27 Jan

Touch Me Softly

Written by

(Hoffman-Allen)
George Shearing Quintet with String Choir
Analysed by Robert Walton

Most professional singers make it a practice to do a thorough sound and familiarization check before performing on stage, especially one that’s new to them. Dame Vera Lynn was no exception and lucky enough to have the expertise of her fastidious husband Harry Lewis who always made sure that everything was just perfect. I was her pianist in the mid-60s when the three of us entered the Stoke-on-Trent venue to give it the once over.

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(Hoffman-Allen)
George Shearing Quintet with String Choir
Analysed by Robert Walton

Most professional singers make it a practice to do a thorough sound and familiarization check before performing on stage, especially one that’s new to them. Dame Vera Lynn was no exception and lucky enough to have the expertise of her fastidious husband Harry Lewis who always made sure that everything was just perfect. I was her pianist in the mid-60s when the three of us entered the Stoke-on-Trent venue to give it the once over.

As we walked in, the public address system was playing what I can only describe as “music from heaven”. I immediately went into a kind of trance and my goose pimples became instantly active. Vera and Harry couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, but I was in another world transfixed to the spot. After making enquiries the engineer in the control room informed me it was the title track of George Shearing’s album “Touch Me Softly”. Near the end of Shearing’s gorgeous arrangement, ravishing strings go literally into overdrive in what I call “tone apart” harmony. Let me explain. On the piano, the right hand plays the chord of say G, while the left hand plays the chord of F (both 2nd inversions). Play them together and the dissonance it creates is absolutely mind-blowing, especially when you move them up and down in tones. (Much more daring than say Debussy or Ravel). When I discovered these discords, I thought they were pure Bartok but a Royal Schools of Music professor insisted they were just borrowed from jazz.

Why do “far out” harmonies appeal to us? Of course, our DNA has a lot to answer for. On my father’s side, their whole passion was music. His aunt was an excellent piano teacher (she dumped me because I wouldn’t practise) while his mother was an incredible sight reader. But it wasn’t all one sided. My mother was a Chopin fanatic.

Guilt can be part of it too. After purchasing Ted Heath’s Strike Up The Band with its abrasive high brass, I remember feeling guilty (almost naughty) because my parents might object. After my classical music training, to be suddenly swept up by all this dissonance was a life changing experience. Overnight it seemed I had found the key to a new world of sound. The discords dug deep into my soul literally hurting the senses but what a discovery. At first it jars but gradually one becomes accustomed to paradise!

A brilliant solo violin begins this brief concerto-like introduction in a thrilling way that totally gripped me. The opening of Touch Me Softly is actually a trailblazer for what’s to come. As soon as the Quintet chords are sounded, you know you’re in Shearingland and when the strings enter for the first time, the nimble fingers of the maestro confirm something special is on its way. This is no Tatum or Peterson but a very gentle George with his own tasteful piano, keeping everything as musical and relaxed as possible with overall control by Milton Raskin. This section is virtually repeated with some more dreamy like doodling from Shearing.

Then what we’ve all been waiting for, the symphonic strings suddenly erupt into a dazzling display of a sort of frenzied fusion between Schoenberg and Farnon, creating one of the most haunting sounds I’ve ever heard. It’s a sheer miracle that this very small part of the track happened to be playing that day in Stoke. The coda is an extension of the opening. I wonder how you reacted when you first encountered those Shearing strings?

“Touch Me Softly”. George Shearing
Capitol LP T1874

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27 Jan

Escales: French Orchestral Works

Written by

Sinfonia of London / John Wilson
Chandos CHSA 5252 (79:05)

With lead features on him in forthcoming issues of both Gramophone and BBC Music magazines, our charismatic friend from RFS meeting days, John Wilson, is nowadays as ‘big’ in the world of classical music as he is in the kind of music we love. Here he follows his massively acclaimed album of Erich Wolfgang Korngold works (CHSA 5220) with the re-established Sinfonia of London, this time featuring compositions by French composers.

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15 Jan

New Year’s Concert 2020

Written by

Wiener Philharmoniker ● Andris Nelsons
Sony 2CDs 19439702362 ; Sony DVD Video 19439702379

If I had a bucket list, top of it would to have been in the Vienna audience for the 81st New Year’s Day concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

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04 Jan

Auber : Overtures Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice

Written by

Dario Salvi
Naxos 8.574005 (64:50)

One of the most popular and prolific of his time, the French composer Daniel-François-Esprit Auber (1782-1871) was prominent in the 19th-century cultivation of opera containing spoken as well as sung passages (comic opera or opéra-comique).

Apparently, M. Auber was an affable character whose music reflected his personality and Parisian elegance.

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04 Dec

André Rieu And His Johann Strauss Orchestra - Happy Days

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Decca CD 5487980 (67’) + DVD (58')

As sure as day follows night, here is the charismatic Dutchman’s annual album selection of our kind of music to brighten the dark days of December and beyond. Needless to say, it immediately shot to the top of the Classic FM best-seller chart.

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01 Dec

Vaughan Williams - Orchestral Works

Written by

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Manze
Onyx 4212 (69:23)

This release is an addendum to Beckenham-born conductor and violinist Andrew Manze’s critically acclaimed recordings of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) nine symphonies. These would probably be a bit heavy for a lot of light music enthusiasts but the orchestral works on this album are more approachable and among the most popular ‘The Grand Old Man of English Music’ wrote.

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27 Nov

Beatles Go Baroque ● 2

Written by

Peter Breiner and His Orchestra
Naxos 8.574078 (70’09)

27 years ago, the Naxos label released an album called ‘Beatles Go Baroque’, which is still listed in the catalogue (8.55510) having achieved multi-platinum award status. What we have now in their Light Music series is the sequel, going one better than the original by keeping the 18th-century masterpieces largely intact, stylishly merging them with the Beatles’ enduring melodies.

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23 Nov

High Strung

Written by

(Larry Coleman, Buddy Dufault)
Axel Stordahl’s Orchestra
Analysed by Robert Walton

Composer (of I Should Care and Day by Day), vocalist, arranger and conductor, Axel Stordahl’s main claim to fame was as musical director and advisor to Frank Sinatra during the first decade of the singer’s career. Axel is the Danish form of Absalom but even after all this time some disc jockeys still call him “Alex”. He is largely credited with bringing pop arranging into the modern era. More specifically he was a pioneer of symphonic-style backings in a popular context. Kostelanetz was the orchestra-only equivalent. Make no mistake though, Stordahl was just as capable of conventional big band arranging.

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(Larry Coleman, Buddy Dufault)
Axel Stordahl’s Orchestra
Analysed by Robert Walton

Composer (of I Should Care and Day by Day), vocalist, arranger and conductor, Axel Stordahl’s main claim to fame was as musical director and advisor to Frank Sinatra during the first decade of the singer’s career. Axel is the Danish form of Absalom but even after all this time some disc jockeys still call him “Alex”. He is largely credited with bringing pop arranging into the modern era. More specifically he was a pioneer of symphonic-style backings in a popular context. Kostelanetz was the orchestra-only equivalent. Make no mistake though, Stordahl was just as capable of conventional big band arranging.

A native New Yorker from Staten Island, he was born Odd Stordahl in 1913 to parents of Norwegian descent. Stordahl worked his way up as sideman/arranger for Bert Block and Tommy Dorsey (playing fourth trumpet and singing in a vocal trio). His gorgeous arrangements for Dorsey blossomed into perfect accompaniments for Sinatra at the studios of Columbia Records. One of the best examples of a Stordahl orchestration was Everybody Loves Somebody. (I recall wondering why that excellent 1948 song wasn’t already a hit, but 16 years later Dean Martin got around to it). Axel was conductor/arranger on nearly all Frank Sinatra records from 1943-1953. Oddly, Stordahl didn’t get a single mention in Marmorstein’s “The Story of Columbia Records!”. A pallid complexion, softly spoken and a sensitive musician, Stordahl suffered from a rheumatic heart. His interest in serious music, particularly Frederick Delius, influenced his ballad charts.

Sinatra and Stordahl eventually parted company, the crooner going to Capitol. However Stordahl conducted Sinatra for his first date at the new label and recorded several light orchestral 78rpm discs also at Capitol. (By the way Capitol is strictly pronounced Capi-TOL as it’s spelt, not Capi-TAL). When I was a radio announcer, the powers that be insisted on it. It’s important to remember there would be no Riddle without Stordahl, who paved the way for Nelson to be his natural successor. And talking of the composer of High Strung, it might be worth mentioning that an earlier Dufault (François) born in France in 1600 was considered one of the greatest lutenists of his time.

In the 21st century, the title High Strung (grammatically speaking it should be “highly-strung”) became even more appropriate in terms of the state of anxiety that affects so many people today. Once again the David Rose sound is in the frame with a labour intensive exercise from the very start. Instead of pizzicato (as in Holiday for Strings) it’s just regular arco, quickly changing to the woodwind and before we know it, we’re back to the strings.

Then taking another leaf, this time out of the Rose middle section formula, Stordahl heads for the heights with a horn and a strong string tremor. Soon we’re back at the start for a brief repeat of that exercise. Then unlike Holiday for Strings the main melody slows right down, beginning with a suggestion of the opening of TwelfthStreet Rag and the Du Und Du waltz. A piano joins the strings for some romantic meanderings in the manner of Leonard Pennario’s Midnight ontheCliffs.

Then seven assertive string chords re-introduce the by now familiar melody in its original fast state but this time we go quickly into another glorious Rose-like quake (with a hint of Robert Farnon’s Portrait of a Flirt). And finishing on a nervous note, High Strung is brought to a conclusion by the timpani.

In the second half of the 1940s the light orchestral world was turned on its head when the musical baton was handed on from Rose to Farnon, who gave the style a fix that changed light music forever. (Just shows you that even Stordahl was well acquainted with the Farnon style). Who wasn’t!

High Strung Axel Stordahl Orchestra Capitol 78 rpm CL 14047

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.