Sunday, 10 June 2018

Charles O’Brien: Scottish Scenes, op.21 for piano

A year or so ago, I wrote a post about Charles O’Brien’s (1882-1968) Scottish Scenes, op.17 and concluded this was a work that was wholly Scottish but devoid of the clichés of rampant tartanry. The second set of Scottish Scenes, op.21 date from the same year, 1917: they are equally effective and musically satisfying. At this stage, I am not sure what works constituted the intervening opus numbers.

Like its companion set, the Scottish Scenes, op.21 consists of three movements. The opening ‘Tor and Tarn’ is powerful and dramatic.  I did wonder if the word ‘Tor’ was particularly Scottish: I rather imagined it was more Peak District or West Country, implying a high rock or top. However, the Oxford English Dictionary assures me that the word is used in Scotland, albeit in a slightly different sense. It would appear to apply to artificial burial mounds. One example given is the village of Torrance in the shadow of the Campsie Fells, to the North of Glasgow. The same could be said for the ‘Tarn’ which seems to be devoid of Scottish usage. This is often associated with the North of England and the Lake District. Word derivations aside, O’Brien has created a work that balances several musical Scotticisms, most importantly the Scotch Snap and its ‘long-short mirror image.’ This is music that is filled with a surprising mix of gloom and grandeur, perhaps appropriate to thoughts of death and still waters. The melodies tend toward ‘pentatonic’ (black notes on the piano), however O’Brien brings several technical devices to this music, including ‘pianistic flourishes’ and subtle chromatic alterations to his tunes.  The formal progress of ‘Tor and Tarn’ never seems to be in the same key for very long. The movement closes with a powerful coda.

I love the gentle ‘Mid the Bracken.’ For me this is a love lilt. The composer has created an attractive melody that sounds Scottish, without quoting any tune. The middle section of this ternary piece is quite beautiful, albeit too short. Philip R Buttall in his review of this work for MusicWeb International, has noted that ‘…the opening few bars sound uncannily like the ‘Young Prince and the Young Princess’ theme from Scheherazade, with a few melodic embellishments.’ Look out also for the subtle use of the whole-tone scale which may be the composer’s homage to Claude Debussy.

Scottish Scenes, op.21 closes with a romping evocation of ‘Heather Braes.’ John Purser (CD liner notes) explains that this movement is ‘to be played with martial decisiveness.’ I am not sure that this is about military manoeuvres in the Western Highlands. There are a few moments of repose, which provides the walker or tourist with a moment for reflection, however the main drive of the piece is quite simply a paean of praise to the Scottish scenery. The massive coda is both exciting and dramatic. Purser wisely concludes that the ‘heather is undoubtedly in full bloom.’

Paul Mann, commenting in the liner notes for Volume 1 of the Orchestral works, summed up the composer’s achievement: ‘O’Brien’s image of Scotland didn’t come from the top of a shortbread tin. His is a country of ruggedly beautiful, sometimes inhospitable landscapes…’  This holds good for the present Suite for piano.

Scottish Scenes, op.21 can be heard on Charles O’Brien: Complete Piano Music Volume 1 Toccata Classics TOCC0256 [65:25] with Warren Mailley-Smith, pianist. Other works on this disc include Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 14 (1910), Deux Valses, Op. 25 (1928) and the Scottish Scenes, Op. 17 (1915)

No comments: