Ever since hearing the Lyrita (SRCS.100) vinyl album of William Hurlstone’s Piano Concerto and his Variations on a Swedish Air in 1979, I have wanted to hear more of his music. I accept that over the past 36 years listeners have been lucky: most of the composer’s orchestral and chamber works have been recorded. The major lacunae have been the solo piano music and the songs. A few years ago SOMM (SOMM CD097) brought out a fine recording of Mark Bebbington playing Hurlstone’s Piano Sonata (coupled with Benjamin Dale’s splendid Sonata). This CD received excellent reviews, although I did not think the Hurlstone being described as a ‘pleasing late-romantic romp’ (Classical Music Magazine, July 2010) did the work justice. I was extremely impressed and consider it to be one of the best British piano sonatas in the repertoire.
This present disc has assembled virtually everything that the composer wrote for the instrument. A few pieces, probably lost, have been omitted, but fundamentally, we now have the ‘complete piano works.’
There is an excellent biographical overview of William Hurlstone on MusicWeb International that rewards perusal. So there is no need for detailed notes here.
I chose to explore this CD largely chronologically, beginning with the Five Easy Waltzes composed around 1885 when Hurlstone was only nine years old. His father was so impressed that he immediately arranged for their publication. They are the composer’s official Op.1. Do not seek for some intimation of genius in these slight pieces, but take note of three things. Firstly, Hurlstone has absorbed the genre in a surprisingly mature manner. Secondly, as the liner notes state, there is a developing sense of technical confidence with each succeeding piece. And finally, they are conceived as a cycle – the opening waltz has a short introduction, designed to grab the attention to the succeeding seven minutes. They make a satisfying unity that belies the composer’s age.
This sense of ‘cohesion’ is also found in the six ‘Sketches’ composed around 1891 when the composer was 15 years old. These miniatures or character pieces are deliberately varied but never lose their sense of ‘belonging’ together. The six pieces begin with a forceful march with an engaging main theme. This is followed by an ‘allegretto’ complete with imitation. The ‘untitled’ third piece suggests a gallop and a canter on a piebald pony. I enjoyed the well wrought little ‘mazurka’: not quite Chopin but engaging all the same. ‘La Fête’ is a jaunty piece that fairly bounces along, whilst the final ‘Tambourin’ has insistent left-hand chords.
The same year also saw the Two Albumleaves. Perhaps these are not quite as far apart emotionally as their respective titles would suggest? The ‘Aria’ has hints of Mozart and the ‘Demon’s Dance; is a zippy little piece that strikes no terror into the soul.
The following year (1892) Hurlstone wrote a short ‘Caprice’ which is exuberant and quite happy-go-lucky. It was dedicated to his boyhood friend, P.E. Lonery, Esq, as ‘An Offering of Peace and Goodwill.’
The untitled ‘Work’ for piano duet (1894) may have been part of a multi-movement work which has been lost or was never completed. It is a particularly beautiful short piece that is reflective and rather sad.
I have noted above that I was hugely impressed by Mark Bebbington’s recital of Hurlstone’s Sonata in F minor. This student work, dating from July 1894, is a full blown, romantic sonata that has nothing of the classroom or the pedant about it.
There are three movements: Allegro; Andante ma non troppo and Andante – Allegro vivace. I noted in my review of Bebbington’s recording that it would be easy to ‘write this sonata off as parody’. Hurlstone has undeniably made use of the pianism of Schumann, Brahms and Chopin. I believe that what the eighteen year old composer has achieved is a personal synthesis of these idioms. He has not composed a pastiche. Furthermore, I can think of many worse composers to use as a ‘model’ for a student work. The ultimate value of this hugely important British piano sonata is well summed up in the liner notes: there is the ‘idiomatic writing for the instrument’, the ‘command of large-scale structures’ and ‘unfailing melodic fecundity.’ It is mature, both technically and emotionally, way beyond the composer’s years. It would appear that Hurlstone’s Piano Sonata was never performed in his lifetime.
Comparisons between the two currently available versions are unnecessary. Here it is masterfully performed. I think that British music enthusiasts should just be thankful that there are two recordings of this Sonata currently available. Much as I love Brahms’ music, I am stopped in my tracks by the thought that there are 81 recordings of his F minor Sonata: is it really 40 times better than Hurlstone’s?
The Capriccio is dated 1897. This is another student composition dating from the time that Hurlstone was at the Royal College of Music. The piece is, as the liner notes point out, ‘clearly modelled’ on Brahms’ Rhapsody in B minor. op.79, no.1. Yet, it is none the worse for that. Following the complex first ‘subject’ comes the beautiful (more nostalgic than Brahms exemplar) ‘second theme,’ which to me, is almost Elgarian in its mood. There is much contrast in this music with the final peroration being dramatic and technically complex. Interestingly, Brahms ends his Rhapsody quietly. Hurlstone’s Capriccio remained a favourite of the composer and was regularly heard at his recitals.
I have known the Hungarian Air with Variations in its sparkling orchestral guise since its release on Lyrita nearly ten years ago, so it is instructive to hear the piano version of this work. It was composed in 1897 when the composer was 21, with the orchestration being completed a couple of years later. The ‘Air’ is based on a ‘Hungarian’ theme followed by eleven variations. In spite of the debt owed to Brahms and Parry with possible nods to Schumann, this is an impressive work that demands our attention. There is much here that reveals the huge talent possessed by Hurlstone. The orchestral variations (1899) were performed three months before Elgar’s Enigma Variations, so some comparison may be made. Apart from being about half the length, Hurlstone has majored on the continental experience - Hungarian music written by an Englishman through the prism of Brahms. Unlike Elgar, there is nothing in these pages that feel’s typically ‘English.’ Yet both works are inspired examples of the variation form. The Hurlstone should be in the repertoire as an occasional reminder that there were other Victorian/Edwardian composers who were masters of orchestration and structure. Hurlstone’s piano version of this work is important in its own right. The liner notes are correct when they state that this version reveals important detail necessarily obscured by the orchestration.
Three of Hurlstone’s piano arrangements are presented on this CD. The earliest is Stephen Heller’s ‘Tarentelle’ (1899) arranged for the left-hand. Like many works of this genre, it defies the listener to believe that there is only one hand playing. The short Paganini Étude in E flat major (1901) is ‘pianistic in its scope and disposition’ in spite of its origin as a piece for solo violin. There may have originally been three of Paganini’s Caprices transcribed as Études, however only the present example has survived. Wieniawski’s Mazurka in G minor op.12, no.2 ‘Sielanka’ is a perfect transcription across media. This is one of those pieces that seem to be well-known, but challenging the listener to pin down the title and the composer. It was written only five months before Hurlstone’s death.
The opening work on this CD is the Five Miniatures composed over a ten year period between 1894 and 1905. It would appear that the first piece, which is almost naïve in its uncomplicatedness, was originally destined for another set of pieces (Sketches) since lost or never completed. I agree with Paul Conway’s liner notes that they ‘constitute a satisfying and convincing set’ in spite of the long composition history. The ‘Valse Miniature’ was later orchestrated by the composer as a part of his charming Magic Mirror Suite. The ‘Negro Song’ is a quiet introverted little number that has an almost Delian feel to it at times. The ‘Rustic Song’ has a definite nod to the English landscape, with some nice modulations in the middle section. The final ‘Mazurka’ is a good example of the genre, showing that Hurlstone could both absorb and adapt a form to his own satisfaction.
All these works are played with understanding, sympathy and technical prowess by the pianist Dr. Kenji Fujimura. He is a musical polymath, being composer, performer and academic. Clearly much study and preparation has gone into this recording, bearing in mind that many of the pieces are still in manuscript and remain unpublished. One must not forget the contribution from Dr. Julia Lu in the Work for piano duet (1894).
The liner notes by Paul Conway are excellent and make a fascinating essay-length introduction to William Hurlstone’s piano music.
This is a must-have CD for all British music enthusiasts. I have been waiting for this release for many years: I have not been disappointed. Every track (even the juvenilia) on this disc is worthy of our attention. A great investment.
William HURLSTONE (1876-1906)
Five Miniatures (c.1895-1904)
Capriccio in B minor (1897)
Two Albumleaves (1891)
Caprice (1892) [1:34]
Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840), arr. HURLSTONE Étude in E flat major (1901)
Henryk WIENIAWSKI (1835-80) arr. HURLSTONE Mazurka in G minor op.12, no.2 ‘Sielanka’ (1906)
Stephen HELLER (1813-88), arr. HURLSTONE: Tarentelle for the left hand (1899)
Hungarian Air with Variations (1897)
Five Easy Waltzes, op.1 (c.1885)
Work for piano duet (1894)
Piano Sonata in F minor (1894)
Kenji Fujimura (piano), Julia Lu (piano, duet)
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0289
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.