Friday, 20 July 2012

An Englishman in Italy: British Piano Music inspired by Italy: Part 1



Francis Edward BACHE (1833-1858) Souvenirs d'Italie, op.19 
William WALLACE (1814-1865) La Gondola - Souvenir de Venise (Nocturne); Ange sì Pur - Romance de "La Favorite", transcribed; Fantasia de Salon sur Motifs de Lucrezia Borgia Sydney SMITH (1839-1859) I Pifferari - Musette Moderne, op.183; Siesta - Reverie, op.180; Sérénade Vénitienne, op.201; Danse Napolitaine - Morceau de Concert, op.33 William WOLSTENHOLME(1865-1931) Venice; Arthur SOMERVELL (1863-1937) Tarantella in A minor 
Maude WHITE (1855-1937) From the Ionian Sea - Four Sketches 
Edward GERMAN (1862-1936) Tarantella Harry FARJEON (1878-1948) Three Venetian Idylls, op.20; Barcarolle; *Two Italian Sketches 
Frank MERRICK (1886-1981) Tarantella, op.5
Ernest Markham LEE (1874-1956) Nights in Venice 
Eaton FANING (1850-1927) Sorrento - Danza in modo di Tarantella 
Henry GEEHL (1881-1961) The Bay of Naples - Italian Suite
Ronald SWAFFIELD (1889-1962)Rapallo 
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970) Tarantula

Christopher Howell (piano) with Ermanno de Stefani (piano II)

The significance of this CD is way beyond what a brief perusal of the track-listings would suggest. I imagine that to most non-specialist listeners the names of the composers will be just that. Names. A few enthusiasts of British music may well have come across the relatively recent Hyperion disc of Francis Edward Bache’s fine Piano Concerto or the English Piano Trio’s reading of the same composer’s eponymous work. Organists will have heard of William Wolstenholme.  Nearly everyone will know Edward German, even if it is only the fact that he wrote an opera called Merrie England. Other names may have been glimpsed in piles of music on sale in second-hand music shops.
However, it is the generally unknown quantities of most of the composers and virtually all of the musical works presented that makes this a special (and exciting) recording.

All recitalists are aware of their market. Some may be able to play exactly what they want to play. Generally, they will have to choose repertoire that is likely to appeal to the widest possible range of concertgoers. This means that most programmes of music are made up of the so-called ‘greats.’ I guess few recitals will pass muster unless there is a smattering of Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov and Debussy.  Naturally, there will be many concerts featuring the sonatas of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. However, these are often very limited in their explorations. Certain ‘popular’ works are heard with wearying regularity. Evenings devoted to Bach, Haydn and Schumann tend to be largely predictably in their repertoire. Sometimes there are surveys of uncharted territory, but these are often balanced by ‘warhorses.’  Yet, when pianists turn to British music for their recitals the range of repertoire is even more limited.  One may include the John Ireland and Frank Bridge Sonatas and that is about it. Rarely are there miniatures, tone pictures or suites heard from these composers or from their less-well-known compatriots. What is extremely unusual is to have an extensive recital of British piano music garnered from the breadth of English piano music repertoire, including composers who are largely forgotten – or were never really known in the first place. This CD sets out to remedy this omission.

In the early nineteenth century, travel became a more realistic proposition for tourists to explore the sights and sounds of Europe and even further afield. This coincided with a revived appreciation of ‘the picturesque value of the former classical world.’  There were large numbers of artists, writers, historians and the downright curious who chose to make their way to Italy and to Greece. The reader may think of Lord Byron, Robert Browning, J.M.W. Turner, John Henry Newman and John Ruskin. In later years novelists such as E.M Forester, D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley were ‘intrigued by the clash of civilisations that tended to accompany the British tourist as he (or she) roamed the Italian cities and countryside’.  Naturally, this freedom was only available to certain groups of people. Most folk still did not travel further than Hampstead Heath or Heaton Park for their unwaged holidays.

Christopher Howell believes that it would have been good to find a musical counterpart to these Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian tourists. Alas there is no evidence that this is the case. For example, there is no equivalent of Franz Liszt’s magisterial Années de Pèlerlinage. However, we do know that Elgar visited Italy, Parry the South of France and Arthur Sullivan travelled extensively in Europe. Yet, amongst the pages of forgotten and yellowing scores, there are many works that have taken Italy as their inspiration. Whether the composer ever actually visited the country or got no further than a café-bar in Soho is largely irrelevant. It is the impression on the listener that is the most important factor.
For this recording Christopher Howell has explored a huge range of music to find this collection of ‘genre pieces.’

The major work on this double-CD set is Francis Edward Bache’s impressive cycle of music entitled Souvenirs d’Italie. This is the nearest that any composer on these CDs has come to emulating the Liszt master-work referred to above – at least in concept if not quite in technical and emotional achievement.  This collection of eight pieces is worthy of both composer and pianist.  The various numbers are certainly conservative’ in their musical language –looking towards Mendelssohn and John Field: Liszt and Chopin are also present in these pages.  The other influences that Howell notes (Steibelt, Dussek and Woelfl) may suggest that Bache is writing pastiche. Yet this would be a wrong assumption. This is a successful collection of pieces that is wholly self-consistent. It is a work that I would like to spend more time listening to and studying. Finally, I do hope that Christopher Howell may one day choose to record Bache’s ‘companion’ piece to this suite – the evocatively titled Souvenirs de Torquay.
The composer William Vincent Wallace is in this compilation by default. He was born in Waterford, Ireland in 1814 and died in Château de Bagen, Sauveterre de Comminges, near Barbazon, Haute Garonne, France. For much of his life he travelled the world giving recitals composing music and generally having adventures. He latterly became (?) an American citizen. Wallace is probably best known for his opera Maritana (1845).
Two of the three works presented here are transcriptions of operatic numbers. The first is based on Gaetano Donizetti’ aria ‘Ange si pur’ from La Favourite. The second is the exciting Fantasia de Salon sur Motifs de Lucrezia Borgia by the same composer. Both works pass the ‘Liszt’ test, as Howell has called it: if you did not know the source of the music, you would hardly guess where it was derived. Each is a worthy piece of music even when divorced from their context. The first piece by Wallace is the La Gondola: Souvenir de Venice (Nocturne) with the inevitable ‘water’ lapping at the sides of this ever so stereotypical mode of transport. However it is a well-wrought piece.
Edward Sydney Smith (1839-1889) is known (where at all) for his huge contribution to so-called salon music in the mid 1800’s. I first came across his invariably difficult music in the Star Folio Series of Piano Music. I could not play these pieces then and am still beaten by them today. His music is highly technical (if clichéd), using a variety of pianistic devices that owe much to Liszt and Chopin. The four works presented here are typical of his art. They are all musically effective and largely enjoyable. It is a pity the so little of his music is available on CD.  Perhaps the most impressive is the short Morceau de Concert-Danse Napolitane. However, I did especially enjoy the romantic Siesta-Reverie.
The first CD closes with a very short piano duet by William Wolstenholme (1865-1931): the ‘lilting’ and wistful waltz ‘Venice’ is a pure delight.

To be continued...

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