The Whistling Book: English Music for Recorder and Piano
John Turner (recorder)
Peter Lawson (piano)
Richard Whalley (prepared piano)
DIVINE ART DDA21241 [66+54]
This double album, featuring sixteen composers, may be of more interest to performers than to listeners. It appears to be a “tidying up” exercise: the blurb says that most of the works are included in the catalogue of recorder and piano sheet music at the Manchester music shop/publisher Forsyth Brothers Ltd. Some pieces seem to be appropriate for teaching purposes, or for younger players who begin to build a repertoire. Most will be unfamiliar territory to many listeners, and perhaps even to recorderists. Stylistically, they range from the naïve to the pretentiously avant-garde; most of them fit into the tonal, approachable, fun and enjoyable category. So, I think that its greatest use will be as a thesaurus for instrumentalists who seek to extend and enhance their repertoire.
Many of the works here are dated between 1968 and 1998; only two valuable pieces by Alan Rawsthorne and Walter Leigh extending the range back to the 1930s and 1940s. The album was first released in 1998 as John & Peter’s Whistling Book. This edition includes three more items: Robin Walker’s Her Rapture for solo recorder, John Addison’s Spring Dances for solo descant recorder, and the eccentric Kokopelli by Richard Whalley.
This smorgasbord of recorder and piano music gets off to a brilliant start with Geoffrey Poole’s varied Skally Skarekrow’s Whistling Book. Poole devised the four short movements for his son James, but he then souped up the final movement, Hailstones, to match John Turner’s virtuosity. The other movements are Clouds (with silver linings), Spring Breezes and Sunshine.
The Tempest has always been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Michael Ball’s Prospero’s Music depicts Caliban’s contention that the island is “full of noises and sweet airs, that delight and hurt not”. This enchanting music explores various aspects of the play, including the love of Ferdinand and Miranda and, more seriously, Ariel’s taunting of Caliban. The liner notes explain that the inspiration was hearing the ringing of a mist-shrouded sea-buoy whilst Ball was on holiday on the Scilly Isles.
Rob Barnett in his 1999 review of the first release described Alan Bullard’s Recipes perfectly: “These are high quality musical postcards: Continental serenade, hurdy-gurdy sentimentality, purring and bubbling jazziness, a Carmen fantasy, Chinoiserie with a dash of the puys of the Auvergne and a final knotted hanky knees-up.” The movement titles that provoked this marvellous prose are Coffee and Croissants, Barbecue Blues (when the fire goes out), Prawn Paella, Special Chop-Suey, and Fish and Chips. This articulate suite would make an entertaining offering at any recital.
Arnold Dolmetsch first performed Alan Rawsthorne’s little Suite on 17 July 1939 at a meeting of the London Contemporary Music Society. Rawsthorne presumably withdrew it after the concert, but arranged it later for viola d’amore and piano. The four movements include a short, deeply felt Sarabande, a lively Fantasia on an old English country dance, a sad Air and a sprightly Jig. The score, presumed lost, turned up in 1992. It did not deserve to be forgotten.
Nicholas Marshall’s undated short Caprice is a spry little number that fairly bounces along. Douglas Steele’s also undated Song for recorder, with its long-breathed melody, is touching and quite charming.
A big discovery is John Addison’s Spring Dances, written for John Turner after his visit to the composer’s residence in Old Bennington, Vermont. The three dances for solo recorder explore a variety of moods: a cosy Allegretto, an expressive Andante con moto, and a vivacious Allegro moderato whose progress covers a wide variety of time signatures. (John Addison was born in 1920, not 1929 the booklet says.)
Robin Walker’s A Book of Song and Dance in eleven short sections is an album of folk-like tunes. On occasion, there is barely time to get to know the melody. For example, Dance 1 lasts only 20 seconds. Nods to well-known tunes include My Luve is like a Red Rose, Shenandoah and Clark Saunders. Four of them are for recorder alone, the others have piano accompaniment. These are discrete pieces,but somehow they seem to make a valid and consistent whole. I would suggest that they always be played through in the order presented in the score. Her Rapture was written very recently in memory of Robin Walker’s teacher, the composer Dorothy Pilling, who died in 1998. It is not a piece I warm to; the tessitura of the descant recorder is just a little too high and piercing in its imitation of our feathered friends.
I understand that Walter Leigh’s Air was his very last composition, before he was killed in action near Tobruk, Libya. This miniature is quite lovely in its apparent simplicity. Yet, there are deeper moments and more intricate harmonies to add to its success. It is good that it has been recorded here for posterity. Equally satisfying is Arnold Cooke’s Capriccio, which celebrates William Alwyn’s eightieth birthday.
I am not convinced by Anthony Gilbert’s Farings. The opening number, Mr Pitfield’s Pibroch, is wild and screechy. Equally headache-making is Eighty for Willam Alwyn with its clattering high notes on the piano. Five more movements follow, including the Arbor Avium Canentium with its birdsong, the jig-like Batterfeet, dedicated to the composer Howard Ferguson and a take on plainsong in Chant-au-Clair. Other musicians referred to include John Turner (Slow Down after Fifty), Ida Carroll (Miss Carroll, her Lullabye) which would wake the dead, and composer Ian Parrott MidWales (Lightwhistle Automatic) with its repetitive (never ending!) melody. Perhaps it is the small recorder used that makes this listener reach for the paracetamol. I cannot resist the temptation to quote Rob Barnett’s again: “This is a much harder work with stop-start, strangulation occasional, Shostakovich-like intensity, flitters and shards of music, sparks and shrapnel.”
It is appropriate that one of John Turner’s compositions is included in this album. Four Diversions, as the liner note say, have become one of the best known works in the recorder repertoire. The four movements are written in what would then have been an approachable contemporary style. The Intrada is bold in effect. This is followed by a vibrant, but too short, Waltz. The third Diversion, Aubade, has a touch of the Celt in it. It is followed by a dashing Hornpipe, once again looking north of the Border. The Four Diversions is deservedly popular.
Shadows in Blue by David Ellis uses a variety of recorders for its effect – sopranino, bass and tenor instruments along with the piano. Does this work nod more to Schoenberg than to jazz? Some lovely sounds here would certainly enhance a smoke-filled bar in downtown New York.
John Gollard’s Divertissement is a satisfying backward glance to the baroque era with its modern take on an Entrée, a Gavotte, an Air and a Gigue. Equally rewarding is his pastiche New World Dances, a decent account of Ragtime, Blues and the Bossa Nova.
Richard Whalley’s Kokopelli is gruelling. It may represent a Native-American fertility rite, but it just does nothing for me, prepared piano and all.
The last track is dreadful. Kevin Malone’s Saturday Soundtrack is meant to evoke “background music” to an imaginary cartoon. Its concatenation of vocalised coughs, splutters, mutters, monkey chants and growls are a pathetic attempt at being relevant. Fortunately it only lasts for just over two minutes.
John Turner compiled very useful liner notes. They include information about the composers and brief, but helpful, notes about all the works. These details could well be mined by performers for their programme notes (with permission, of course). Unfortunately, some of the dates of composition and premieres have been omitted from the text and from the track listings. Resumés of the instrumentalists have been included.
The performance and the recording are beyond reproach. John Turner and Peter Lawson make a hugely talented team.
I enjoyed most of the works here, but I think that this repertoire should be investigated slowly. Two hours of unremitting recorder and piano sound could be an endurance test for some folk. And it would be a pity to miss some of the gems presented here. The music ranges from grade pieces for tyros to major recital works. Almost all of them would enhance a recorderist’s concert.
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Geoffrey Poole (b. 1949)
Skally Skarekrow’s Whistling Book – 1. Clouds (with Silver Linings), 2. Spring Breezes, 3. Sunshine, 4. Hailstones (c.1978)
Michael Ball (b. 1946)
Prospero’s Music (1984)
Alan Bullard (b. 1947)
Recipes: 1. Coffee and Croissants, 2. Barbecue Blues, 3. Prawn Paella 4. Special Chop-suey, 5. Fish and Chips (1989)
Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971)
Suite: 1. Sarabande, 2. Fantasia, 3. Air, 4. Jig (1939)
Nicholas Marshall (b. 1942)
Douglas Steele (1910-1999)
John Addison (1920-1998)
Spring Dances: 1. Allegretto, 2. Andante con moto, 3. Allegro moderato (1994)
Robin Walker (b. 1953)
A Book of Song and Dance: 1. Song 1, 2. My Luve, 3. Idyll, 4. Song 2, 5. Rite, 6. Dance 1, 7. Canon, 8. Shenandoah, 9. Dance 2, 10. Clark Sanders, 11. Tired Boy (1994)
Her Rapture (2021)
Walter Leigh (1905-1942)
Arnold Cooke (1906-2005)
Anthony Gilbert (b. 1934)
Farings: 1. Mr. Pitfield’s Pibroch, 2. Eighty for William Alwyn, 3. Arbor Avium Canentium, 4. Batterfeet, 5. Slow Down after Fifty, 6. Miss Carroll Her Lullabye, 7. MidWales Lightwhistle Automatic, 8. Chant-au-Clair (1986?)
John Turner (b. 1943)
Four Diversions: 1. Intrada, 2. Waltz, 3. Aubade, 4. Hornpipe (1968/1969)
David Ellis (b. 1933)
Shadows in Blue, Op 61 (1998)
John Golland (1942-1993)
Divertissement, Op 52: 1. Entrée, 2. Gavotte, 3. Air, 4. Gigue (1988)
New World Dances, op. 62: 1. Ragtime, 2. Blues, 3. Bossa Nova (1980)
Richard Whalley (b. 1974)
Kevin Malone (b. 1958)
Saturday Soundtrack (1998)