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 Philip Cannon Obituary

"Rick Wakeman’s favourite teacher"

The composer and teacher Philip Cannon, who has died aged 87, defied avant-garde trends with vocal and instrumental music that communicated immediately with listeners.

His first acknowledged works date from his student years at the Royal College of Music. He was only 19 when he wrote his symphonic study Spring, which was played at the Proms under Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1954. Another notable piece from this period, the lively neo-classical Concertino for piano and strings (1951), was premiered by Joseph Cooper and has been performed internationally more than 1,000 times.

Drawn to the voice, in his Cinq Chansons de Femme (1952) Cannon set five old French ballads for soprano and harp or piano, recreating in contemporary vignettes the archaic, serious or light-hearted spirit of the texts. A turning point came when his passionately dissonant String Quartet of 1964 won two international awards in France. It was written at a time when the composer was becoming increasingly disillusioned with contemporary trends in composition. The score bears the superscription “a personal exorcism of the many devils that beset us today”.

A series of high-profile commissions ensued, including two for the Three Choirs Festival. The Temple (1974), for unaccompanied choir, is an intensely beautiful treatment of George Herbert’s mystic poetry. Lord of Light (1980) is a large-scale one-movement setting of the requiem mass for soloists, boys’ choir, chorus, organ and large orchestra. An unexpected cri de coeur in the prayer for rest, Dona Eis Requiem, is a highlight of this visionary piece which ends in a fantasia on the joyful tune Christe Redemptor Omnium, one of the chimes at Gloucester Cathedral, where the piece was premiered. His most prestigious commission, the Te Deum (1975), dedicated to the Queen, marked the 500th anniversary of St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

In 1945 he wrote a string quartet which so impressed Imogen Holst that she invited him to study with her at Dartington Hall in Devon. She instilled in her pupil what he later described as “a tough and steely self-awareness of my powers and limitations which proved a constant revelation”. At the age of 18 he gained a composition scholarship to the Royal College of Music (1948-51), studying there with Gordon Jacob, Ralph Vaughan Williams and, for a few lessons, Paul Hindemith. After lecturing in music at Sydney University (1957-59), he was appointed a professor of composition at the RCM (1960-95). Cannon was made a fellow of the RCM (1972) and a bard of the Cornish cultural body Gorsedh Kernow (1997).

The composer, keyboard player and songwriter Rick Wakeman wrote in the college’s magazine Upbeat: “My absolute favourite teacher was Philip Cannon. He was an incredibly eccentric teacher, and you never knew what he was going to say next, but he taught me everything I know about orchestration.”

In 2010 he donated his archive of music manuscripts to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. One of his last completed works was an a cappella setting of Herbert’s poem Faith, written in 2012 for St Martin’s Chamber Choir of Denver, Colorado. A Lyrita CD featuring off-air recordings of BBC broadcasts of Cinq Chansons de Femme, the String Quartet and Lord of Light is scheduled for release in April. Paul Conway, The Guardian

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From the Catalogue


Emma Johnson, John Lenehan & Paul Clarvis perform Wang Wang Blues

Her playing style is very clean. She allows herself to swing, use blue notes, scoops and slides and some vibrato, which is never excessive except perhaps in Bechet’s Petite Fleur. She is always in tune and neither squawks nor honks. There are no duff notes, heavy breathing or clatter of keywork. I must include her collaborators in this general praise. The pianist John Lenehan, who has recorded such serious things with her as the Brahms sonatas, really gets into the spirit of this project with some splendidly enthusiastic and virtuosic solos. Percussionist Paul Clavis has some very nice touches, and I greatly enjoyed his contributions to Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk.  Musicweb International


Emma Johnson plays 24 short pieces to represent the melting pot of musical genres, including jazz, which occurred around the turn of the 20th century.  It's an entertaining and wide-ranging selection taking in Gershwin, Ravel, Joplin, Berecht, Copland and a number of venerable jazz standards... The playing by all concerned is, of course, immaculate" Dave Gelly To see other recordings by Emma Johnson, click here

BBC Radio 3 Broadcast Monday 24th April at 3.45pm
Penny Gore presents a week of performances from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, including recent concerts and new studio recordings. Today features a new recording of the Symphony No.1 by the Anglo-Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren, scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra, and based on the same source material as Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.

It was always more talked about than heard – that’s the way with van Dieren – but such a sumptuous and convincing performance as this encourages thoughts about the so-called Chinese Symphony which sets words from Die chineische Flöte, Chinese poetry translated by Hans Bethge. The link with Mahler, who was similarly inspired by it, is unavoidable. The orchestral tapestry is deft and often delicately spun, and the vocal writing is often explicitly Delian. The five soloists acquit themselves with distinction and the chorus, a character in its own right, poetically and musically, is a vital component of the success of the performance. Above all the orchestral forces are on top form, outstandingly marshalled by William Boughton. Musicweb

Vladimir Feltsman - JS Bach
Two-part inventions and three-part sinfonias recorded 17 years apart in very different acoustics.  But Feltsman brings a tonal richness and a pleasing sense of line to these miraculous minatures.
OC, BBC Music Magazine

To see other recordings by Vladimir Feltsman, click here

Eyvind Alnæs Sym Nos. 1 & 2
...Each of the movements develops in unexpected ways, showing influences from Sibelius in a manner that will bring to British listeners the symphonies of Bax and Moeran (this is not to suggest ‘influence’ but merely to give some impression of the style that Alnæs adopts). The slow movement is again a highlight in its emotional charge, and one reads with amazement... The works themselves would clearly admit of a variety of interpretations... Those – and they are many – who relish the discovery of new symphonic music from the twentieth century need not hesitate. This is a disc I certainly will be playing again, many times. Musicweb International


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