Colin Hand (1929-2015)
The Music of Colin Hand
rec. 2018-2021, various locations
PRIMA FACIE PFCD192 
I did not know much about the composer or his music. For much of the background to this review, I am indebted to Andrew Mayes’s excellent liner notes.
Colin Hand was born in Winterton, North Lincolnshire. Despite youthful exploits at viola playing in the school orchestra and some early composition, he was to become a biochemist. Yet, a musical career beckoned. After study with the organist Dr Melville Cook, he went on to gain a Bachelor of Music degree from Trinity College, Dublin. Much of his subsequent career involved lecturing in further education and then as an examiner for Trinity College of Music, London. Throughout his profession, he composed, reaching a staggering 260 opus numbers. His catalogue includes orchestral, choral, organ, chamber music and songs. He also had an interest in devising and arranging teaching material. In the 1970s he was awarded a PhD for his study of the Renaissance composer John Taverner. The last years of his life were spent at Sibsey near Boston, Lincolnshire, where he participated in the musical life of St Botolph’s Church, the famous Boston Stump. Colin Hand died on 6 August 2015.
The Petite Suite Champêtre, written for the “pioneer” recorder player Carl Dolmetsch, was originally published for recorder and piano. In 1968, Hand arranged it for recorder, violin, cello and harpsichord. The Suite strikes a subtle balance between the baroque dance exemplars and a touch of contemporary spice. My only problem is that it is too short! The four movements together take less than five minutes.
The Three Songs to poems by John Fletcher were completed in 2005, though first drafts were apparently made in 1954. The scoring is for soprano, recorder and piano. The lively Hymn to Pan extols the god’s virtues, whilst the introspective Aspatia’s Song is deeply moving. The final number God Lyaeus is a rollocking bacchante.
The Concerto Cantico is a longish three-movement work for recorder and string quartet. It was commissioned by Dolmetsch for his 1984 Wigmore Hall Concert. Hand withdrew it after the recital. It was not until 2010 that it finally re-emerged at the behest of the present recorderist John Turner. It is an attractive piece, although I agree with the liner notes’ suggestion that the first movement is “perhaps a little protracted”. The slow Moderato movement is gentle, but a bit too like what has preceded it. The bouncy Finale is a joy from end to end, with its sudden unexpected last note. Once again, this is a good balance of tradition and soft modernity.
The Three Lieder, a setting of texts by Vivian Locke Ellis (1878-1950), are deeply felt. In fact, Hand believed that they represented a step in his journey to becoming a “more romantic composer”. I have not read any of Ellis’s poetry before. These three poems, Dark Sunset, Waves and This Sad Serenity, are contemplative and sad, but not without a degree of passion. Lesley-Jane Rogers gives a commanding performance of these fine examples of a songwriter’s art.
Locke Ellis is also the inspiration for the Angelus. Here it is given in two versions, as a “vocalise” for tenor recorder and piano, and as a setting for soprano and piano of the underlying poem. The instrumental edition is dark and brooding – a beautiful little gem. The song is equally ominous, with a perfect balance between words and music.
Colin Hand’s Quartet op.252a was originally Variations on the Triad op.252. The revision is dedicated to Edgar Hunt (1909-2006), a key player in the revival of the recorder. The Quartet is in six short, well balanced movements. After a dramatic opening Allegretto ritmico, there is a spirited scherzo. The heart of the work is a pensive siciliano. Almost inevitably, a cheeky Jig follows, before the recorder and piano give more than a hint of the blues. The finale balances energy with reflection to bring this fascinating work to a conclusion.
Thomas Hardy’s poems were set as the Three Bird Songs for soprano, recorder and piano. I guess that the key to this short cycle is the use of the recorder to mimic the language of the birds. This clever conceit gives interest to this evergreen poetry. Satisfyingly, Hand does not overplay the recorder descant. The three songs are I watched a Blackbird, The Darkling Thrush and Proud Songsters.
The booklet says that in 1970 Colin Hand “took delivery of a small spinet which he had ordered from the Dolmetsch workshop”. It would eventually inspire several pieces such as A Badinage for Joseph to play (1982) and Five Portraits (2008). The Sonatella on this programme is very short, under three minutes. This is pastiche, but with a twist here and there. It is appropriate that it is played here on Hand’s spinet.
Colin Hand wrote his delightful Two Songs to French Poems to the texts found in a volume of short French poems which his wife had used when teaching some fifty years earlier. They are set for soprano, recorder and piano. The two songs are Dimanche and Le moulin à vent.
As an organ enthusiast, I think that the most impressive work on this disc is In Nomine 6: The Taverner Sonata. It was dedicated to David Wright, organist of St Botolph’s Boston. The liner notes explain that the formal structure includes an Introduction, a Theme, Seven Variations and a Finale, all based on a plainsong melody found in John Taverner’s Mass Gloria Tibi Trinitas. The piece exploits a variety of organ sonorities and calls for skilful registrations. The Sonata was revised in 2004, but Andrew Mayes believes that the original version is “more effective”. It is this version that is played here, in Tom Winpenny’s accomplished performance on the organ of St Albans Cathedral, Hertfordshire.
I cannot fault anything on this disc. All the performances are committed, and appear ideal. The sound quality of the recording is perfect. I have already mentioned the outstanding liner notes.
This is a great introduction to the largely forgotten music of Colin Hand. The disc only gives a taste of his achievement. Conceivably, further albums of his work will be forthcoming.
Works and performers
Petite Suite Champêtre, op. 67 (1960s)
John Turner (recorder), Emma McGrath (violin), Heather Bills (cello), Harvey Davies (harpsichord)
Three Songs to poems by John Fletcher, op. 91a (2005):
Hymn to Pan
Concerto Cantico, op. 112 (1984)
John Turner (recorder), David Routledge, Simon Gilks (violins), Steven Burnard (viola), Svetlana Mochalova (cello)
Three Lieder, op. 258 (2009):
This Sad Serenity
Angelus for tenor recorder and piano, op. 251 (2004)
Angelus for high voice and piano, op. 251a (2004)
Quartet, op. 252a (2004)
John Turner (recorders), Emma McGrath (violin), Heather Bills (cello), Harvey Davies (piano)
Three Bird Songs, op. 259 (2005):
I watched a Blackbird
The Darkling Thrush
Sonatella, op. 265 for harpsichord or virginal (2009)
Two Songs to French Poems, op. 267 (2009):
La dimanche (Sunday)
Le moulin à vent (The Windmill)
In Nomine 6: The Taverner Sonata, op. 127 (1988)
Tom Winpenny (organ)
All songs: Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano), John Turner (recorders), Harvey Davies (piano/spinet)