Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Harriet Cohen: Russian Impressions

I tend to see Harriet Cohen in terms of her relationship with Arnold Bax. Of course she had a notable career as a pianist that was not subject to Bax’s influence: for one thing she was highly regarded as an interpreter of J.S. Bach. Harriet was very enthusiastic about contemporary British music and gave a number of world premieres. Most especially Ralph Vaughan Williams's underrated and under-performed Piano Concerto was written for her. She recorded Elgar’s fine Piano Quintet with the Stratton Quartet under the composer’s supervision. Other composers who dedicated music to her were John Ireland, Bela Bartok, E.J Moeran and Ernest Bloch. Of course, for a number of years she was Arnold Bax’s lover and muse and as result of this many works flowed from his pen. However it came as a surprise to me to discover that Harriet Cohen was also a composer. Now a brief look at the catalogue does not reveal a huge contribution to the literature: they are mostly arrangements of Johann Sebastian Bach:-
Be contented, O my soul by J.S. Bach arranged for two pianos
Beloved Jesu, we are here by J.S. Bach arranged for two pianos
Bist du bei mir: aria by J.S. Bach arranged for cello & piano
Sanctify us by thy goodness: chorale from the Cantata No.22 by J.S. Bach arranged for piano
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme by J.S. Bach arranged for piano duet.

However the most surprising contribution is a set of Russian Impressions. These were published by Augener in 1915 when Harriet was only 20 years old. They were well received by the critic of the Monthly Music Record in September 1915 – he writes “Miss Harriet Cohen is singularly fortunate in her subjects. These four pieces are melodious in their colouring, well finished in artistry, and easy to play – Grieg like in type; but Russian in spirit.”
There are four ‘Impressions': ‘Sunset on the Volga’ is a little melody that is cleverly worked out in E major. The second Impression is called ‘The Exile’ and has a simple yet poignant charm. 'The Old Church at Wilna' is probably the best of the pieces with its bell-like imitations at the start and conclusion of the work. And lastly the work concludes with a vivid tone painting of Tartar life.

Unfortunately these are not recorded but are surely one of the minor desiderata of English music piano repertoire. And in spite of the critic contention they are not that easy to play – they are certainly not in my gift!

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