In 2010 Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7248) released the first volume of what promised to be the ‘complete piano sonatas’ of Algernon Ashton performed by Leslie De’ath. From the track listing of this double-CD it was apparent that much of Ashton’s other piano music was also to be included. It was an exciting project, however after four years there has been no further instalments of the series. I recently emailed Dutton to ask what had happened: I am still awaiting a reply.
I was surprised that although MusicWeb International carries a number of articles about Ashton, including an important plea for his music by Harold Truscott, there is no review for this Dutton CD. Checking the files of The Gramophone found no mention of it either.
This present Toccata Classics CD was recorded in 2008 and was also released in 2010. I cannot recall having seen this disc in the browsers of the late HMV in Oxford Street or at Forsyth’s in Manchester. The Gramophone advertised this CD as part of the spring 2010 releases, yet it was never reviewed. They were not noted on the BBC Music Magazine (via search engine) either. It was not reviewed for MusicWeb International. It is completely beyond me how these two important CDs of largely similar content, released in the same year have been ignored by the musical ‘press.’ There even appears to have been an Ashton Society in existence in 2004. Perhaps readers will enlighten me?
A few words about Algernon Bennet Langton Ashton will be of interest. He was born in Durham in 1859. He was to be both pianist and composer. Ashton lived in Leipzig between 1863 and 1880 where he studied at the Conservatoire under Karl Reinecke, Salomon Jadassohn and E.F. Richter. He later took lessons with Joachim Raff at Frankfurt-am-Main. Ashton settled in England in 1881 where he later held the post of Professor of Piano at the Royal College of Music between 1885 and 1910. Subsequently he occupied a similar post at the London College of Music. As a pianist he made a number of tours, including Germany, Hungary, Austria and England. Ashton was a prolific composer: his works include five symphonies, overtures, marches, chamber music and a vast array of piano work. Older writings about Ashton suggest that much of his music was still in manuscript, especially the orchestral pieces. It has been conjectured that much of this was lost during the London Blitz. He was a voluminous correspondent with newspapers and was nicknamed ‘corrector of the press.’ His correspondence was collected and published in two tantalising volumes – Truth Wit and Wisdom. Finally one of his eccentric (but very public spirited) hobbies was the preservation of the graves of famous people – especially musicians. Algernon Ashton died in London on April 10 1937.
I had first come across Algernon Ashton (apart from the odd reference) in the pages of Lisa Hardy’s seminal The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 (Boydell Press, 2001). In the indices of this book were listed some eight sonatas by this composer: at that time there appeared to be no single recording of his music then available. Hardy noted that he had published more than 160 of his works. She concluded her brief review of Ashton’s sonatas by suggesting that he was ‘blandly content with traditional forms and harmony, although the keyboard writing is idiomatic and sonorous.’ Hardy suggests that his piano sonatas do not ‘form a major contribution to the genre and are rather derivative…his position on British music history is that of an outsider.’
An anonymous reviewer in The Musical Times (1893) had written that ‘the composer’s subjection to Schumann and Brahms is very evident, and probably proves a bar to the full manifestation of his individuality.’ Harold Truscott in his study of the composer’s music tries rather too hard to prove that Ashton writes in a discernable English style. He goes as far as suggesting that ‘…what the Germans (who were more enthusiastic for his music that here in the UK) saw in Ashton was not Brahms or any other German manifestation but a genuine English accent which they welcomed’. He suggests that Ashton’s music’s ‘…English accent is as unmistakable as that or Elgar or Tovey, and as undeniable’.
I find all this stylistic equivalence rather pointless. It is clear that Brahms (and Schumann) underlies much of this music. Equally obvious, is that Ashton was not beholden to English nationalist tendencies and avoided folk-song like Elisabeth Lutyens did 75 years later. Neither did the Russian school have a major impact on the sound world of his music: romantic, yes, but never overblown. Schubert is the model of ‘romanticism’ that springs to mind.
The present Volume 1 includes two Sonatas, Five Bagatelles and the Nocturne and Minuet. This largely covers the same ground as the Dutton Epoch CD; this latter disc included two more sonatas and Five Character Pieces. It is difficult to ‘date’ Algernon Ashton’s music as much of it was published many years after composition. I do not want to ‘analyse each piece: a few notes about Ashton’s style will be of interest to putative listeners.
What are the characteristics of Algernon Ashton’s music? Firstly he is a traditionalist. As Leslie De’ath has pointed out, he utilises the ‘tonal’ system that was prevalent at the time. Secondly, he made use of text-book sonata form for many of his works. De’ath has suggested that Ashton has appropriated ‘the best of tradition rather than the most promising innovations.’ Malcolm MacDonald notes the indebtedness to Brahms - ‘the plangent right-hand sixths, the deep resonant left-hand chording and arpeggios, the cross rhythms, the dissonant passing-notes, the finely nuanced harmonic shadings…’ Other influences were absorbed, including Liszt. The ‘antique’ style of ‘Handel, Bach, Mozart and even Couperin’ infuses the Minuet. Bach (through the prism of Reger or Busoni) may be a model for the Vier Bagatellen, Op.79, but other moods in these pieces suggest Schumann as well. MacDonald notes that typically Ashton’s music has ‘little Germanic heaviness and is largely without sentimentality either: it sounds on the whole fresh and new-minted.’ In fact the musical term ‘frescamente’ is a regular marking in his scores.
Malcolm MacDonald’s liner notes for this CD are essential reading to gain an understanding of the composer and his music. (I am not sure that I agree with his assessment of the ‘last great Victorian painter G.F. Watts, though). The playing of these technically challenging works by Daniel Grimwood is superb. The ‘freshness’ and the vitality are always to the fore. He never sentimentalises or strikes a patronising note. He is a successful exponent of this music, well matching Leslie De’ath. I just wish that his biographical notes had been printed in a slightly larger font. It is good to know that the booklet texts are available on-line for easy reading. The ambience of the recording is ideal with every nuance of the performance being crystal clear.
As noted above, I am bewildered by the ‘issue and review’ history of this CD. If it was indeed issued in 2010, there have been no further releases of Volume 2 or 3 – exactly the same problem as faced by Dutton Epoch. I can only hope that someone, it can be Leslie De’ath or Daniel Grimwood, records the remaining Sonatas and the other piano pieces in short order. This music is too important and ultimately satisfying for the record companies to abandon their series of sonatas. From a personal point of view, I would give up a lot of German piano music by the ‘masters’ to possess Algernon Ashton’s sonatas – and I have only heard four of them…
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.
Algernon ASHTON (1859-1937)
Nocturne and Menuet, Op.39 (publ.1888) Sonata No. 8 in F major, Op.174 (publ.1926)
Vier Bagatellen, Op.79 (publ.1892) Sonata No.4 in D minor, Op.164 (publ.1925)
Daniel Grimwood (piano)
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0063