James Friskin (1886-1967)
Quintet in C minor (1907) Phantasie for String Quartet (c.1905) Elegy for viola and piano (1912) Phantasy (for piano quintet) (1910)
The Rasumovsky Quartet: Frances Mason (violin) Hilary Sturt (violin) Christopher Wellington (viola) Ian Pressland (cello) Catherine Dubois (piano)
Nimbus Alliance NI6182
As a fellow Glaswegian, I feel that I ought to know more about James Friskin. Apart from the fact that he was born in the same city as myself, wrote a number of works for Cobbett’s chamber music competitions and was married (eventually) to the composer Rebecca Clarke, I know very little.
Some additional biographical information may be of interest to potential listeners. James Friskin was born in Glasgow on 3 March 1886. At the early age of fourteen, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music to study the piano with Edward Dannreuther and composition with Charles Villiers Stanford. He taught at the Royal Normal School for the Blind between 1909 and the outbreak of the Great War. In 1914 he was invited by Frank Damrosch to become a ‘founding teacher’ at the Institute of Musical Art in New York. This was the forerunner of the Julliard School of Music. He furthered his career as a pianist, specialising is Bach: he gave the first performance of the Goldberg Variations in the United States.
Friskin published two important books – The Principles of Piano Practice (1921) and Music for the Piano: a Handbook of Concert and Teaching Material from 1580 to 1952 (1954). There was also a critical edition of Bach’s music. In his seventies, he made a number of recordings of Bach’s music that has been released on CD in recent years. Additionally, there is a fine recording of his Phantasie in E minor for piano trio on the British Music Society CD label. From a compositional point of view, the corpus is relatively small: most of the surviving works for piano, singers and chamber groups. However, there is a Piano concerto and a Concert Overture for orchestra. James Friskin died in New York on 16 March 1967.
Stylistically, Friskin’s chamber works fit into the general sweep of Western classical music. I was often reminded of Schubert whilst reviewing this CD. Certainly, there is not a general reliance on ‘pastoral musings’ or ‘heuchter-cheuchter’ Scottisms – in spite of the Scottish character of the main tunes in the ‘scherzo’ and ‘adagio’ of the C minor Quintet
One of the great-unsung heroes of British chamber music is Walter Wilson Cobbett (1847-1937). Fortunately, he is now becoming more appreciated as many of the works inspired by his competitions and commissions are finding their way into the recording studios. Friskin’s achievement in these competitions was excellent. In 1905 he was a runner-up with his Phantasie for String Quartet. However, in 1907 he gained second prize with the Phantasie Trio, which is available on CD BMS 418. Frank Bridge won first prize and John Ireland came third. Interestingly, Cobbett himself in his massive Cyclopaedic Survey of Chamber Music places Friskin third! In 1910, Cobbett commissioned a number of works from leading British composers. This included Walter O’Donnell’s Cello Sonata and Bridge’s Piano Quartet. Friskin produced his Piano Quintet which is heard on this present recording.
The opening work on this CD is the almost ‘symphonic’ Quintet in C minor (1907). This massive work, lasting for more than half an hour has four movements. Thomas Dunhill (and not Cobbett as the notes suggest) described the Quintet as ‘one of the most brilliant Opus Ones in existence.’ The liner notes point out it was composed after just two years study with Stanford. This sweeping, romantic work exploits the full range of possibilities offered by this chamber grouping. This is indeed, big music.
The principal subject of the first movement acts as a kind of motto theme that runs through the entire work. Ideas follow each other in a profusion of melody that eventually leads to the first movement’s quiet ending. As noted above, the ‘scherzo’ makes use of a Scottish popular song (I confess to not knowing which one) – according to the liner notes, this passage scandalised Charles Villiers Stanford. Yet it is a strong movement that is full of energy and interest. The following adagio also has a Scottish flavour to it without descending to the mawkish or trite. In fact, this truly gorgeous music paints a picture of Scotland in the listener’s mind seldom achieved by any composer of Scottish or any other nationality. The final movement is a treasure. It is prefaced by a slow introduction before opening out into an expansive movement. I guess it is here that I am most conscious of Schubert’s E flat major Trio. There is much excitement with contrasting reflective episodes to keep the listener’s attention from the first bar to the last. The optimistic concluding coda is hugely impressive.
The Phantas(y)[ie] for String Quartet was composed in 1905 and not 1909 as the liner notes suggest. It was an entry for the Cobbett competition of that year. [See Musical News July 1906 p.19] The genre was one especially devised by Cobbett, designed to revive the Elizabethan Fancy, which was deemed a composition of relatively free construction, and lasting between 12 and 20 minutes. It is a form taken up by many composers in the first three decades of the Twentieth Century. Examples are extant from the pens of composers as diverse as Britten, Holbrooke, Vaughan Williams and Arnold Bax. Less obvious names include Waldo Warner, Susan Spain-Dunk and Haydn Wood.
The work opens with a ‘jaunty’ theme, which declares ‘youthful high spirits.’ This Presto section is full of humour and wit and reveals superb craftsmanship at every turn. The main theme of the ‘adagio’ as been described as ‘frankly and freely obvious’ however this does not detract from the quality of the music. There is a will o’ the wisp central section that is full of trills and shakes before the rather charming tune returns played on the viola. The final section is march-like which features strong syncopation and a well marked rhythm. The ‘trio’ of this march surely recalls the music from the adagio. The work closes with a long coda. Of all the pieces on this CD this is the one that attracted me most. A well-crafted, musically interesting work that is at times moving and always enjoyable.
The beautiful Elegy for viola and piano (1912) is a well-wrought work. Christopher Wellington writing in the liner notes suggests that he has ‘a strong impression that this piece embodies [Friskin’s] feeling for the beautiful Rebecca [Clarke]’. This seems a reasonable guess when one considers that her instrument was the viola and his was the piano. However, the elegy is actually a little more profound than love’s young dream. There is passion; there is violence and a number of tentative explorations that never resolve. If this work had been written a few years later, it could have been seen as a kind of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth,’ without sinking into abject depression or despair. This Elegy is meditative, reflective and ultimately beautiful: it ought to be in the repertoire of all violists. As for the playing of this piece, I am not convinced that it it being heard at its best. Something seems a wee bit amiss with the balance between piano and soloist: the tone of the viola tends to lack the sheer romantic quality required for this work.
The final work on this CD is the above-mentioned commission (not mentioned in the notes) – the Phantasy (1910) for Piano Quintet. It opens with a mournful passage for solo viola, which is interrupted by a sharp chord, before being joined by the other strings. Soon the mood changes and the entire ensemble launches into the impassioned and occasionally aggressive ‘allegro.’ The mood then changes once again for the lively ‘presto.’ Yet, the heart of this work is the central ‘poco adagio which is at times heart-rendingly beautiful. The inverted arch form of this piece then progresses to an ‘allegro con fuoco.’ This big passionate music occasionally reverts to a quieter, more tranquil mood. However the intensity returns before leading into a gloriously expansive and finally optimistic coda.
Christopher Wellington is correct in noting that ‘although this ‘Phantasy’ is only half the length of his C minor Piano Quintet, Friskin has filled it with incident and contrast.’ It never sags or causes loss of interest. It is a work that will surely move the listener, as the composer marks out his musical journey.
There is a good analysis of each of these pieces alongside placing the work in its context in the liner notes. The playing by the Rasumovsky Quartet just does not seem to ‘gel’ in my mind although there is a genuine sympathy with the music here. However, whether they are ultimately the best advocates for this unjustly neglected repertoire I am not too sure. Nonetheless, I was particularly impressed by the pianist Catherine Dubois’ contribution.
As with so many composers, much of Friskin’s music would appear to be in manuscript – assuming that it is still extant. This no doubt will put off artists resurrecting his music. However, based on the music presented on this CD, I am convinced that the search for other ‘lost’ works will be well worth the effort. James Friskin is no ‘forgotten genius’: his essays are never going to usurp the chamber works of Frank Bridge and John Ireland. However, he is a worthy and often inspired voice that demands to be heard as a part of the re-evaluation of the so-called English (British) Musical Renaissance.
This review fist appeared on MusicWeb International