Sunday, 22 July 2012

An Englishman in Italy: British Piano Music inspired by Italy: Part 2

Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) has been revived to a certain extent in recent years. His Violin Concerto was an important discovery from a few years ago. Hyperion recently released his excellent Piano Concerto in A minor and the concerted Normandy Variations. The Symphony ‘Thalassa’ has recently been released on Cameo Classic (CC9034CD). The present work is a tiny Tarantella, which is such a typically Italian dance. It has a largely classical rather than a romantic or ‘modern’ mood.

Maude Valerie White (1863-1937) is the only English-woman in Italy presented here. Her four sketches From the Ionian Sea is a fascinating discovery. The first two pieces, a Pastorale and a ‘Canzone di Taormina’ are [possibly] based on Sicilian folk-tunes, whilst the Tarantella is original. The final piece, ‘Land of the Almond Blossom’ is dedicated to HRH The Prince of Wales –who was later Edward VIII.  It is a lovely romantic little number. The entire set of sketches is well-crafted and is a pleasure to hear.

Edward German’s ‘Tarantella’ is a fine example of this genre. It is quite romantic and definitely Italian in its sound world. In fact Christopher Howell has suggested that ‘the introduction provides an uncanny presage of young Italians revving up their motorbikes while waiting on the traffic lights to change.’

Relatively little is known about composer and pianist Frank Merrick (1886-1981). However, based on his thrilling ‘Tarantella’ (yet another example of this infectious dance) I believe that he deserves further exploration.
Ernest Markham Lee is one of those composers, who like Alec Rowley, Felix Swinstead and Thomas Dunhill, the aspiring pianist used to come across in their ‘grades.’ Even today, it is not surprising to find his music on sale in second-hand bookshops. Lee’s music often had picturesque titles that did not always live up to their name. The present offering of Nights in Venice is a comely work that is certainly not ‘virtuosic’ yet neither is it trite.  The opening ‘Southern Skies –Nocturne’ is for me the highlight of this Suite. ‘Carnival’ balances the dichotomy between the gay and the sinister aspects of this great Venetian festival. The finale, ‘On the Lagoon’ is Oh so very short. This is beautiful music. On a serious note, Markham Lee’s son had been killed in action in Italy during the Great War – so there may well be hidden depths behind the seeming light music mood of much of this music.

Many years ago I bought a second-hand copy of Eaton Fanning’s fine Sorrento- Danza in modo di Tarantella. Alas, when I got it home and tried to play it I found two problems. It was too difficult and that most of the pages were missing. I booked it down to experience and the loss of ‘five bob.’ Therefore it is good to meet up with this piece all these years later.  Howell notes minor allusions to Elgar’s Overture: In the South and Richard Strauss’ Aus Italien. It is a good call.  Lookout for the attractive whole tone scales and rich chromaticism... Finally I was right back then – this piece is no cinch.

Henry Geehl is better known to enthusiasts of brass band music. He is known to have scored Holst’s A Moorside Suite for that genre.  A whiff of ‘scandal’ exists in so far as Geehl claimed that he arranged Edward Elgar’s Severn Suite for the same medium. However, this has been disputed: a complete brass band score in Elgar’s hand has been discovered. Anyhow, there is no dispute that Geehl wrote a deal for piano including this ravishing The Bay of Naples Suite. To be fair it is light music rather than a Ravelian impressionistic picture of the region. However, the four pieces are enjoyable: my personal favourite is the opening ‘Moonlight on the Bay of Naples.’ The ‘Canzonetta’ is also attractive and the ‘Serenade d’amour’ is melodic and serves it purpose as the romantic slow movement.  The final ‘Tambour Dance’ is fun to listen to. I must get a hold of the music – it might just be in my gift to play this.

I think that Rappllo is the first piece of music by Ronald Swaffield (1889-1962) that I have heard. I have listed the pieces published by him on my ‘blog’. Unlike the Geehl, this work is impressionistic. It ‘describes’ the Ligurian seas-side resort in a most picturesque and romantic number. Alongside Ravel, Howell notes Warlock and Moeran as possible influences on the harmonic structure of this work. It was composed in 1937.

The last tarantella is actually called ‘Tarantula’ and is provided by Cyril Scott. It is a masterpiece of virtuosic piano sound. It certainly presents mental images of the ‘beastie’ that the dance was meant to have originally been a cure or protection against.

I am delighted that Christopher Howell has chosen to record some pieces by Harry Farjeon. This composer joins that huge rank of ‘unjustly forgotten.’ Farjeon’s contribution to piano music is two-fold. Firstly, he has written a considerable amount of picturesquely titled pieces that capture the imagination. Many of these numbers are within the ability of the so-called ‘gifted amateur.’ However, he is never condescending to lesser mortals. Every one of his works that I have heard or played through is genuinely musical and is technically competent -irrespective of its difficulty. Secondly, Farjeon has contributed a number of major works including an (apparently) splendid piano concerto and a fine Piano Sonata. He is a composer that at the very least deserves at one retrospective CD.  The two works (five numbers) that are heard on this CD adequately proves my point above.
Having recently been to Venice, I warmed to Farjeon’s impressionistic studies of life in the Lagoon –Three Venetian Idylls, Op.20.  The first piece is a reflective ‘Nocturne’ – which is simply gorgeous. No Venetian musical picture would be complete without the ‘barcarolle’ with its watery sound. Once again Farjeon hits the mark: this is so Italian that you could lick the ice-cream off the music. The final ‘Valse Fugitive’ is introverted, however, it is beautiful. In fact there is a sense of the ‘nocturne’ about all these pieces. One of my favourites on this CD.
The pianist gives us another taste of Harry’s (did he know the Bar, I wonder) view of the Barcarolle. This time he presents a sophisticated, almost ‘cocktail bar’ style of music. I love every bar of this dishy, romantic piece.
The last two pieces on this release are also by Farjeon –the Two Italian Sketches for piano duet. These are perhaps the most enigmatic pieces in this recital. The first is ‘On the Water’ – it could almost be describing the progress of one of the unique funereal gondolas occasionally seen in Venice. The second piece is the brittle ‘On the Road’.  It is possibly a nod towards the great Italian composer Alfredo Casella.

This new double-CD from SHEVA is essential listening for all enthusiasts of English piano music. But it goes further than this. These discs present a number of undoubted ‘minor masterpieces.’ If they had been composed by a ‘continental’ composer (with a French or a German name) they may have retained a place in the repertoire.
There is always a danger when approaching repertoire that is unknown or is unjustifiably deemed unworthy, to ‘ham up’ the performance. Some performers may adopt a condescending approach to interpretation. They could over-sentimentalise or over-state some of the obvious musical clichés that some of these works display. I guess that I think of the ‘English’ Liszt Sydney Smith. However, Christopher Howell (assisted by Emanno De Stefani in the piano duets) takes all these pieces seriously.
This CD is excellent value at £15 and can be purchased through MusicWeb International.  There is a grand total of 146 minutes of music presented here. The quality of the sound is excellent. The liner notes by Howell are essential reading: I suggest that the listener peruse each note before approaching the pieces.

I have two aspirations for English (British) piano music. The first is that recitalists begin to take up the ‘masterworks.’ These include the ‘big’ sonatas by Frank Bridge, John Ireland, Cyril Scott, Benjamin Dale, Arthur Bliss, Leo Livens and Harry Farjeon. One can point to the sterling work in this direction by Mark Bebbington, Peter Jacobs, Eric Parkin and Ashley Wass. However there is a restricted availability of English piano pieces presented at recitals as opposed to CDs.  Secondly, I wish that every pianist would include at least one piece by a relatively unknown composer in every recital that they play. Even if this piece is deemed to be a ‘teaching’ piece it may still be worthy. For example, I can play (battle through) a fair few pieces by Harry Farjeon, Ernest Markham Lee and Edward German. However it would be lovely to hear ‘definitive’ performances of these works. So amongst the Rachmaninoff, the Chopin and the Brahms an occasional number by Sydney Smith, Cyril Scott, Henry Geehl, Alec Rowley and Thomas Dunhill may be heard.
Meanwhile Christopher Howell has made a sterling effort at introducing a ‘lost’ repertoire to the interested musical public.  It is a worthy cause. Let us hope that he is not merely a voice crying in the wilderness.
I hope that SHEVA will explore many more pieces by these (and other) forgotten British composers.  Christopher Howell knows that he can always ask me for a thousand and one suggestions – although I think that he may well have a fair few numbers up his sleeve… 

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