Thursday, 24 March 2011

English Piano Music from Dal Segno Records

I must admit that I was a little bit disappointed on receiving this CD. I imagined that I was expecting a brand new recording of these works. Yet a quick rummage in the CD cabinet soon revealed the truth. This is effectively a re-release of the ‘old’ Gamut disc (GAMCD516) from 1990. To be fair, there are three extra works added to the track listing; more about them later.

A large portion of this CD is taken up with Ivor Gurney’s remarkable ‘Preludes’ for piano. However, the ‘rewritten’ sleeve-notes are a wee bit misleading. Tim Grocutt writes that ‘... nine of the piano works featured here have been realised from Gurney’s unpublished manuscripts ... it is likely that the only performances of these works hitherto were given by Gurney and his friends.’ This statement appears on face value to ignore the fact that in 2004 Mark Bebbington recorded 11 of the 14 Gurney pieces presented on this present CD. One can only assume that these ‘revised’ sleeve-notes predate this time. Furthermore, Bebbington has recorded the ‘2nd’ version of the Prelude in D major: Alan Gravill has chosen not to do so. There is, then, some confusion as to what musical ‘text’ has been used for this performance. The Preludes are played in the same order as the album published by Thames in 2003; however, Gravill’s realisation predates these by 13 years. So are there two ‘realisations’ in existence? In all there are some 15 preludes cited in The Ivor Gurney Society Catalogue of the composer’s music (published in Volume 12, 2006). So there are still six to go - in various states of editing.

I have always regarded these Preludes as nodding toward Scriabin – not so much in their sound world, but more in the general mood and feel. There is a certain ambiguity in these outwardly straightforward pieces that seems to match the composer’s mental health at the time of composition. This is not the forum to discuss the pros and cons as to whether Ivor Gurney suffered from shell-shock or was bi-polar. Nevertheless it is useful to quote Michael Hurd – [These Preludes] exhibit many of the stylistic characteristics ... that are integral to the uniqueness of his vision – the rapid rate of harmonic change, the subtle telescoping of phrases and the unexpected rhythmic dislocations, all of which find parallels in what Edmund Blunden so aptly described as the ‘gnarled’ style of his poetry.’

Although superficially these Preludes have an easily approachable style, that often nods to Fauré, there is often something unsettling about them. It is as if his mind never quite focused on their musical integrity and consistency.

The earliest pieces by Gurney are the two Nocturnes dating from 1908-09. Michael Hurd has written that in these ‘we can see the young composer learning his craft by way of the composers he admires - Grieg, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann ...’ there is no way that these are major contributions to the British musical scene: there is little to suggest the musical style of the songs of the later Gurney. Yet they have an almost naive attraction that is both satisfying and enjoyable.

The three minor works also date from before the Great War. These are definitely ‘salon’ pieces with no pretension to being great works of art. Yet even here we are conscious of Ivor Gurney’s remarkable ability to paint the Gloucestershire landscape in musical terms. Certainly the Revery could have been imagined on Chosen Hill looking across the Severn Plain. It is a lovely well-stated miniature that combines mood and beauty. To E.M.H is a fine little number that rollicks along: there is nothing reflective or introverted here. The liner-notes may have chosen to explain that the initials stood for Emily M. Hunt who was a musician and one of Gurney’s many female friends. A Picture is once again ‘landscape oriented’ – although there are darker hues here. Yet it is a beautiful evocation of some imagined place in the ‘Western Playland’ (also the title of one of his Housman cycles for male voice and ensemble). It would have been useful if the dates of these pieces had been given in the liner-notes.

Edward Elgar is not well-known for his piano music. Nevertheless, the four works presented here are miniature masterpieces in their own right. The Adieu is possibly an early piece that had to wait until 1932 before being published. Mendelssohn’s sequence of Songs without Words is never far away although occasionally there is an unmistakable Elgarian fingerprint – especially in the middle section.

Skizze was composed in 1901 and owes more to Robert Schumann than anyone else. It has been described as being elusive or fugitive – it is one of those short pieces that cannot really be tied down. It is over and done with before the listener can decide what is happening and in which direction the piece is moving.

In Smyrna was written after the composer had spent two weeks cruising in the Mediterranean aboard H.M.S. Surprise. The music was apparently worked out on the ship’s piano! For the curious, the town of Smyrna is now called Izmir in Turkey. The opening is evocative of the heat and shimmer of the hot Southern climate, yet the second half of the work is typically Elgarian. Perhaps he was missing the English countryside?

The major work by Elgar is the massive Concert Allegro which was written for the pianist Fanny Davies in 1901 - and subsequently revised. It is the only piano work that Elgar regarded as being designed for use in the recital room as opposed to the salon. Some of it leaves me absolutely cold, yet there are moments of sheer delight that raise the spirit and ease the heart.

The three ‘new’ or additional works on this re-released CD are from pen of Herbert Howells, who is also not usually associated with solo piano pieces. This is in spite of the fact that he wrote two worthy concertos for that instrument. The Three Pieces were composed just prior to the Great War and are to a certain extent quite unique in Howells catalogue. Tim Grocutt rightly points out that compared to the highly romantic chamber works being written by Howells at this time, this music is bleak and sometimes desolate. What is more, these works are not ‘salon’ pieces in any sense of the term. They are well-developed, highly structured music that explores a wide range of emotion. The first of the three works is the Rhapsody which is a romantic work that exploits that darker side of lyricism. It is possible to hear echoes of Rachmaninov and Arnold Bax. But this is not music that wears its heart on its sleeve. It is not restful and it makes the listener uneasy. Jackanapes is another case in point: this is almost Stravinskian in its sound-world. It is ostensibly a ‘scherzo, but as the sleeve-notes state, it has a hysterical (not funny) edge to it. The middle ‘trio’ section is anything but a ‘joke’. The final piece, Procession was the result of a dream that Howells had after reading Dostoevsky. He dreamt that a large crowd approached him and overwhelmed him. The bells from the steeples peal wildly before the crowd disperses and the composer is left alone. Once again this is an aggressive work that is a million miles away from any pastoral imaginings that the listener may have constructed around the composer’s reputation.
These are exceptionally well played by Jeremy Filsell. I understand that this work was originally released on another Gamut CD (GAMCD541) which was later re-issued by Guild on GMCD7119. Its companions there were: Howells’ Sonatina and a selection of the piano works of Bernard Stevens: Fantasia on 'Giles Farnaby's Dreame'. Sonata in one movement Op.25 and Aria. The main competition for the Howells piano music is on Chandos: 70 minutes of Howells’ solo piano music recorded by Margaret Fingerhut (CHAN9273, issued 1994).

I guess the main disappointment for me with this CD is the liner-notes. They lack depth and are certainly a little out of date - see note above about Mark Bebbington. As far as I can see there are no details - apart from a brief mention - about the Nocturnes and the other minor pieces. He disposes of the Preludes in less than 200 words. Interestingly Dal Segno chose to provide ‘new’ liner-notes. The original text for the Gamut release by Michael Hurd was excellent.

However, this is a welcome CD that will sit alongside the roughly equivalent Somm recording - that disc also includes the bulk of Howard Ferguson’s works for piano. The three short pieces, Revery, A Picture and To E.M.H. are not available elsewhere.

As to choosing between the several recordings of the works of Gurney, Elgar and Howells it is more difficult to determine. I would suggest that most enthusiasts of British music will want to own all the versions of these piano pieces. Nevertheless Alan Gravill and Jeremy Filsell play these works with commitment and sensitivity. It is a great (re)addition to the catalogues.

Track Listing:
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Preludes for Piano (1919-20) Nocturne in B (1909) Nocturne in A flat (1908) Revery (1909) To E.M.H. – a birthday present from Ivor (1918) A Picture (1909)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Concert Allegro (1901-1906) Skizze (1903) In Smyrna (1905) Adieu (pub.1932)
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Three Pieces, Op.14 (Rhapsody, JackanapesProcession) (1909)
Alan Gravill (piano) Jeremy Filsell (piano, Howells)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

1 comment:

Pamela said...

I can understand your confusion about the information in the liner notes in regard to the author's comments about "the only performances". As you point out the "new" CD is a reissue of Alan Gravill's original recording from 1990. At the time Gravill was planning to do more work on the preludes but in 1991 he was fatally injured in an auto accident. Jennifer Partridge brought out her edition with Thames much later. The recordings on the "new" CD can only be those edited by Gravill. I expect that Bebbington probably used the Partridge edition his recording so there would be two realizations but Gravill's was the original one.
I'd like to clarify one statement made in the liner notes, the reference to the piano piece "To E.M.H." I've been doing extensive research into the lives of the Hunt sisters, Emily and Margaret, who were so important in Gurney's early life. E.M.H. is not Emily but Margaret, whose full name was Ethel Margaret Hunt. Gurney was very close to Margaret who was his early muse and for whom he composed a fair amount of music and later dedicated his first book of poems to her as well as other compositions. Margaret was born in December 1874 and "To E.M.H." was Ivor's birthday present to her.