Not Now Bernard and other stories is an irresistible album of music for all the family revelling in the magical colours of childhood memories, featuring world premiere recordings of pieces for narrator and chamber orchestra by British composers Judith Weir, Malcolm Arnold, John Ireland and Bernard Hughes, performed by the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Tom Hammond, and narrated by leading actor, TV star, comedian and broadcaster Alexander Armstrong.

The album is the brainchild of composer Bernard Hughes and conductor Tom Hammond. Bernard and Tom have worked together on a number of projects since 2009, including Tom commissioning Bernard’s pieces on the album for two of his orchestras. The aim of this album was to bring together a diverse selection of pieces in high-quality performances, plugging holes in the recorded legacies of great British composers alongside Bernard’s pieces. It was also their ambition to bring a sense of fun to the music, celebrating works that are intentionally enjoyable and funny. Bernard Hughes’s settings of classic children’s stories are the most recent pieces, using vividly imaginative, witty and tuneful music to bring to life three wonderful stories by David McKee and James Mayhew. Alexander Armstrong gives a hilarious and touching performance as narrator, his distinctive voice characterising each piece brilliantly to explore humour and human nature. The result is an engaging, lively and thoroughly entertaining collection of music and words which all the family can enjoy together.

The album is produced by Bernard Hughes himself and is released on 7 February by Orchid Classics, one of Britain’s leading classical labels.


The pieces and the composers

Malcolm Arnold – Toy Symphony. Arnold was one of the towering figures of British music in the twentieth century, whose prodigious output included nine symphonies and over 70 film scores. Composed in 1957 for a musicians’ fundraiser, the Toy Symphony pits a quintet of professional players against a battery panoply of novelty instruments, including a train guard’s whistle, a quail whistle and three parping toy trumpets, to hilarious but brilliantly musical effect. This is one of the few major Malcolm Arnold pieces in his ‘occasional’ style never previously commercially recorded, showing a combination of winning melodies with absurdity.

Judith Weir – Thread! Written in 1981 near the beginning of her stellar career, Thread! is a setting of texts sewn into the Bayeux Tapestry, and is a vivid re-telling of the Battle of Hastings, from the Norman perspective. This piece has also never been commercially recorded, although it is a personal favourite of the composer. An exciting and vibrant piece that deserves a wider audience.

John Ireland – Annabel Lee. A melodrama for piano and narrator in a new chamber arrangement by Bernard Hughes, setting a chilling, atmospheric poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

Bernard Hughes – Not Now, Bernard, Isabel’s Noisy Tummy and The Knight Who Took All Day. These pieces are based on children’s books by David McKee (Mr Benn, Elmer the Patchwork Elephant) and James Mayhew. Originally scored for narrator and symphony orchestra, this recording features the versions for chamber orchestra. In Not Now, Bernard a young boy, neglected by his parents, meets a monster in his garden, with shocking results. Isabel’s Noisy Tummy tells of a girl who is troubled – but eventually redeemed – by a misbehaving stomach. The Knight Who Took All Day tells of a knight confronting a dragon – with the timely help of a princess. All three are enchanting stories told with humour and melodic, friendly music

Not Now Bernard and other stories is released on 7 February by Orchid Classics, one of the UK’s leading classical labels. The album is available to pre-order now.


Orchid Classics website

 

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I started composing of my own accord at about the age of 8, without anyone particularly inspiring me or suggesting I do it. I just started writing things down on bits of manuscript paper lying around the house. I remember making up a key signature which combined sharps and flats and showing it to my father, who said there was no such key signature. I didn’t understand why that was, or why I wasn’t allowed to make up my own key signature. As to making a career from music, that was never intended. Most people who write music stop at some point, and I just never stopped.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I had an wonderful music teacher called Gwynne Lewis when I was about 10. He didn’t especially inspire me to compose, but he communicated a love of music and the joy of being involved in music and I carry that with me. I also learned a lot about commitment and integrity from the composer Param Vir. Apart from my teachers the inspiration above all has been Igor Stravinsky. I didn’t discover his music until the shockingly late age of 16 or 17, but once I heard the Rite of Spring I never looked back in my devotion to his music. First hearing the Symphony of Psalms was an unforgettable experience.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

As with all composers, the challenge is to have your music heard. In this I have been pretty lucky, but every composer wants more and higher profile performances and commissions.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Having a particular occasion or performed in mind can really help to shape a piece. When the requirements of the commission and you are aligned it is really fun: writing my narrator-and-orchestra piece ‘Not Now, Bernard’ was one such – I realised it was a story I loved to tell, and that the music could add to. I’m really looking forward to it getting a wider audience on the forthcoming album – I’m very fond of it.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I’ve been lucky to work quite often with the BBC Singers over many years, including on an album of my music released in 2016. The fun of writing for them is also the danger – they can sing anything and make it sound good, but if you push the boat out too far no one else will ever sing it.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My musical language changes with each piece I write, so I don’t have a personal style as such – although I am sure there are recurring tricks if you look for them. Writing a piece is finding a solution to a problem, and when the initial restrictions vary, so does the end result. But when I write a piece like ‘Not Now, Bernard’, which is very tuneful and ‘accessible’, I don’t think of it as any less a ‘proper piece’ than my more avant-garde pieces – they are all aspects of my compositional voice.

As a composer, how do you work?

On a practical level I move between the keyboard, handwritten music notation and the computer. They each have their role within the process – although often first ideas come when I’m on my feet, either walking round my neighbourhood or in the shower. I like the handwritten element because you can trace your ideas back archaeologically if you change your mind. But I also love the opportunity the computer offers to check things like pacing, and complex harmony that is beyond my fingers.

Which works are you most proud of?

It would have to be the two large-scale pieces written for the BBC Singers. ‘The Death of Balder’ in particular, is an original conception – a ‘radio opera’ for choir on a Norse myth – and I am happy with how it turned out, after a great deal of uncertainty while composing it. I also had the opportunity to write an orchestral piece in 2012 called ‘Anaphora’ which again caused me a lot of grief in the creation but which I am in retrospect very proud of.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

As mentioned above, I am a huge Stravinsky fan, and always will be. Of contemporary composers, I really love Judith Weir’s music – she is also an extremely kind and generous person and it was a pleasure working with her on the forthcoming album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories, which features the premiere recording of her piece ‘Thread!’ alongside my own music. My current enthusiasm is for a French composer called Guillaume Connesson, who is very little known in this country but I think is brilliant and deserves much wider programming.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was lucky enough, as a child living in Berlin in the 1980s, to be taken to hear the Berlin Philharmonic a few times. The two occasions I particularly remember were hearing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and – the first time I went – Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 21. I was about 10 and both completely blew me away, just the sound of the orchestra, and I still love both pieces. I also remember, at one of those concerts, the second half being a Shostakovich symphony, which I hated; Shostakovich symphonies still don’t do it for me.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think it is a responsibility of composers to listen widely, and to music that is not necessarily instantly amenable. I think too many people, young people in particular, are too narrow in their range of listening. In one sense there is no excuse for not listening widely – my excuse as a youngster was that it was difficult to access music, apart from Radio 3 and my local library’s cassette collection. But the flip side is that there is so much music available now that it can be difficult to wade through it all. But it is important for composers to have open ears.

Bernard Hughes co-produced the album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories which is released on 7 February 2020 on the Orchid Classics label. It features his music alongside pieces by Judith Weir, Malcolm Arnold and John Ireland, narrated by TV star Alexander Armstrong and played by the Orchestra of the Swan.

Bernard’s choral music is being showcased in a portrait concert by the BBC Singers on 30 January, for broadcast in February 2020, which includes the new BBC commission A Ternary of Littles. The BBC Singers album I am the Song is available on Signum Classics.

More information about Bernard at www.bernardhughes.net

John Ireland (1879-1962)

 

The splendidly intimate and elegant 1901 Arts Club played host to Steinberg Duo on Friday evening in a concert of music by John Ireland and Edward Elgar. Steinberg Duo, which comprises husband and wife Nicholas Burns and Louisa Stonehill, are regular performers at the 1901 Arts Club and curate a series of concerts there.

The music of John Ireland is, perhaps unfairly, rarely performed. The majority of his output was piano miniatures and songs. He studied with Charles Villiers Standford at the Royal College of Music (who also taught Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells and Butterworth, amongst many others) and by the end of the First World War had emerged as a celebrated composer following the overnight success of his second Violin Sonata, of which more later.

The Steinberg Duo have been praised for their “warm musicality” and virtuosity and this was more than evident throughout their programme which opened with Ireland’s first violin sonata in which the influence of the French impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel was evident in its adventurous harmonic palette. The work is no gentile Edwardian drawing room piece and it was played with requisite muscularity and poise by Louisa on violin, with a nimble and sympathetic accompaniment by Nick on piano.

Ireland did in fact meet Edward Elgar and described the few hours in Elgar’s company as “the finest lesson I ever had”. To celebrate this meeting, Steinberg Duo performed a group of miniatures which represented the kind of salon music which was popular at the end of the nineteenth century and entirely appropriate for the small music salon at the 1901. These short but charming works were a pleasant and contrasting interlude between the sonatas by Ireland.

The second part of the concert was occupied by John Ireland’s second Violin Sonata, the work which made him famous. Since the composer was unfit for military service during the First World War, he was able to continue composing. The Violin Sonata No. 2 was premiered on 6 March 1917 by Albert Sammons and William Murdoch, who performed in uniform, and was an immediate success, so much so that the published Winthrop Rogers was on the composer’s doorstep before breakfast the following day. The first edition sold out before it was put on sale, and the work secured Ireland’s success and reputation.

By 1917, the British populace had developed a weary stoicism about the progress of the War. The work perfectly captured the mood of the period by avoiding sentimentality. Instead, it is imbued with pathos in its arresting themes, striking chromatic twists and turns and harmonic and rhythmic motifs redolent of Debussy’s Violin Sonata or Ravel’s Piano Trio. The middle movement is one of great poignancy with a simple song, on the violin, at its heart. Its expressive melancholy suggests a musical anthem for doomed youth, but also a requiem for a way of life destroyed by the War.

Speaking of his own music, Ireland said “Whatever I have to say is said in the music, and if this does not speak for itself, then I have failed”. This powerful and emotional work was given a passionate and involving account by Steinberg Duo who allowed the music to speak for itself.

Steinberg Duo

1901 Arts Club