I once wrote Antony Hopkins a letter about his association with the violinist Isolde Menges and he wrote a most charming reply. Hopkins was by then long established as a lecturer, broadcaster, composer, pianist and writer. His self-description as an ‘odd job man’ was, at least, quadruply modest.
This 2-CD selection of works attests to the high level of his compositional achievement which was invariably spiced with wit and self-deprecation. It’s been a delight to encounter and to discover so many works of his that I had never previously heard, and in such first class performances too. Take the Viola Sonata of 1945 for instance. He knows how to subvert a March theme but also employs the very English Ground in the second movement. There’s an intense Scherzo and a quizzical and quiet close to the concluding Epilogue . The sonata was dedicated to Jean Stewart, viola player in the Menges Quartet, and a player much admired in the profession, not least by Vaughan Williams. The Second Piano Sonata may be in Hopkins’s own words a Tippett imitation but its Rondo , which is all that we hear, is a folksy and delicious bit of writing fully deserving preservation. Isn’t the rest as equally deserving?
The ingenious cantata A Humble Song to the Birds reveals Hopkins’s sensitive word setting prowess whilst the Partita in G minor for solo violin is cut from a terser and tougher cloth. Dedicated to Neville Marriner, it was written for Max Salpeter’s Wigmore Hall debut. This is an outstanding discovery. The Partita isn’t especially reflective of Bartók or Ysaÿe, though in its concision and technical address it strikes me as being as interesting as Enescu’s violin works: I’d rate it that high. At only ten minutes in length it makes an urgent appeal to questing fiddle players.
The Third Piano Sonata absorbs folk elements and plenty of drama, whilst occupying that uneasy post-war corridor of testing, emotionally complex contingency and ambiguity. The 1952 Suite for descant recorder and piano has affectionate warmth and is very well written for the instruments. The Pastiche Suite somehow ended up in Thomas Beecham’s library, a strange one to fathom considering it was written for treble recorder and piano. The first disc ends with Three French Folksongs which were written for Sophie Wyss, for whom Britten famously wrote. The central song, Gail on la is especially delightful.
There’s no let-up in disc two which starts with the gorgeous 1948 Tango . We hear I’ve Lost My Love , an operatic aria and Four Dan ces from Back to Methusalah with some amusing baroquerie. Hopkins himself reads three poems of his that marry fun with knowing wit. One takes as its subject Jack Nicklaus (a parody of Good King Wenceslas) and another Charlie’s Revenge , the tale of an avenging cellist. Surely Charlie isn’t…Anthony Pini, known in the profession as ‘Charlie’? There are also bonus tracks which consist of some music from Hopkins’s musical Johnny the Priest (1960). The track features Jeremy Brett (of Sherlock Holmes fame), Stephanie Voss and Phillada Sewell, a full six and a half minutes, light music with choice percussion. Recorded in 1953 for Argo we also have the Trio from his opera Three’s Company for which Hopkins plays piano. Most attractive, if boxily recorded.
There is a series of works written specifically for Hopkins’s 90 th birthday. They range from a playlet by Andrew Plant through an ardent setting by David Dubery, an attractive Pastoral by David Matthews, a rather more astringent piece by Anthony Gilbert, a wordless setting by Gordon Crosse and a gentle one from David Ellis. There are other tributes too, just as good.
Let me finally commend all the performers whose ardent playing contributes so materially to the success of this well-annotated disc. It is indeed a Portrait, and a very well deserved one too.