Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)
Three Studies Op.4 (1901/1909) Three Pieces Op.16: Dance in the Twilight; Summer Evening; At a Country Fair (1909/1915) Two Impressions Op.19: In a Gondola; Lanterns (1914/1919) Four Country Pieces Op.27: Shepherd Song; Goblins; Forest Lullaby; Pipe & Tabor (1923) Suite from Where the Rainbow Ends: Rosamund & Will-o’ the Wisp; Goblin Forest; Moonlight on the Lake; Fairy Revels (1911/1912)
David Owen Norris (piano)
EM Records EMR CD002 [47:00]
It is like chalk and cheese…! Just compare ‘Rosamund’ from Where the Rainbow Ends and ‘At a Country Fair’ from the Three Pieces. Two works could not be more different. The first is a dreamy Delius-like meditation on a ‘fair-lady’ complete with slippery harmonies; the second is almost Bartokian in its ferocity, fire and sheer power.
For most listeners Roger Quilter’s name will always be associated with his exquisitely wrought songs that explore such a wide range of English verse and poetry. However there are a few more strings to his bow- not least some fine ‘light’ orchestral works including the once famous Children’s Overture. There are also a fair few stage works such as the children’s play Where the Rainbow Ends, incidental music to As You Like it and to The Rake. Included in his catalogue are surprising quantities of choral works which seem to be rarely heard. Finally, there are a number of instrumental works which include piano solos, and a handful of chamber music pieces for a variety of ensembles.
The present CD claims to present the complete piano works. I guess it depends on how one defines ‘complete’. I personally would have included the piano version of the Children’s Overture, the Three English Dances and the missing numbers from Where the Rainbow Ends. After all, one has to assume that the Rainbow Suite (which is included) was derived (by the composer) from the theatre orchestra score or at the very least the short score.
The works are presented in chronological order, with the exception of Where the Rainbow Ends which is placed last.
The recital opens with the Three Studies with the first dating from 1901 and the other two some eight years later. The first, is I believe the best with its ‘fluid’ mood of ‘waywardness’, however the second nods to Brahms and the third to Rachmaninov. All three are worthy pieces that do not deserve their obscurity.
The ‘Three Pieces’ are superb. However, I do not think that they belong together as a set: the style is totally different. The opening ‘Dance in the Twilight’ is a competent example of salon music. However the impressionistic ‘Summer Evening’ is a long, complex piece that could possibly be regarded as one of Roger Quilter’s masterpieces. The final ‘At a Country Fair’ is a little aggressive and a million miles away from the idyllic dreams of the previous piece. The irregular rhythms and complex pianism suggest a mood more in keeping with the Balkans rather than Banbury. I have noted Bartok as a comparison: it is not too far fetched.
The Two Impressions straddle the years of the Great War. Lapping waters of Thames or the Lido haunt the barcarolle ‘In a Gondola’ from the first bar to the last. It is an introspective reflection that utilises the whole-tone scale to create the enigmatic mood. ‘Lanterns’, which was originally entitled ‘Carnival’, is probably the most intricate piece on this CD. This is a work that ‘sparkles and glitters’ with involved harmonies and rhythmic devices.
The last set of pieces is the Four Country Pieces. The opening ‘Shepherd’s Song’ reminded me of Percy Grainger in its errant harmonies. It is obviously not a ‘heigh ho’ type of rustic, but a deeply reflective man or woman who ponders this deeply felt ‘hymn’. ‘Goblins’ is fun – a bouncy piece that creates a mental image of a not too scary supernatural creature. Once again the mood changes: ‘Forest Lullaby’ is a well wrought little piece that is more akin to a meditation than trying to put the child to sleep. That said, there is a good use of the rhythm ‘go to sleep’ throughout the piece some lovely harmony and a well-poised tune that make this a little gem. ‘Pipe & Tabor’ is exactly what it ought to be: a romp through a Hardy-esque landscape. Lots fun, but just a hint of a little trouble somewhere over the horizon.
I first came across Where the Rainbow Ends in an old ex-library piano score. A few years later I heard the orchestral suite on the Marco Polo retrospective of Quilter’s orchestral music. I loved it from the word go. Quilter wrote this incidental music for this children’s play in 1911 with libretto by Clifford Mills and John Ramsey. The first performance was at the Savoy Theatre in London and the cast included Noel Coward and Jack Hawkins.
The music for this play is absolutely gorgeous. Every bar, every note even, has a sense of magic and wonder. The opening ‘Rosamund’ is utterly beautiful: this is truly heart-easing music at its most gorgeous. ‘Fairies’ and ‘Will o’ the wisp’ and ‘Goblins’ all appear in this suite. However the heart of the work is the atmospheric Moonlight on the Lake.
Alas, in spite of a run of some 48 years today’s generation of children are unlikely to see this magical production. There is so much that is ‘wrong’ with the story that our politically-correct age would abhor. We could not possibly have our children (and ourselves) traumatised by tales of magic carpets, the notion that Great Britain counts for something in history, children in search of their mother and father and the Patron Saint of England, George being their (and our) protector and guardian!
Meanwhile enjoy this beautiful music: it certainly rewards the listener and as Percy Grainger once wrote, it is ‘weal-bestowing’ and ‘soul-feeding.’
The liner notes are divided into two parts. The first is an overview of the works recorded and is preceded by an excellent mini-biography of the composer by Dr. Valerie Langfield. The second part is an essay by the David Owen Norris about the pleasure and problems of playing Quilter’s music, although he does not actually mention the composer till more than half way through!
I would have liked the CD to be a bit longer: certainly the inclusion of the English Dances and the Overture would have scraped it beyond the hour mark. Certainly 47 minutes does seem a wee bit skimpy.
However, this is a great CD that explores a repertoire that has been largely forgotten, or at best has been hidden on a number of reasonably obscure and often hard-to-find recordings.
David Owen Norris is a great advocate for this music and presents it with enthusiasm and sympathy. He has a gift for taking pieces that may just be on the cusp of being ephemeral salon pieces (e.g. Dance in the Twilight) and presenting them as if they were an integral part of the piano repertoire that reflects the dynamic pianism of the English Musical Renaissance. Perhaps he ought to turn his attention to the piano music of that triumvirate of didactic composers, Messrs Swinstead, Dunhill and Rowley?
The piece that most surprised me has to be the Bartokian ‘At a Country Fair’, however my favourite piece is ‘Summer Evening’ with its evocation of an English landscape that is captured in the fine cover picture by Wilfrid de Glehn, ‘The Picnic’. It is a masterpiece that rivals anything by John Ireland or Arnold Bax.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.