Columbia Light Symphony Orchestra conducted by
Charles Williams featuring Clive Richardson, piano.
Analysed by Robert Walton
It was in 1990 that Carlin Music asked me to write a “Theatrical Overture” for their library. On the day of the session, imagine my surprise when one of my idols of music Clive Richardson casually strolled into CTS studios at Wembley. I had already met him at a Robert Farnon Appreciation Society recital but this you can understand was something else. His contribution to the session were two new compositions of his called Shopping Around and Mantovani Strings. While he was very generous in praising my work, I was totally immersed in that famous ‘Richardson’ sound. For many years it had been my intention to analyse his London Fantasia for JIM. So why not now?
Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto was undoubtedly the first of its kind and proved to be the most popular of the genre, but I have always maintained the Richardson composition deserved far more recognition because of its highly descriptive musical narrative. It was originally called The Coventry Concerto but the more he worked on the score, Richardson felt London Fantasia was a more appropriate title. In essence it’s a nine minute microcosm of WW2.
An instant attention grabber, the opening section of timpani, brass and strings immediately creates a threatening and uneasy atmosphere, reminding one of the evils and pointlessness of war. But suddenly the music becomes becalmed by a radiant string tune perhaps looking back to those halcyon days of a once peaceful prewar period. Maybe we hoped there was still an outside chance of averting conflict.
But that was all swept away by the first sound of the ‘boots on the ground’ of young men marching off to unknown destinations to fight for King and country. Note a single sustained string note continues right through from the tranquil tune into this dramatic sector. Then a troop-carrying train is brought into the picture. And yet again that calming optimistic tune reappears to even greater effect. After a suggestion of Londoners at work and children at play, there’s a touch of Carriage And Pair from which emerges the bells of old London. Conductor Charles Williams would have related to that, as there was a lot of ‘London’ in his music.
And then something absolutely magical happens - the music slows right down to a virtual standstill, creating one of the most moving moments in music. The piano enters with two lots of nine gentle chords. Never have minor chords sounded so effective. The simplicity after all the drama is mesmerizing. It may not seem obvious but the piece has finally come to life baring its soul.
After a definite break, the strings lead in to Richardson’s glorious theme played by the solo piano supported by a cello, later joined by the rest of the orchestra. Notice his fondness for triplets in the tune like David Rose. Twice the oboe is at the forefront of building up the momentum as we head towards a cadenza or flourish, featuring the frantic fingers of Richardson, demonstrating his dazzling technique and particularly sensitive touch. His use of single notes is far more powerful than any complicated writing. Back briefly to the theme before some more piano pyrotechnics.
Then, as children in the far off Empire, the moment we all used to wait for was an air raid siren brilliantly imitated by the strings, warning that heavy bombers were approaching. The Battle of Britain had begun. Richardson throws everything he can orchestrally at this musical canvas with particular emphasis on the percussion. He didn’t forget the rescue services either rushing along with their bells to where they were needed. Eventually the all-clear sounds, and life returns to some sort of normality.
So what does Richardson do after that first raid? He calls upon the services of the instrument that has the range and capacity to provide a complete coverage of emotions, the violin. Great sadness descends across the nation, echoed from the darkest depths of the violin’s recesses. As it heads to the heights for the brighter top of its range, a major chord expresses a message of peace and hope for the future, now in tandem with the piano.
London Fantasia, Richardson’s magnum opus, gradually builds up to one of the most thrilling endings of any composition for piano and orchestra I know. If ever a piece told its own story then this is it. A tale of courage, endurance and above all humanity. No other composer has written a work of such power, originality and eloquence about such a momentous event. The general public thought so too in their millions.
Finally, with all the excitement and pleasure of meeting Clive Richardson, I almost forgot to mention another musician who happened to be playing on the Carlin session. My all-time favourite jazz drummer and long term member of the great Ted Heath Orchestra - Ronnie Verrell! My cup was overflowing that day!
“London Fantasia” available on Guild Light Music
“The Hall Of Fame” Volume 1 (GLCD 5120)
We had a fairly good representation of Sidney Torch recordings in the USA back in the 1940's and 1950's available to us and released here, but not this particular recording that Graham refers to. As for the presence or absence of any additional material I referred to in my previous comment, I have to assume that with Clive Richardson once again at the piano as with the Charles Williams version, that the version he uses is the same one.Report Comment Link
Without trying to be controversial I much prefer the Sydney Torch Parlophone recording of London Fantasia. It also features Clive Richardson at the piano. Perhaps I am biased as this is the version I grew up with, constantly playing my parents 12 inch 78.Report Comment Link
This recording is another example of what I've already brought up in previous comments a few times.
None of Charles Williams' English Columbia recordings were available here in the USA at the time they were released commercially, except for "The Dream of Olwen," taken over in the American Columbia catalogue and backed on a single by incidental music from the same production, "While I Live" that "The Dream of Olwen" came from. It remained as a 12" single and never reappeared afterward in an updated format, at least as far as I know.
Despite their commercial unavailability here, radio stations nevertheless were continually broadcasting them, so that I was at least aware of their existence. But the situation with Charles Williams was far worse than with George Melachrino, whose recordings I have also referred to, although here a limited number did get released commercially in the USA, all of which I have previously mentioned.
Fortunately, some of this repertoire could still be accessed through the early recordings by Mantovani which were fully available in the USA, and which I regard as some of the best recordings and presentations of light music from that period. "The Dream of Olwen" in Mantovani's recording (not his later rendition of the piece) is nearly identical to that in the Charles Williams recording and is fully as good in its presentation.
But we are referring here to Clive Richardson's "London Fantasia," and the situation here is exactly the same. The Charles Williams recording with the composer at the piano never made it to these shores but we had available a recording by Mantovani (on two sides of a 12" disc) featuring Monia Liter as soloist, one of those glorious early Mantovani recordings originally made in 1946. It has an advantage over the Charles Williams recording in that it includes material that was not included in the Williams recording; perhaps about a minute of music.
I will not comment regarding a comparison between the two versions (both may now be sampled on YouTube), as I am not intimately familiar with the piece, so I will not venture to say whether the piece comes off better with or without the additional material. However, for anyone not familiar with the Mantovani version, I would urge that they listen to it and decide for themselves as to which way the piece works better.