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Unjustly neglected Christmas music from Boughton

As we approach the Christmas period we thought we should share with you an album that we have picked from our shelves and we believe is unjustly neglected. It is Rutland Boughton’s Bethlehem in a a recording featuring the Holst Singers,with music director Stephen Layton, and the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Alan G Melville on the Hyperion label.

Bethlehem is the third of Boughton’s music dramas; it is a choral drama adapted from the Coventry Nativity Play. It was composed in 1915 and first performed on 28 December in Street, Somerset. The work was an immediate success and was performed at successive Christmas festivals and after publication in 1920 it gained popularity with amateur choral societies and was performed throughout the English speaking world. It is a work of simplicity and sincerity and was dedicated, in the score, ‘To my children, and all children’. Each section of the drama is rounded off with the singing of a popular carol. Music from another time perhaps; but music that is still capable of producing enjoyment.

Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte – Work No. 69 in our collection

Maurice Ravel (07.03.1875 – 28.12.1937) was a French composer, pianist and conductor. During the second and third decades of the twentieth century he was considered to be the greatest living composer in France. Although he was a very stylish dresser, Ravel was a small, slender man, without a particularly imposing presence. Much of his music, like the man himself, is written on a small scale.

The original (piano) version of the Pavane pour une infante défunte was Ravel’s first popular success, premiered in 1902, it was played frequently thereafter and Ravel came to be held in high esteem within the salons of Paris. Although Ravel himself was not a great pianist, pianists admire the way his writing “fits the hand”. Neither was he a particularly good conductor, yet there are few composers who are better at orchestration. He orchestrated many of his piano pieces and also the works of others; perhaps most famously Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which remains  a standard of the repertoire.

Ravel is perhaps best known for his Boléro. He wrote many more fine works including Miroirs, 5 pieces for piano (which includes the well known Alborada del gracioso), the showy Tzigane, the exuberant and optimistic Piano Concerto in G major, the choreographic poem La Valse and the piano piece Gaspard de la nuit.

It is well nigh impossible to select a best work by Ravel but we have chosen to add his Pavane pour une infante défunte to our collection in both the original piano version and in the later orchestration prepared in 1910. This miniature piece expresses a nostalgic enthusiasm for Spanish customs and sensibilities.

The orchestral version is scored for two flutes, oboe, two clarinets (in B-flat), two bassoons, two horns, harp, and strings. This version is in my opinion an improvement on the original piano piece, but listen and decide for yourself.

There is a wsell-judged orchestral version performed by George Szell with his Cleveland Orchestra.

For a piano version one need look no further than Angela Hewitt’s fine account of the work in a first-rate 2 CD set containing all of Ravel’s wonderful solo piano music.

View the other works in our collection.

An unmissable collection of carols from King’s College

100 Years of Nine Lessons & Carols

Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury, Sir David Willcocks, Philip Ledger

This CD is not exactly 100 years of Nine Lessons and Carols¹ but it is the 100th anniversary of the first service of nine lessons and carols in King’s College, Cambridge devised by Eric Milner-White in 1918². What we actually have is a fitting tribute to this long history of carol singing within the unique acoustic of King’s College Chapel. The first part comprises of 16 new recordings under the direction of Stephen Cleobury. The second part contains a wide range of carols taken from live BBC recordings between 1958 and 2017 and include carols under the direction of not only Stephen Cleobury but also his successors Philip Ledger and David Willcocks.

The new recordings include a near perfect mix of family favourites and some of the inspired new works commissioned by Stephen Cleobury all performed to the high standard that we have come to expect from this esteemed choir. The second CD once again has a balance of well-known and not quite so familiar carols. Sadly given the title of the release there are no performances under the direction of Boris Ord (1929-1957) or of Harold Darke (Ord’s stand-in during World War II). However what is does is provide an interesting comparison of styles of performance across the last four decades of the twentieth century.

Overall a most welcome addition to the flurry of seasonal issues that will no doubt bring pleasure to many during the build up to Christmas. Highly recommended.

iClassical rating: 

¹ There is a splendid CD of a full Service of Nine Lessons and Carols recorded between 12-14 December 1998 in Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge available from Warner Classics.

² The service quickly became very popular and was first broadcast on radio in 1928. Since 1931 it has been broadcast on radio every years since and is currently enjoyed by millions of Radio 4 listeners on Christmas Eve. Note that the TV broadcast Carols from King’s is pre-recorded in early or mid-December and then shown on Christmas Eve in the UK – it is not the actual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

Remembering Ivan March – music lover and critic

It is with some sadness that we report the passing of the eminent music critic Ivan March (aged 91) at the beginning of this month. He will be sadly missed.

Readers of a certain age will no doubt remember Ivan March, who along with Edward Greenfield and Robert Layton, co-founded The Penguin Stereo Record Guide. This was an indispensable source of reference for many lovers of classical music and copies could be found in all good classical record stores.

As technologies changed this later became The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs.

A changed title to match changing times!

Prior to his involvement in the above publication he had founded the Long Playing Record Library which loaned LPs of classical music to members (for a fee). He also acted as a consultant to public libraries in the mid 1960s as they sought to add long playing records to the books that they traditionally loan.