REVIEWS:  divine art   dda 25082  Idylls and Elegies

I usually look upon listening to music as happy labour, the intellectual and spiritual equivalent, perhaps, of gardening or making soup. In other words, I don't assume it will be effortless. Compared to a Bruckner symphony or a Bach fugue, however, this CD of music by English composer John Jeffreys required little of me, yet it did wonders for my mental health. Without talking down to me, Jeffrey's music calmed me and made me feel that I was in good hands. It would be ungrateful of me, then to complain that these works are unrepentantly, ‘retro'.

Jeffreys, born in 1927 to Welsh parents, traces Grieg among his early influences. You will have little difficulty hearing this in the opening Serenade for Strings , which seems to be a cousin to the Norwegian composer's ‘the last spring'. (The spirit of Grieg reappears late in Poem for End .) Jeffreys was also influenced by the other composers whose music he played during youthful piano lessons – Clementi, Scarlatti and Grainger, for example. He soon became interested in the music of Tallis and his contemporaries. After serving in the RAF, he attended Trinity College of Music in London. He was active during the 1930's and 1960's, but, according to an unsigned booklet note, he fell virtually silent as a composer during the musical climate engendered by the William Glock era at the BBC. In the 1980's, a disillusioned and depressed Jeffreys destroyed much of his work. Fortunately, the pendulum has swung back, and older works have been recovered, destroyed works reconstructed and new ones composed.

Elegy for a Conductor , for example, was composed in 1999, in memory of Kenneth Page. (As indicated in the title, this CD contains both new recordings and material for earlier Somm and Meridian releases, including Page's peace-giving recording of the aforementioned Serenade for Strings .) This Elegy is a little reminiscent of Barber but still has enough English pastoralism in it to link it, with much of the other works on the CD, to Vaughan Williams and his lesser brethren. Anguished thought and feelings are applied with a delicate brush and lose none of their impact for being invoked with reticence and taste.

Three reflective works for orchestra or string orchestra are complemented by a piano cycle ( Toby's Dreams and Elegy ) and three works for baritone with piano ( Sweeney the Mad, A Lyke Wake Dirge ) or orchestra ( Poem for End ). ‘Toby' was a dog, who Jeffrey's music tells us, was much adored by the composer. There are seven Dreams, some Mompou-like, some close to a sarabande in spirit, each of them about two minutes long. These are followed by an equally concise and grave Elegy , marking Toby's untimely death in a car accident. What pianist would not enjoy playing these dignified yet sometimes wry little gems? Paul Bateman does so beautifully, although the clouded engineering is not complimentary.

With A Lyke Wake Dirge , Jeffreys encounters the challenge of employing a text previously set both by Britten and Stravinsky. Jeffreys's setting is much closer to the former's than the latter's and honestly can't be said to add much not already said by either composer. Sweeney the Mad is given a stentorian grandeur appropriate for Ireland's cursed, wandering king. Best among the vocal works is Poem for End , composed in 1966. Gurney's poem is very personal, alluding both to his native Gloucestershire and his transforming experiences on the battlefield of France during the Great War. Jeffreys's music, as great music can, illuminates Gurney's difficult text. This is a poignant, dark work and the addition of flute, particularly telling late in the work, to the string orchestra, registers strongly. These vocal works are beautifully sung and interpreted by baritone Jonathan Veira. Both his voice and his manner of using it remind me of John Shirley-Quirk, and that is high praise indeed! Pianist Shelley Katz discharges his brief and not overly challenging (at least in terms of physically technique) duties with sensitivity.

With the exception of the Serenade for Strings , the orchestral performances, newly recorded for this release, are by Bateman and Philharmonia. Bateman's broad range of experiences, not least with film music, have prepared him well for Jeffreys's music and its uncomplicated communicativeness, and there is real affection here. Jeffreys might not be the most daring composer on the block, but there is no doubting his sincerity and his appeal. He has something gentle and kind to share with both listeners and performers. I pity any musician so jaded that he or she would be unwilling to reciprocate.

Apart from Toby's Dreams and Elegy , these performances have been faithfully and pleasingly captured by the various engineering teams. The booklet notes are a bit redundant – there is a second essay, this one by Colin Scott-Sutherland, Never mind; the music needs little explanation anyway.
Raymond S. Tuttle

Webster's dictionary defines an Idyll as being a musical composition that evokes pastoral life, and defines an Elegy as being a mournful poem or a lament for the dead. The musical compositions on this new recording by the Welsh composer John Jeffreys (1927-) are perfect examples of those definitions and certainly fall well within the long and established tradition of beautiful English works for string orchestra. It is mournful, evocative music, definitely stemming from the heart but devoid of any saccharine sentimentality. This is traditional, tonal, solid old-school writing. So much so that due to the pressures of the counter-current of the musical establishment of the mid 20th century, most of his works were destroyed as the result of a personal crisis in his life. Some of the pieces on this CD are world premiere recordings.

Some of the highlights of this CD are the Serenade for Strings from 1959, deeply indebted to English tradition and more specifically the long line of bucolic and country inspired works for string orchestra so typical of English composers. The Poem for End for baritone, flute and strings, set to a poem by Ivor Gurney. It was written in the 1960s and had not been performed until now. Jonathan Veira 's solid baritone voice fits the poetry and the temperament of the music very well, and underlines the tone or mood of the work. The instrumentation is keen, with the flute creating a chill against the string background. Another gem is the Elegy for a Conductor from 1999. It is scored again for strings with added interjections from the flute, cor anglais, horn and trumpet. The lone trumpet against the strings evokes images of deep melancholy and sadness. There is Toby's Dreams and Elegy , a set of piano variations about a dog named Toby. And for me, the piece that really stands out, because of its emotional intensity wrapped up in true craftmanship, is the Elegy for John Fry . It begins as a string quartet (in honor of the friendship in chamber music with Fry, Mangeot and Barbirolli) but quickly blooms into a somber elegy for full string orchestra, that could stand head-to-head with works in the genre by Elgar and Vaughan-Williams. The closing pages are particularly poignant and keenly written.

The Divine Art recording has lots of body (those double basses in the 'Elegy for John Fry' are well captured) and creates a natural perspective and sense of open space throughout the different pieces. Everyone involved in the music are sympathetic to the emotions behind the scores, and therefore deliver a credible account of each work's intent.
Jean-Yves Duperron

John Jeffreys might well attribute his instinctive fondness for melodic lines and rich contemplative gestures to his Welsh parentage, though it all sounds much closer to the very Englishness of a musical environment that would have enveloped one brought up as a choir boy between the wars, singing Tallis and playing Grieg and Grainger arrangements in his piano lessons , whilst surrounded by Elizabethan poets at home.

Song was a natural outlet for his creativity. But he was equally drawn to the orchestra , and particularly the sound of the strings , conjuring from them a Serenade back in 1959 -- a birthday tribute for the violinist André Mangeot who did so much between the wars to promote contemporary music in this country. In this there are unmistakable overtones of, for instance, both Delius and Frank Bridge .

This CD includes two Elegies for close friends. One is to the pianist John Fry, with whom Mangeot and Barbirolli would play trios. This is a warm and peaceful tribute that ends with an agonised cry just before its final rest.

The other homage is to Kenneth Page, conductor of the Birmingham Symphony for twenty seven years, an enthusiastic champion of new music and the director in the recording of the Serenade on this CD. This Elegy for a Conductor , in which the cor anglais takes a principal melodic role , and flute , horn and trumpet add colour to the small orchestra, is again a delicately scored piece, dark and peaceful at its close with the soaring violin and a distant trumpet call.

Jonathan Veira is the fine baritone featured in all the songs , among which the setting of Ivor Gurney 's Poem for End is a substantial work, beautifully paced and scored for flute and strings accompaniment .

The recording also includes a set of piano pieces -- diversions rather than variations on a single melodic fragment -- dedicated to the memory of the family 's devoted dog: Toby's Dreams and Elegy , the songs Sweeney the Mad and A Lyke Wake Dirge , and a short atmospheric piece Bickleigh Idyll evoking an English summer walk along the River Exe, long a source of inspiration for the composer . Jeffreys is now eighty three and has waited a long time to share his gentle passions and distinctive craftsmanship with us.
Patric Standford

This is the third disc by John Jeffreys (b1937) issued on the Divine Art label. Yet where the two earlier discs concentrated on the many songs that this Welsh composer has written, this latest issue covers more varied ground, starting with a recording of Jeffrey's delightful Serenade

for Strings, lively if all too brief. It is conducted by the composer's friend, the late Kenneth Page, subject of one of the elegies included later, Elegy for a Conductor.

  Jeffreys unashamedly adopts a conservative idiom that would have been recognised as congenial by any Georgian composer of half a century earlier, such as Gurney or Howells, and that covers not only the songs but the instrumental pieces, four of them with the Philharmonia Orchestra or sections of it conducted by Paul Bateman. The principal soloist is the excellent baritone Jonathan Veira, firm and dark in tone, who responds to the enigmatic words of Poem for End setting by Ivor Gurney towards the end of his life.

Jeffreys's response as in the rest is most sensitive, as it is even for his bold setting of the medieval Lyke Wake Dirge , bold when Britten's setting of these words in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is so unforgettable. Jeffrey's setting is for baritone with Shelley Katz providing the piano accompaniment, responding to the florid style of Jeffrey's writing. Like Britten's setting it is firmly metrical with striking crescendo, but the rise and fall is far less well controlled, and one seriously wonders whether the composer had ever heard the Britten version.

The other song with piano is “Sweeney the Mad” setting the translations by the playwright John O'Keefe telling of Irish Sweeney's feud with the Abbot of St Ronan Finn. The saint cursed him to wander the Irish hills for ever. Jeffreys's response is to make it a heartfelt cry for help. The other item is Toby's Dream and Elegy , a bizarre little collection of nine very brief piano pieces, a worthwhile addition to this very varied collection, offered in clear, well-balanced sound.
Edward Greenfield

Rather like waiting for a bus, no sooner had a disc containing some lovely songs by John Jeffreys, persuasively sung by Ian Partridge, come my way than a second disc of his music landed on my doormat for review. The Partridge disc was highly enjoyable but in some ways this latest one scores higher because it presents music in more than one genre by this interesting composer.
I listened first to the music for orchestra. The Serenade for Strings is the oldest recording included here. It appeared on a Meridian disc over ten years ago (review). In passing I note that the same disc included Jeffreys' Violin Concerto and it would be good to see that piece restored to circulation. The Serenade is short but very attractive and as annotator Colin Scott-Sutherland comments, “there is no mistaking the essential Englishry” of the music. It's a lovely little piece and one that's worthy of the wider circulation that I hope this CD release will bring to it. It sounds to be very well written for strings and the performance under Kenneth Page is an affectionate one.
Page died some forty years after the Serenade was written and in an appropriate piece of programme planning, later on in the disc we hear Elegy for a Conductor , which Jeffreys wrote in tribute in 1999. The piece may well be receiving its first recording here. It's scored for strings with a sparingly-used horn. In addition there are telling solo interjections by flute, cor anglais and trumpet at various times. Colin Scott-Sutherland describes it as a “restrained threnody”. It put me in mind of Vaughan Williams, and not just because the trumpet solos recall his ‘ Pastoral' Symphony . I think it's a fine piece and though it's restrained in tone it's also heartfelt.
Bickleigh Idyll and Elegy for John Fry both appeared on the aforementioned Meridian disc, also in performances conducted by Kenneth Page. Here they reappear in new, sympathetic performances under Paul Bateman. Both are well worth hearing. The Idyll has an air of contented well-being about it, while the Elegy impresses through its calmly stated eloquence and, once again, some idiomatic writing for strings.
The two solo songs, Sweeny the Mad and A Lyke Wake Dirge have been issued previously by Somm Records some ten years ago (review). They are both good, dramatic songs and I'm glad that they've been included here. Mad Sweeney has no connection with the infamous Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by the way. This is a translation of a medieval Irish poem about a man condemned to wander the Irish mountains alone. It's a dark, dramatic piece and Jonathan Veira sings it boldly. Jeffreys' setting of the better-known text, A Lyke Wake Dirge , is a stark and powerful one. Veira is very impressive here; his voice is sonorous and clear. The music for every one of the nine stanzas is different, though thematically closely linked, and the cumulative power of the piece is impressive.
Even more remarkable though is the setting of Ivor Gurney's Poem for End , which is scored for baritone and strings with an important flute obbligato. Gurney's poem, which is probably a late one, is not easy to grasp at first sight. It's autobiographical, linking two great places of influence in his life. There are references to his native Gloucestershire – to Crickley [Hill], on the way from Gloucester to Cirencester, and to the Severn – and to France, where Gurney fought in the trenches. France is represented not just by a reference to Artois but, more harrowingly, by mention of “Crucifix Corner”, the war cemetery at Villers-Brettoneux, Somme. The music to which Jeffreys sets these verses is intense and in tune with Gurney's deeply-felt memories. Veira sings it powerfully and with great commitment – though I do wish he'd not roll the letter R so obviously at times. Much of the music is dark hued but towards the end (at 8:50) after a rather desolate flute solo, the mood softens somewhat for the resigned, admonitory last stanza of the poem.
Only, who thought of England as two thousand years
Must keep of today's life, the proper anger and fears
England that was paid for by building and ploughing and tears
For these lines Jeffreys writes a lovely, lyrical line for the singer and the piece achieves a gentle, consoling end. It seems that this fine setting has remained unperformed since it was composed in the 1960s. I hope this recording will encourage other singers to take it up.
To complete the programme conductor Paul Bateman turns to the piano to play Toby's Dreams and Elegy . This is a little set of eight short pieces which, we are told, evoke “the slumbering contentment of dog Toby”, who was killed by a car while shepherding handicapped children across a road. These miniatures take the form of “diversions rather than variations” on a very short thematic figure. I thought the piece started off pleasantly enough but as one movement followed another a rather disappointing sameness was all too evident. All the pieces are in moderate tempo and gentle and reflective in nature. All well and good to illustrate canine dreams, I suppose. But, I wondered, didn't this dog ever dream of chasing rabbits? I doubt I'll return to this part of the programme but the remainder of the disc is a different matter.
This new disc continues and expands the favourable impression made on me by Ian Partridge's recital. John Jeffreys is a sincere composer with something to say – and that something is worth hearing. I'm very glad to welcome these further examples of his output to the catalogue and this disc offers an excellent introduction to his music for those unacquainted with it.
John Quinn

Uunder-rated British composer John Jeffreys, now turned 80, is best known for his songs, and his purely orchestral pieces are very much songs without words. The stand-out work in every sense is Poem for End, a setting of Ivor Gurney featuring baritone Jonathan Veira. At the piano, conductor Paul Bateman adds sprightly solo miniatures. ××××
Peter Palmer