Full Review of "A Portrait" by Antony Hopkins
MUSICWEB (JOHN FRANCE)
This is a superb retrospective of Antony Hopkins' achievement as a composer but also recognises his talent as a poet. It is well-produced and allows the listener to approach a considerable variety of musical moods, styles and genres. There is a considerable stylistic gulf between the ‘Partita' and the ‘Tango'. However, both works are suffused with technical skill and sustained interest. The same applies to virtually all the music on these CDs.
A few minor criticisms probably seems churlish. However, three things should be mentioned. Firstly, most of Hopkins' pieces heard here date from the 1940s. There are a couple from the early fifties and one written in 1980. Unfortunately, I do not have access to a ‘works list' so I do not know what other music has been written since 1953, however it would have given a wider perspective of Hopkins' achievement if a broader range of works had been included.
Secondly, I wish the ‘programme notes' had been a little bit more detailed. Most of these works would seem to be ‘premiere recordings' so are not in the public domain. Little critical reception appears in the pages of The Musical Times , Tempo and other contemporary journals about the major works.
Lastly, I fear that the recorder features just a little bit too much in some of these pieces. Where the work was conceived for that instrument that is fine, however where it has been added or has been substituted for the original ‘flute' it seems to be unnecessary.
The performance of all this music is excellent. I will single out the beautiful voice of Lesley-Jane Rogers and the inspired playing of Matthew Jones on the viola for special mention. However all the soloists impressed me. Finally, I have to pay tribute to John Turner. He conceived the project, organised it and plays on a number of tracks. All this reveals his unquenchable enthusiasm and massive musical ability. It is a major achievement.
In the 1940s and ‘50s Antony Hopkins was a familiar name as composer, conductor, broadcaster, author, lecturer, first-rate pianist—he called himself ‘a musical odd-job man'. But he was much more than that for he did everything with distinction; and, although his muse was utterly English, his writing has almost a French piquancy. He was lightweight but never trivial and he could consistently charm the ear. So it is good to discover another mid-20 th -century composer who wants to please the ordinary music lover and has rejected atonalism. The present anthology shows his range and his consistently seductive invention, with a consistent injection of often haunting lyricism. The opening Viola Sonata, with its fascinating ‘Ground' and touching ‘Epilogue', is a splendid work and his Partita for solo violin is all but worthy of Bach, with a splendid central fugato. He writes beautifully for the recorder—the Suite for descant recorder is both deeply expressive and chirpily infectious (and John Turner, with his elegant phrasing and beautiful timbre matches every change of mood winningly). The Third Piano Sonata is another first-rate work, delectably diverse, the opening movement folksy, followed by a somber Largo and a lovely Tranquillo with much uninhibited gusto in the finale. Hopkins also knows how to write appealingly for the soprano voice. The songs are all fresh and, again, often have a folk-like inspiration.
The second disc opens with an irresistibly catchy Tango and then, in the Three Seductions, becomes melancholy, a mood which returns in the Sarabande of the Four Dances from Back to Methuselah, in which he once more looks backwards in time to earlier musical styles, albeit enhanced with a modern overlay. The bonus tracks from the stage works are enjoyable but ungenerous. The eight 90th birthday tributes from admiring contemporaries include David Matthews's winsome instrumental A Little Pastoral, and David Dubery's ‘Evening in April' and Gordon Crusse's striking ‘CantAHta', both beautifully sung by Lesley-Jane Rogers. Joseph Phibbs's unpredictable ‘Pierrot' is very much in the Hopkins vein, as is Elis Pehkonen's engaging Pied en l'air, the composer's own favourite. Altogether this is a delightfully entertaining anthology, vividly recorded, and can be especially recommended to those who, like me, had not previously discovered the composer's music.
This is a most welcome CD for all admirers of Antony Hopkins, composer, pianist, musicologist, lecturer, broadcaster, poet and author. And also those who may be too young or who live in the few parts of the world that Mr Hopkins voice was not heard. There is little of his recorded music available and this issue on two CDs covers a variety of his work mostly composed (with a couple exceptions) in the years immediately after the end of the Second World War. There is a lot to dip into here, so I will highlight only a few tracks that resonated so strongly for me.
The lovely "Ground" from the "Sonata for viola & piano" (1945) played with mellifluous tone by Matthew Jones, viola. Typical of the composer"s cheeky sense of humour is the instruction that the extreme bass notes on the piano are to be played by the page-tuner; in this instance it was the composer himself in his ninetieth year.
The rather attractive and little known work "A humble song to the birds" (1948) is a cantata in four sections, heard here with the luxury casting of tenor James Gilchrist who brings to it both authority and crystal clear diction.
The 1947 "Partita in G minor for solo violin", dedicated to Neville Marriner, is a finely wrought work in several movements and Paul Barritt gives a splendid performance. The "Suite for descant recorder and piano" (1952) first performed at Wigmore Hall in 1953 by Carl Dolmetch is a delightful work given a most sympathetic performance here by John Turner and Janet Simpson.
"Three French Folksongs" (1947) reveal Mr Hopkins' ability to absorb both the essence of French folk melody in a style that is concise and delightfully captivating.
The second disc features eight new works written as tributes for Antony Hopkins 90th Birthday, five of which received performances in May 2011.
These include "On how to sing" (Andrew Plant); "A little Pastoral" by David Matthews for solo recorder, wistful and very brief; "Evening in April", a lyrical and moving song setting of a Douglas Gibson poem composed for soprano, recorder and piano by David Dubery ; an extraordinary and interesting piece by Anthony Gilbert titled "Above all that"; a witty contribution from Gordon Crosse titled "Cantata" for a wordless soprano singing to AH throughout; "Head Music", a pretty piece for recorder and piano by David Ellis : "Pierrot", an atmospheric setting of American poet Sara Teasdale by Joseph Phibbs: and lastly "Pieds en L'air" for recorder and piano by Elis Pehkonen based on the traditional tune, a favourite of Antony Hopkins. These demonstrate a fairly wide spectrum of new musical writing in Mr Hopkins" 90th year, from the inspired beauty of Dubery"s song to the "modern" soundscape of the Gilbert piece, but certainly they are all worthy of their place in this celebration.
Not to be missed on this second disc are the three monologues written by, and delivered in that most memorable voice of Antony Hopkins. "Charlie's Revenge" is deliciously naughty. The disc concludes on a merry note with three excerpts from Mr Hopkins' musicals "Johnny the Priest" (1960) and "Three's Company" (1953), from the original soundtrack recordings. This is a compilation that will entertain on all levels.
THE GUARDIAN (NICHOLAS KENYON)
One of the great popularisers of classical music in the pre-Classic FM generation, Antony Hopkins was a wonderful broadcaster; as this intriguing compilation for his recent 90th birthday reveals, he is also a composer of wit and substance. We hear his famous voice reciting three witty poems, but his musical skills are evident in chamber pieces, recorder music chirruped cheerfully by John Turner, and a strong piano sonata (the fine Philip Fowke). Birthday tributes from composers include premieres from Gordon Crosse, Joseph Phibbs and Elis Pehkonen, and the whole has a rather sweetly nostalgic Third Programme feel.
MUSICAL OPINION (ROBERT MATTHEW-WALKER)
A delightful, and if one may say, long overdue issue commemorating one of the most admired figures in classical music in Britain over the last half-century and more. Hopkins's Viola Sonata is a very fine work indeed, and one simply cannot understand why it is not in the repertoire of all violists – music as well written as this does not come along every day. The other shorter works are all well worth hearing and the music written as a 90th birthday collection is, to a man, of no little distinction, demonstrating the esteem in which Hopkins is held by genuine musicians. A wonderful set.
MUSIC WEB (JONATHAN WOOLF)
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 Dances 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 90th 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.
FANFARE (COLIN CLARK)
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 turned 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.
BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY NEWS (MICHAEL JONES)
“I am not beginning this programme (about Alban Berg's Violin Concerto) talking about a 12-note-row, but about the death of a girl”. Thus started one of Antony Hopkins' many Talking about Music programmes. No doubt he wound up many a more academically-minded school music-master in the process, but of course he was right - it was the picture of the music that mattered to Antony Hopkins more than what mere technical analysis could convey. It was this individual and imaginative approach which made Talking About Music appeal to so many listeners; but this was only a small part of Antony Hopkins' life, which embraced the theatre, radio drama and documentary and musical education in so many forms.
In celebration of such a multi-faceted life, Divine Arts has produced this superb 2-CD tribute to Antony Hopkins for his 90 th birthday. CD 1 is largely given over to Antony's serious works: his Sonata for Viola and Piano of 1945. I think this to be the finest piece on the first disc - striking and dramatic in its mood and thematically well worked and developed, with a beautiful slow second movement (Ground). It was written for Jean Stewart, (a friend of Vaughan Williams who had also had a sonata written for her by Julius Harrison). Hopkins wrote three Piano Sonatas, of which only 1 and 3 were published (by Chester's) and we hear no.3 complete, played by Philip Fowke, and the Rondo from Sonata no.2 played by Michael Hampton. In both works one can hear echoes of Michael Tippett (in the Rondo) and Hindemith in Sonata 3. More individual, perhaps is Hopkins ‘Partita' for solo violin, played by Paul Barritt and the disc ends with some light and humorous French Folksongs for soprano, recorder and piano, sung by Lesley-Jane Rogers, with John Turner (recorder) and Janet Simpson at the piano.
CD 2 features Eight Tributes to Antony Hopkins (2011) which is a group of short pieces by Andrew Plant, David Matthews, David Dubery, Anthony Gilbert, Gordon Crosse, David Ellis, Joseph Phibbs and Elis Pehkonen, all for recorder, with some also including soprano and piano. Songs were such a substantial part of Antony Hopkins' creative life and we have a sizeable selection here, mostly sung by Lesley-Jane Rogers, but James Gilchrist contributes 4 songs to the Cantata ‘A Humble song to the Birds' of 1945.
There are additional bonuses: Antony himself reads three of his own poems: Good Luck Jack Nicklaus is a spoof on Good King Wenceslas and golfing; String Quartet is amusing for its description of the relationship between players in a long standing ensemble. But the prize must go to Charlie's Revenge, the story of the embittered front-desk principal cello and his practical joke on an unfortunate contralto - ladies had better watch their dress-trains in future! A real surprise, however are excerpts from the 1953 recording of Three's Company, and two excerpts from the 1960 recording of Johnny the priest. During the late 1970's I played the piano for several performances of Three's Company, and so to hear the interview scene (“Take a letter, Miss Honey”) brought back instant memories! Also beautifully sung are the two excerpts from the 1960 recording of Johnny the Priest. Surely it is time to see again modern productions of so many of these more intimate opera works which enjoyed such a vogue in the 1950's and 60's.
This 2-CD tribute is a wonderful celebration of Antony Hopkins's life and music. Special thanks must go to John Turner for masterminding the project, and to 300 individuals and organisations who are listed as subscribers (magnifying glass useful here!). This shows the great range of admiration for such an accomplished all-round musical personality - perhaps with that lingering thought that he was not properly treated by the BBC all those years ago. But it is Hopkins' music which is being celebrated here and which deserves to be heard more frequently in the concert hall. As Antony himself said in an interview in 1992: “If there's hope for Parry now, maybe there's hope for the Hopkins sonatas!”
LIGHT MUSIC SOCIETY (PHILIP SCOWCROFT)
Hopkins, composer, versifier, pianist and broadcaster, was 90 in 2011. I have been enjoying a celebratory two disc set representing his output, mainly early: three comic poems, a Viola Sonata, a Piano Sonata and part of another, a violin Partita and many light miniatures. John Turner excels in recorder music; a Suite for descant, a Pastiche Suite, tiny dances, curtain tunes really, for Shaw's Back to Methuselah and Three Seductions. Hopkins' vocal music is well represented, mainly sung by Lesley-Jane Rogers, often with obbligato from Mr. Turner, particularly charming in Three French Folksongs .
Three bonus tracks revive recordings of excerpt from musicals he composed for Intimate Opera long ago (I remember Three's Company well). Eight contemporary composers (Andrew Plant, David Matthews, David Dubery, Anthony Gilbert, Gordon Crosse, David Ellis, Joseph Phibbs, Elis Pehkonen) contribute brief tributes; I prefer the purely instrumental ones (John Turner again!) by Matthews, Gilbert, Ellis and Pehkonen. Discs worth investigating.
THE RECORDER MAGAZINE (ANDREW MAYES)
One has to be of a certain age to remember the days when composer Antony Hopkins was a regular and popular broadcaster. His highly informative and entertaining ‘Talking About Music' series became a regular feature on the BBC in the UK and 44 other countries in which it was broadcast. He is a prolific writer too, and published at least 12 books including, in addition to those on a wide range of musical topics, a very readable autobiography. But it is as a very versatile and practical composer that he best expresses his musical personality.
The chamber music and songs included on this pair of CDs give only a brief glimpse of the breadth and creativity of his compositional output. The four-movement Sonata for viola and piano with which the first disc opens is a case in point: - a significant addition to a genre to which other British composers (including Malcolm Arnold, Arnold Bax, Lennox Berkeley, Gordon Jacob, Walter Leigh and Alan Rawsthorne) contributed. The same can be said for his piano sonatas, of which the Rondo from the second, and the third in its entirety, are included on the first CD. Another tour de force is his Partita for solo violin, a five-movement work that shows an unmistakable debt to J.S. Bach (including a fugato) without giving any hint of pastiche. The selection of songs included, dating from the 1940s and 50s, reveal a gift for melody and highly effective word setting. Some contain subsequently added obbligato recorder parts that certainly enhance the overall effect.
Recorder players are likely to be already familiar with Hopkins's Four Dances from Back to Methuselah (1946) and his Suite for descant and piano, composed for Walter Bergmann in 1952, both included in the programme. However, it would appear that Walter Bergmann's influence resulted in an even earlier Pastiche Suite for treble and piano, composed in 1944. Hopkins admits to having no recollection of its composition or why and how it turned up in the musical library of Sir Thomas Beecham! Thankfully it did come to light and its three brief movements Allegro molto giusto, Alla siciliano and Vivace non troppo can be enjoyed in this premiere recording. The first movement in particular is a gem. Originally composed for beginner flautists, but here performed in a new version for recorder and piano, Three Seductions add more of Hopkins's characteristic music to the recorder repertoire.
Of the eight short tributes to Antony Hopkins, On How to Sing by Andrew Plant, Evening in April by David Dubery, CantAHta by Gordon Crosse and Pierrot by Joseph Phibbs are scored for soprano voice, recorder(s) and piano. Bass recorder and eventually sopranino are included in Andrew Plant's piece depicting an argument between the frog and skylark schools of singing. David Dubery's and Joseph Phibbs's set poems by Douglas Gibson and Sara Teasdale respectively – very different pieces, but effectively capturing the atmospheres of the chosen texts. Gordon Crosse's piece is wordless, but makes use of the happy coincidence that Antony Hopkins's initials are the ‘classic wordless sound for singers' hence the capital AH in the title of this little piece constructed in the manner of Handel or Telemann.
David Matthews's A Little Pastoral is for solo recorder and, though beginning with the notes A and B-natural (H), soon branches out into a flow of lyrical melody. These same two notes occur in the piano part of Elis Pehkonen's Pieds en l'air ; the descant recorder has the well-known Warlock melody, a particular favourite of the dedicatee. Head Music by David Ellis is scored for tenor recorder and piano; it is calm and impressionistic and very much in contrast to the busy Above all That for recorder and piano by Anthony Gilbert who, like a number of the other composers, mentions his gratitude for the influence of Hopkins's radio broadcasts.
A fundamental element of Hopkins's character – his highly developed sense of humour – comes across with abundance in is reading of three of his poems, ‘Good King Jack Nicklaus', ‘Charlie's Revenge' and ‘String Quartet'. As if these were not bonus enough there are excerpts from original recordings of Hopkins's musical Johnny the Priest and his one-act opera Three's Company (with Hopkins himself at the piano) composed for an Intimate Opera production to words by Michael Flanders. Here we hear yet another side to Antony Hopkins's wide musical creativity.
Both discs form not only a lively portrait of the composer, but also both a sincere tribute and a musical treat in which the enthusiasm of the performers and composers is very evident.