct it in Berlin and Dresden, it seems to have been quietly forgotten, apart from a performance in Bournemouth in 1913 with a local violinist. The work was not revived until a concert to mark the centenary of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1980, when it was played by Sergiu Schwartz.

Coleridge-Taylor originally set out to write a concerto based on spirituals but was unhappy with his first attempts and eventually wrote the present concerto using original thematic material. Yet there are melodic and harmonic resonances of Dvorák’s American works about it, not least in the first movement.

The remarkably large-scale opening movement, Allegro maestoso, is a classical sonata movement, although the composer’s fondness for constantly exploring passing episodes and interpolating decoration for his soloist gives it something of a rhapsodic feel. The opening theme is immediately taken up by the soloist, each phrase of the theme decorated by Coleridge-Taylor’s inserted falling and rising arpeggios of increasing complexity, much in the manner of his popular violin encores. This is contrasted with the charming dotted second subject, Vivace, which is used extensively. Eventually the music reaches the cadenza, which the violin plays over a sustained timpani roll on D, the soloist mainly toying with the dotted rhythm. A mellifluous 2/4 Allegro molto leads to the end, the soloist now playing the first subject with the fullest tone.

The charming nocturnal slow movement (Andante semplice) in 6/8 is almost completely lyrical. The opening muted strings immediately set the mood, as the violin presents the first theme, the decorated violin line weaving an enchanted reverie with the orchestra. The second section (Andantino) is heralded by an orchestral tutti which grandly introduces a new theme before the violin takes it up. The finale might be called a free rondo since the outlines of a rondo are present, but Coleridge-Taylor is constantly happy to explore little contrasted vignettes within the music, or follow his rhapsodic inclination where it takes him. Here much of the orchestration is very lightly applied, not least at the beginning. At one point there is a passing moment of drama as the maestoso first theme of the first movement briefly thunders out, and there is a passing reference to the slow movement. The work ends with the opening theme of the first movement now rhythmically altered, and at the end the opening rhythm is heard once more.

We tend to remember Arthur Somervell as a composer of songs, being one of the first to set Housman’s A Shropshire Lad as well as the song cycle from Tennyson’s Maud. Yet although his output was not large, we might also remember him for a variety of choral works that still wait to be revived, not least his 1907 setting of Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. His first orchestral work, an orchestral ballad called Helen of Kirkonnell, dates from 1893, while his Thalassa Symphony of 1912 is remembered for its In Memoriam slow movement for Captain Scott subtitled ‘Killed in Action’, and was first conducted by Nikisch in 1912. The Violin Concerto is his last extended work.

Somervell, from a public school background (Uppingham), studied with Stanford at Cambridge and then in Berlin and the Royal College of Music. Associated with the RCM he remained a private pupil of Parry. (He preceded Samuel Coleridge-Taylor at the RCM, where he was already teaching when Coleridge-Taylor arrived there in 1890.) Somervell’s reputation derives from his long-standing later position as Inspector of Music to the Board of Education, where he remained until 1928. He was knighted for his services there the following year. Thus professionally he was a senior civil servant, with a house off fashionable Kensington Square near to Parry’s.

Somervell’s Violin Concerto was written in 1930 for Adila Fachiri, the sister of Jelly d’Aranyi and great-niece of Joachim. (Gustav Holst wrote his Double Violin Concerto for her.) Somervell’s concerto was first performed by the Reid Orchestra in Edinburgh in 1932, when owing to the indisposition of Donald Francis Tovey it was conducted by his factotum Mary Grierson, and was apparently well received. Tovey, however, managed to contribute one of his celebrated programme notes. The BBC Symphony Orchestra broadcast the concerto in February 1933 under the baton of Adrian Boult and it was quickly heard in various provincial concerts including Liverpool and twice in Bournemouth. Although it was published in piano reduction and full score (dated 1933, designated ‘3rd score’) it was then forgotten until this recording.

This is a straightforward and heart-warming work in three fairly conventional movements. While Somervell was a product of a Germanic musical aesthetic, there is an English feel to this music which Tovey ascribed to ‘the treatment of the minor mode [which] is tinged with the Doric and Aeolian of English and kindred folk-song’. Just occasionally the violin’s melodic line takes a turn that brings Elgar to mind, while the more pastoral episodes have a certain Vaughan Williamsy feel. The work opens with an extended orchestral tutti in which two themes are heard, both of them elaborated over a wide time-span. But the violin soon takes over, and the soloist is first heard unaccompanied with a soaring cadenza-like passage. Eventually we hear the second of the themes from the introduction which is then elaborated. The first figuration of the opening theme generates other themes later in the movement. Perhaps the most characteristic and cherishable aspect of Somervell’s writing is the way his lyrical themes extend and are transformed in a freely flowing texture. When we eventually reach the cadenza it comes as something of a shock to find that we have been going for over thirteen minutes. This is not assertive music, and the middle section of the cadenza is accompanied very softly by the strings. The return of the orchestra is molto tranquillo as the violin soars.

If the first movement is personal to Somervell, the slow movement, Adagio, is even more so, yet without using anything extreme by way of musical language. The movement opens with the wind alone leading into the main theme, a song which the soloist expands into an extended tune accompanied by strings. Counter-melodies, particularly on the horn, give a wonderful romantic ambience to the music, like a vision of a summer’s day. The music is largely poetic in its haunting vision, and especially in the middle section the violin’s flow is very much of its time in British music. This is a similar vision to those of the young Finzi and Milford, except that at this date Somervell is technically more accomplished.

The rondo Allegro giocoso finale is a bucolic dance. For the second group, as the music returns easily from F to the key of G, Tovey has a wonderful simile, describing ‘the orchestra seeming to stretch itself in a slow yawn while the solo violin blows smoke-rings’. There are no passing clouds, and after an outburst for the whole orchestra the soloist scampers for the end, the descending arpeggios surely revealing a composer who loved the Mendelssohn concerto.

Lewis Foreman © 2005

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