Antony Hopkins is well known in the United Kingdom as a broadcaster and author (particularly on Auntie, otherwise known as the BBC). His music is finely constructed (he is well known for his ability to work to order) and undemanding. Yet he uses dissonance effectively and pungently, sometimes bringing to mind Hindemith.
The Viola Sonata (1945) begins angularly but is decidedly of the late twentieth century Scepter’d Isle. Matthew Jones is the excellent violist, whose expressive lower end sounds like a high cello. Brave programming indeed to start with a viola sonata, and it pays off. The restrained sense of dignity to the Ground (second movement) is presumably a homage to Purcell. The essence of the piece is elusive, and appropriately the end is both beautiful and haunting.
The piano Rondo from the Second Piano Sonata boasts an angular, entwining theme. The piece is dedicated to Michael Tippett, and is a conscious imitation of Tippett’s piano writing. It works well, especially when as well played as this (yes, it makes one want to hear the whole thing). The Third Sonata in C-Sharp Minor of 1946 — 48 was written for the fabulous pianist Noel Mewton-Wood (unfortunately Mewton-Wood died before receiving the piece). There is plenty of jauntiness to the opening Allegro vigoroso in this performance by Philip Fowke. Yet it is the haunting Largo that the listener carries away with him, and the way the fugal entries of the Tranquillo opening of the finale creep in, brilliantly and (seemingly) inevitably. Fowke is equally impressive in the seductive Tango that opens the second disc; seductive, yes, but with a distinctly conspiratorial raised eyebrow throughout.
The cantata, A Humble Song to the Birds (1945), is to words by Rosenkreuz, translated by Frieda Harries. Hopkins’ vocal writing is grateful. The songs were originally written for Hopkins’ wife Alison; here, it is a tenor, the impassioned James Gilchrist, who essays the mini-cycle; Janet Simpson is the superbly sensitive accompanist.
The G-Minor Partita for solo violin of 1947, dedicated to Neville Marriner, is an eloquent soliloquy with a concentration that certainly nods in the direction of Bach’s great works in this genre. Credit to Paul Barritt for his eloquence, his superb way with phrasing (wonderful staccato) and his evident belief in this piece. A Suite for descant recorder and piano of 1952, first performed by Carl Dolmetsch, no less, oozes charm from every note. Cheeky recorder/piano dialogues guarantee a smile. This is actually Hopkins’ second suite for recorder and piano; the first follows in this recital ( Pastiche Suite ), every inch as delightful. Hopkins claims not to remember writing this piece (the score tuned up in the library of Sir Thomas Beecham, of all places). Most delicious of all are the Three French Folksongs (1947) for soprano, recorder and piano, a joyous combination. Hopkins uses simple means to maximum effect. Yet the Three Seductions of 1949, originally for a “beginner flautist” seem to operate on a lesser level of inspiration. I suspect they may well sound better on a flute, also. It is a somewhat strange experience to be wrenched back into Hopkins on top form for the gorgeous song “First Love” (from the choral piece Early One Morning ), ravishingly sung by Lesley-Jane Rogers. The libretto of Hands Across the Sky has to be read to be believed (or not believed, the infinitely more likely result), but its final lament of longing is the epitome of English-tinged regret. The recorder adds a final touch of rue. The next song is more lively than its title, “A Melancholy Song”, would imply. The version heard here (with tenor recorder) was prepared specifically for this recording.
A George Bernard Shaw play formed the reason behind Hopkins’ pastiche dances (Farandole, Sarabande, Wilman’s Grounde and Air) of 1946. A pity the Sarabande is so short (1”04) as it exudes the air of tranquility so well.
The poems read by Hopkins himself are interesting and, in the case of the golfing take on Good King Wenceslas, “Good King Jack Niklaus”, good fun. Hopkins is a splendid narrator, so much so that one imagines he would be a fantastic raconteur at a dinner party. The Tributes (2011) are by Andrew Plant, David Matthews, David Dubery, Anthony Gilbert, Gordon Crosse, David Ellis, Joseph Phibbs and Elis Pehkonen. They explore different worlds: Andrew Plant’s On How to Sing for soprano, recorder and pianos by far the most “modern” music so far, disjunct and exploratory. David Matthews is well known (see my positive review of his Fifth and Twelfth Quartets in Fanfare 36:4), and it is nice that he writes here for solo recorder in A Little Pastoral (it is rather dour, though). David Dubery’s song Evening in April (to words by Douglas Gibson) is absolutely the equal of Hopkins’ writing for this combination of soprano, recorder and piano: lyrical and easy flowing. Anthony Gilbert’s Above All That uses more extended recorder playing techniques and contrast between a deliberately rather plain piano accompaniment and florid recorder writing. Gordon Crosse’s CantAHta (using Antony Hopkins’ initials) to the sound “ah” is brilliantly sung by Rogers. David Ellis’ Head Music was written for Hopkins’ ninetieth birthday. It is restrained and delicate; Joseph Phibbs’ Pierrot for soprano, recorder and piano is playful. Elis Pehkonen is a pupil of Hopkins. His Pieds en l’air is high-ranging and elusive, and the perfect way to close.
There are three bonus tracks: two original recordings from the musical Johnny the Priest (amazingly characterful vocals by Jeremy Brett, Stephanie Voss and Phillada Sewell, but perhaps the second excerpt, “Be not Afraid”, is rather too sentimental) and a snippet from the opera Three’s Company which even includes the tiniest bit of Wagner. There is much to delight here.
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