Saturday 28 September 2019

Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum 2018

Fabian Müller opens this recital with a delicious performance of one of Claude Debussy’s lesser-known piano works, the Ballade, dating from 1890-1. It was written when Debussy was in Russia as piano tutor to Nadezhda von Meck’s children. Von Meck, it will be recalled, was ‘patroness’ to Tchaikovsky. Originally entitled Ballade Slav, to reflect the influence of Balakirev and Borodin, it was retitled for its 1903 publication by Durand.  
The work balances a lovely, if slightly repetitive, melody, with complex arpeggios and figurations. The harmonies are chromatic. The listener may detect hints of the melody of La Plus que Lente (1910).  It is a pity that the Ballade does not have a greater standing in recitals and recordings of Debussy’s music. One simple fact highlights this. The Arkiv catalogue currently lists 38 recordings of the Ballade compared to a whopping 411 of ‘Clair de Lune’ from the Suite Bergamasque! 

French composer Gabriel Dupont is quite a rarity. I recall listening to an extract from his piano suite Les heures dolentes on the 2017 Husum release, but apart from that I have heard nothing. Gabriel Dupont was born in the Normandy town of Caen in 1878. After study at the Paris Conservatoire with Jules Massenet and Charles-Marie Widor, he had an early success by winning the second prize at the 1901 Prix de Rome. He manged to beat Maurice Ravel, of all people, into third place. Dupont had a tragically short life, dying of tuberculosis in 1914. He wrote music for the piano, chamber ensembles and several operas.
The present La maison dans les dunes (The House in the Dunes) was composed whilst the composer was convalescing in a sanatorium at Cap Ferret in the Gironde department of France. Some five years previously, Dupont had written his above-mentioned hour-long piano cycle Les Heures Dolente which was a meditation on imminent death. Now recovered, he considers the joys of sun, sea, sand and the surrounding landscape. Two pieces are given here: ‘Dans les Dune’ and ‘Houles’ The first is a gentle ‘early morning’ stroll in the dunes which are such an important feature of Cap Ferrat, whilst the second is a massive portrayal of a stormy sea with a great swell (houles). There are echoes of Schumann, Liszt and Rachmaninov as well the French ‘greats’, Ravel and Debussy.
Severin von Eckardstein brings contrast and colour to these musically descriptive pieces. I must listen to the complete cycle…

I guess that most listeners will associate Louis Vierne with his superlative organ music. This is still heard daily in recitals and cathedral/church services around the world. Unfortunately, it has led to virtually all his other music being side-lined. He wrote in a wide variety of genres, including a respectable symphony, much for chamber ensembles, songs and piano solos. Mūza Rubackytė plays two numbers from his ‘Twelve Preludes’ for piano, composed in La Rochelle during the Great War. Both the ‘Evocation of a day of anguish’ and ‘Alone…’ may be understood in terms of Vierne’s depression at his blindness or it could refer to a fractured love affair. The stylistic language is largely 19th century (Brahms, Greig, and Liszt) with something a little more contemporary to spice things up. They are excellent and I guess that the entire cycle, played by Rubackytė will be worth searching out (Brilliant Classics, BT0916). 

Pancho Vladigerov’s ‘Passion’ from his Ten Impressions, op. 9 is one of those discoveries that epitomise the Rarities of Piano Music from Husum project.  I have never heard of this composer, despite being a listener who enjoys exploring the overgrown paths of classical music. Turns out that he is an important Bulgarian composer living during much of the twentieth century. He was influenced by romanticism and national folk song. A brief search of YouTube reveals a musician with whom I could do business with – especially his Piano Concerto no.3. The present Impression ‘Passion’ was composed in 1920. It lives up to its title, which, I think, emphasises the emotional meaning of the word rather that the ‘suffering’ one.  Look out for overtones of Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss. It is given a wonderful performance by Etsuko Hirose.
I am not sure about Hirose’s second number. For some reason I have never really ‘got’ Charles-Valentin Alkan. Despite Busoni’s contention that he was ‘the greatest of the post-Beethoven composers’, I find that his music may be absorbing, advanced, exhilarating and captivating, but does it not speak to my heart.  ‘Le Grillon’ was inspired by a chirping cricket and is a complex piece that belies the innocence of the subject. It is imaginatively and magically played here.

Fauna also features in the title of Venezuela-born Reynaldo Hahn’s massive piano suite Le Rossignol éperdu (The Distressed Nightingale), composed in 1912. I guess that the ‘Nightingale’ in question may well be the composer himself. This was a gigantic project, set out in four volumes/suites with a total of 53 pieces. Lukas Geniušas plays a ‘mere’ two excerpts from this album. The first, no.31 ‘En Caique’, provides a reflective picture of a day at sea in the Mediterranean, aboard a traditional Turkish fishing boat.  And the second, no.51 (‘Adieux au soir tombant’), bids farewell to the day at dusk. They present an enchanted mood. One day I will listen to the entire cycle, following the score: I think it will be an interesting adventure.  

The Russian composer Valery Arzumanov has written numerous pieces for his massive collection Piano World op.74. I confess to finding them somewhat insipid, bearing in mind that he was a pupil of the ‘advanced’ and ‘colourful’ Olivier Messiaen. Perhaps they sound too much like didactic music (which is not a problem). They just left me cold. ‘Before the exam’ is written with a ‘rare’ 58-4 time signature and is rhythmically exciting.

The liner notes lament the fact that there is only room on a ‘well-filled disc’ for one of Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov’s pieces from his ‘Songs from Bukovina’. It is part of a collection of 24 preludes in all the major and minor keys. This E minor one is vibrant and nods towards jazz and majors on folksong from the Bukovina region. This was a border state between what is now Romania and the Ukraine.  It is played with great enthusiasm by Lukas Geniušas. I am not sure if the work is entitled ‘Songs from Bukovina’ or 24 Preludes: the internet and the insert do not help here.

Jean Louis Nicodé was a Prussian composer despite his Gallic sounding name. The liner notes explain that Simon Callaghan played his ‘masterpiece’ Memories of Robert Schumann at the Festival. Unfortunately, there are no extracts from this work on the CD. I am lucky to have heard Memories and I feel that Nicodé has out Schumann-ed Schumann. The complete recording is available on Hyperion (CDA68269).  What is given in this present disc are two short movements from his Liebesleben (A life of love) which is a collection of 10 pieces with gnomic titles such as ‘Repentance’ and ‘Remembrance’. Once again, Schumann is the exemplar, but that is fine. They are well-crafted, surprisingly profound and quite lovely. Callaghan’s performance highlights the fact that this composer does not deserve neglect.

The finale of Roberto Fuchs’ Sonata No.1 in G flat major, op. 19 is racy and imaginative. This composer is probably best remembered today as the teacher of Gustav Mahler, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Jean Sibelius and George Enescu. Brahms once wrote that ‘Fuchs is a splendid musician, everything is so fine and so skilful, so charmingly invented, that one is always pleased.’ These words certainly sum up this stylistically conservative little ‘allegro.’

Anton Arensky’s ‘Intermezzo’ is the twelfth of his 24 Morceaux caractéristiques, op. 36 dating from 1894.  This is a pleasant piece, which merits a greater accolade than Maurice Hinson’s designation a. ‘salon music’ There are hints of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov here, which is hardly surprising as he studied with the latter and was friends with the former. It is characterised by a wistful melody and attractive accompaniment. Sina Kloke gives the ‘intermezzo’ a suitably introverted feel.

This compilation from the 2018 Husum Festival closes with four pieces played by the superb Italian American pianist, Antonio Pompa-Baldi. Sergei Rachmaninov’s beautiful Vocalise needs no special pleading. It was originally the final number of 14 Songs or Romances published in 1912. It has been arranged for many instrumental combinations.  Clearly, it has appeared for solo piano, with versions by Earl Wild and Alan Richardson. Pompo-Baldi’s transcription is satisfying and gently nostalgic, which is just the way it should be. 
An arrangement of the Sardinian folk song ‘La Rosa’ follows. This is given a virtuosic but also ‘restrained’ treatment by Roberto Piana.
Gabriel Grovlez’s L’almanach aux images (A Diary of Snaps) often features in the repertoire of the aspiring pianist. The two ‘images’ ‘Les Anes’ and ‘Petites Litanies de Jesus’ retain their popularity. Less-well-known is the seven-movement suite ‘Fancies’ composed in 1915.   Pompa-Baldi presents the charming ‘Serenade’ which exudes all the sunshine of a Spanish holiday.
The final work is pure magic: Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango is everything that can be imagined about this Argentinian composer’s exploration of the genre. The notes explain that the title is a ‘portmanteau’ word combining ‘Libertad’ (liberty) and ‘Tango’. It is supposed to reflect Piazzolla’s break from ‘classical’ tango to the ‘new’ tango for which he is renowned. It has been arranged for many combinations. As an enthusiast of the piano, I feel that this one is the best!

The liner notes by Peter Grove are excellent and give all the information required to appreciate these ‘rarities.’ There are no pianists’ biographies: they can all be found on the Internet. The text is printed in English and German.
This wide-ranging exploration of largely romantic music is matched by an excellent recording, that allows all the nuances of the universally impressive playing to emerge.  It is a live recording, but there is nothing here that intrudes from the audience. Applause is restricted to the final track.

Finally, many of the works presented on this CD were extracts from the ‘full works.’ I will repeat my plea recorded in previous reviews of the Husum Festival CDs. Could we please have a doubler (at least) as there seems so much of interest that has fallen by the wayside.  

Track Listing:

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Ballade (1890/1903)
Fabian Müller (piano)
Gabriel DUPONT (1878-1914) from La maison dans les dunes (1908/09): 1. Dans les dunes par un clair matin; 10. Houles
Severin von Eckardstein (piano)
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937) from 12 Préludes op. 36 (1914/15): 7. Evocation d'un jour d'angoisse; 12. Seul...            
Mūza Rubackytė (piano)
Pancho VLADIGEROV (1899-1978) from 10 Impressions, op. 9  (1920): 8. Passion
Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888) ‘Le Grillon’, op. 60 bis (Nocturne No. 4) (c.1859)
Etsuko Hirose (piano)
Reynaldo HAHN (1874-1947) from Le Rossignol éperdu (1912): 31. En caique;
51. Adieux au soir tombant   
Valery ARZUMANOV (b. 1944) from 27 Pieces for (piano), op. 74 (1985) To a Brighter Future; Forgotten and Abandoned; Dedication to Mahler; Before the Exam    
Leonid DESYATNIKOV (b. 1955) from Songs of Bukovina, Prelude in E minor (2017)
Lukas Geniušas (piano)
Jean Louis NICODÉ (1853-1919) from "Ein Liebesleben”, op. 22 (1880): 6. Reue; 8. Erinnerung
Simon Callaghan (piano)
Robert FUCHS (1847-1927) from Sonata No.1 in G flat major, op. 19 (1877) 4. Allegro molto – Quasi presto 
Ingrid Marsoner (piano)
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906) from 24 Morceaux caractéristiques, op. 36 (1894) 12. Intermezzo
Sina Kloke (piano)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) / Antonio POMPA-BALDI (b.1974) Vocalise, op. 34 no.14 (1912, rev. 1915)  
(arr. Roberto PIANA b.1971) Neapolitan Song: La Rosa
Gabriel GROVLEZ (1879-1944) Sérénade, from Fancies  (1915)
Astor PIAZOLLA (1921-1992)/Roberto PIANA / Antonio POMPA-BALDI Libertango (1974)
Antonio Pompa-Baldi (piano)
Rec. 18-25 August 2018, Schloss vor Husum
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday 25 September 2019

William Lloyd Webber: Aurora for orchestra

William Lloyd Webber's undoubted masterpiece is his tone poem Aurora composed during 1948. It is the only work that the composer would talk about: the only one that he seemed enthusiastic about.  It is quite definitely a love poem - Julian Lloyd Webber admits this in his interview with Rob Barnett on the MusicWeb International website.  Yet, it was a love poem written in the ‘abstract’. Seemingly, it was not inspired by any individual – although, tantalisingly, Julian states that he cannot be sure of this!

Whatever the antecedents and inspiration of this work it is impressive and important. We must put to one side any feelings of derivation. It is true that we can hear echoes of Rachmaninov, Delius and Sibelius and even Wagner. The opening of the piece has been likened to Bartok smoothed over by Vaughan Williams. And there are definite echoes of RVW here.  It really does not matter. William Lloyd Webber was not a trend-setter: he did not intend to break new ground. He used musical vocabulary that was already available that appealed to his emotions.  But then so did J.S. Bach.
Aurora is a skilfully composed piece of music - by structure, harmonic language and most certainly orchestral colouring. It can be described as sumptuous. It is also quite sentimental without being in any way mawkish.
It is instructive to the composer's own words here -
‘Arriving from the East in a chariot of winged horses, dispelling night and dispersing the dews of the morning. Aurora was the Roman Goddess of the dawn. This short tone poem attempts to portray in reasonably respectable sonata first movement form, the inherent sensuality of her nature.
Consecutive 6/4 chords introduce a bit of night music soon to be dispelled by the dawn theme, announced by the flute. Aurora's theme forms the second subject and (it is hoped) is of a suitably lyrical nature, as befits such a beautiful goddess. Her amorous adventures can possibly be imagined in the development section, and in the recapitulation her theme occurs twice – the first time with a light textured orchestration, and then with all the instruments that were available at the time of writing the piece.
At the moment of climax, the night music returns again, and Aurora has to leave us. However, the final cadence has a hint of her theme, and there is always the promise of a new day.’ Programme Note for Phillips Classics 420 342-2 (1986).

Robert Matthew-Walker (Music and Musicians February 1987) noted that ‘‘Aurora’ is a difficult work to pin-point in style: English, certainly, but not at all derivative, although echoes may be traced of Bax, Ireland and Moeran.’ Matthew-Walker had changed his mind about William Lloyd Webber’s musical achievement - of whom he had ‘...previously thought [of] as an eminently respectable composer of Methodist Easter cantatas, and not much else, was an artist of no mean achievement.’

It is incredible to realise that Aurora remained unperformed until 1986. If this were the only piece of music written by the composer, it would be a major achievement.

William Lloyd Webber’s Aurora can be heard on YouTube. The London Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Lorin Maazel. The work was also released on the Chandos label (CHAN 9595). Here Richard Hickox conducted the City of London Sinfonia.

Sunday 22 September 2019

It's not British...Six Cello Concertos played by Erling Blöndal Bengtsson

This two-CD set opens with Shostakovich’s oft played and recorded Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat Major Op. 107 composed in 1959. There are currently 58 versions (including repackagings) of this piece in the Arkiv catalogue.
The scoring is light, with no brass, except a well-used French horn, and only timpani and celesta in the percussion section.  The work’s structure is unusual being divided into two seemingly imbalanced section. The opening ‘allegretto’, which opens with a four-note motif, provides much of the musical material for the entire piece. This is followed by three ‘movements’ played without a pause. The ‘moderato; is lyrical and almost romantic in mood. The next section, beginning as an ‘andantino’ and developing into an ‘allegro’, includes a long cadenza or soliloquy for the soloist (unaccompanied). It ruminates on previously heard melodies including the ‘motto’ theme. This leads into the ‘finale’ which is a ‘rondo.’ The last bars of this concerto form a coda that looks back to the work’s opening. I am not sure that harshness or violence dominates this movement: I rather feel that it is sarcasm.  
I enjoyed Bengtsson’s account of this work. The first movement is taken a wee bit slower than some versions, but as the liner notes explain, it ‘aids articulacy and orchestral clarity.’ Certainly, the wonderful horn passages come to the fore. The overall impression is of an excellent balance between the work’s intimacy and dark irony.

Everyone (hopefully) loves Don Quixote, his squire Sancho Panza and his horse, Rocinante. I read a (very) condensed version of this story at primary school and have carried this imagery in my mind down to the present. I have since read the full tale! Despite Richard Strauss rearranging Cervantes’s plot for musical reasons, this great set of 'Fantastic Variations for Large Orchestra on a Theme of Knightly Character' manages to feature a good slice of the book’s action. The work is arranged for solo cello, viola (played here by Claus Myrup) and with prominent parts for bass clarinet and tenor tuba.  The work is structured as an ‘introduction’ exploring the knightly character of the protagonist. This is followed by a ‘Theme and variations’ which present a series of episodes from the story. The finale, alas, is rather sad. Don Quixote is restored to ‘sanity’ and realises that his ‘hopes, fancies and dreams’ have been illusions. It is all too much for him: he finally succumbs to the arms of Morpheus in eternal rest.
The older I get, the more I sympathise with the character of Don Quixote – in Cervantes text, Strauss’s tone poem and several other musical evocations of this character. If you want to listen to this marvellous tone-poem as a piece of absolute music, then that is OK. Just realise that the mood running through this work is one depicting the human conditions: our struggles in life, our attempts to try to make the world a better place and finally our need to accept life’s end with equanimity. Not at all easy, but we have Don Quixote as an icon to encourage us.
This moving work is played with characteristic feeling and introspection by Bengtsson. This is especially so in the heart-breaking finale.
Finally, don’t worry about the musical ‘bleating of the sheep’ and the ‘wind’ effects. In the former, Strauss uses extended instrumental technique (flutter-tonguing) in the brass. It is all done in the best possible taste!

The first work on the second CD is Luciano Berio’s enchanted Ritorno degli snovidenia (The Return of Dreams) (1977) for cello and thirty instruments. This work was commissioned by the Swiss conductor, patron and impresario Paul Sacher for Mstislav Rostropovich and the Basel Chamber Orchestra. The underlying programme deals with the conflict between a Western European’s idealistic view of the Russian Revolution and a Soviet artist’s experience of the reality in the Soviet Union. It has been well summed up as reflecting ‘the composer’s dreams…destroyed by…Stalinism.’  The score is dream-like, seemingly drifting in and out of consciousness. Berio has deconstructed some Revolutionary songs (Snoviedenia) and has created a melodic line for the cello that barely rests for the entire 23 minutes duration. The thirty instruments (sounding sometimes like a full orchestra) provide a masterclass in sonic timbre and colour.  The ‘concerto’ was composed during 1976 and premiered on 20 January 1977.  This is a heartbreakingly beautiful work, despite the depressing nature of its inspiration. It is a twentieth century masterpiece. I have not heard Rostropovich’s recording of this work made in 1989 with Pierre Boulez. I imagine it would be well-worth digging out. Meanwhile, Bengtsson along with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig give what seems to me an ideal performance.

Gyorgy Ligeti’s Cello Concerto was composed during 1966 for the German cellist Siegfried Palm. The ‘structural principle’ of this work is to make it as far removed from a classical concerto as possible. The designation ‘concerto’ is probably an exaggeration.  There is no dialogue or opposition between the soloist and the orchestra. One reviewer in The Gramophone magazine reflected that why this work remains less popular than Ligeti’s four other concertos is that it does not attract ‘star soloists.’
The Concerto opens about as quietly as is possible before rising and falling to climaxes of varying intensity. The listener is not aware of the construction of the piece: it appears as a numinous web of sound. The second part (or movement) is more sharply defined with greater contrast between tone colour, dynamics and tempi. It is complex, virtuosic music. Bengtsson gives a thoughtful recital here and is not afraid to hide his considerable technique under a bushel of orchestral sounds. It is almost as if the ‘band’ is disappointed that its skirmish with soloist has not risen to expectation. But look out for the demanding cadenza in the second movement. It is one of the great Cello concertos of the 20th century.

The liner notes tell virtually nothing about Swedish composer Sven Erik Bäck or his Cello Concerto. This short work is hard-edged and does not provide much in the way of relief for the soloist or listener. The liner notes are correct in describing it as gritty. However, in the second movement, an attempt is made to introduce a touch of lyricism. I do wonder if this is a piece that would grow on the listener with repeated hearings?  The music is clearly written in an ‘uncompromising’ style, that is post-Webern. The composer makes use of ‘pointillism’ (notes made in seclusion, rather than in a sequence) which leads to a feeling of disquiet and unease.

The final concerto on CD 2 is Niels Viggo Bentzon’s (1919-2000) Cello Concerto No. 3 op. 444 (1981/2) Yes, I was surprised at the high opus number! This was to be increased to more than 600 by the time of the composer’s death. The present work is one of 41 concertante pieces in Bentzon’s catalogue. I guess that I have only heard a handful of pieces from his pen, so it is difficult to build up an overall picture of his musical style. 
The Concerto is composed in three well-balanced movements. The stylistic parameters are wide ranging, with influences from composers as musically diverse as Brahms, Nielsen, Bartok and Hindemith. I was particularly impressed with the thoughtful, expressive slow movement (II) although the finale has some wonderfully quicksilver moments. As the liner notes explain, this is pure, absolute music: it neither has, nor needs a programme. This is an impressive work that is largely restrained, with only a few climactic outbursts.

The liner notes by Colin Anderson give a brief introduction to each composer and their work. I would have liked slightly longer programme notes for the less-well-known pieces here. Bearing in mind that these are all live performances made over a third of a century, the recordings are splendid. Clearly, there are dozens of versions of the Strauss and the Shostakovich in the catalogues: Ligeti is represented by 9, Berio, four. I understand that these are the only recordings of the Bentzon and Back currently available.

Erling Blöndal Bengtsson is an incredibly accomplished Danish cellist who died in June 2013. He was born in Copenhagen in 1932 and enjoyed a highly successful career. He gave his first recital aged four years old. At sixteen he began at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he studied cello with Gregor Piatigorsky. His academic career included an appointment at the Royal Danish Academy and a professorship at the Hochschule für Musik Köln. In 1990 he taught at the University of Michigan School of Music and in 2006 retired from the academic world. 

The Bengtsson estate maintains an excellent website devoted to his musical achievement. It includes details of his life, work and recordings. Even a brief exploration of his discography reveals a wide-ranging interest in music from all periods of musical history. Most of Bengtsson’s  recordings have been released by Danacord, whose catalogue lists more than 20 CDs (see reviews of Volume 1,  Volume 2 and Volume 3). 

Track Listing:

A Tribute to Erling Blöndal Bengtsson: The Danish Recordings 1966-2002
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat Major op. 107 (1959)  The Royal Danish Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
Live Concert Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen 8 March 2002
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) Don Quixote op. 35 (1897)
Claus Myrup (viola) The Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt
Live Concert, Danish Radio Studio 1, 14 April 1994
Luciano BERIO (1925-2003) Ritorno degli snovidenia for cello and thirty instruments (1976-1977)
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jan Latham-Koenig
Live Concert, Danish Radio Studio 1, 10 October 1983
György LIGETI (1923-2006) Cello Concerto (1966)
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/Diego Masson
Live Concert, Aarhus, 18 April 1988.
Sven-Erik BÄCK (1919-1994) Cello Concerto (1966)
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Miltiades Caridis
Live Concert, Danish Radio Studio 1, 29 September 1966
Niels Viggo BENTZON (1919-2000) Cello Concerto No. 3 op. 444 (1981-1982)
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Lazarev
Live Concert, Idrætshallen, Aabenraa, 20 September 1983
Erling Blöndal Bengtsson (cello)

Thursday 19 September 2019

Frank Merrick (1886-1981) & Henry Holst (1899-1991) Violin and Piano Works on Nimbus (Part 2)

I liked the two Violin Sonatas by the Swedish composer Gunnar de Frumerie on CD 3. I have heard very little of his music. These sonatas are exciting and thoughtful by turn.  I guess that I would like to hear them in a modern recording.  Jean Sibelius’s little ‘Sonatine’ in E major, op.80 was written in 1915. This work exudes wit and sheer happiness, possibly inspired by a Christmastide sleigh-ride. The lack of angst is reflected in Holst and Merrick’s take.

The final CD presents Max Reger’s massive Violin Sonata no.5 in F sharp minor, op.84 composed in 1905. Listening to this excellent performance (notwithstanding the above-mentioned caveats) I wondered why Reger is typically regarded as dry-as-dust. This is a big work, possibly even overblown, that demands our attention. The two flanking movements are intense and virtuosic whilst the gentler middle one is over in a flash. The finale is cast as an ‘introductory’ theme, followed by seven variations with a ‘triumphant’ fugue thrown in for good measure. I think that I surprised myself by finding this one of the most enjoyable (for me) pieces in this collection.

The second work by Reger is the Janus-like Suite in the Olden Style composed in 1906. Since that time, the composer has ‘dished it up’ for full orchestra by which it is (slightly) better known.  Listeners will discern nods towards J.S. Bach’s ‘Brandenburg’ Concerto no.3 in the opening swashbuckling ‘Praeludium’. Maybe there are hints of Anton Bruckner in the deeply felt ‘largo.’ It comes as no surprise that Reger ends his Suite with a ‘fugue.’ This massive construction balances what is really a perpetuum mobile with a few more reflective episodes and massive ‘final entries’ and coda. Surely, no ‘Old Suite’ had so many chromatic notes and chords. I do not know why Reger gets written off as boring, academic and downright dull. This is proof that there is another side to this composer: witty, puckish, straddling the musical boundary between Brahms and Schoenberg and featuring a deep absorption of Bach. Well played here by the duo, despite one of two intonation issues, but so what! Great music.

Sergei Prokofiev's Cinq Mélodies were written during his exile in Paris during the 1920s. They are an arrangement of songs ‘he had composed earlier.’ Not normally a fan of Prokofiev, I found these five pieces urbane, full of interest and often quite moving. Holst and Merrick give studied performances of this deeply lyrical music.

What first struck me about this four-CD conspectus was the documentation. The liner notes present a detailed 10,000-word essay/biography of both artists written by the Founding Editor of MusicWeb International, Rob Barnett. This will inspire the historically minded in further exploring many facets of contemporary musicianship. The biography is preceded by a context-setting introduction, which explains that many of the works heard in this set, were well and truly out of fashion in the 1960s.
For example, Bax’s reputation was then based on Tintagel and The Garden of Fand. On a positive note, Iris Loveridge had recorded her ground-breaking cycle of Bax’s piano music for Lyrita (1959-63). Now, through the age of LP, CD and streaming, it is possible to find several versions of Bax’s Legend, Ballad and Violin Sonatas, but Holst and Merrick were the pioneers in every case.

Nimbus were lucky in having the programme notes for virtually all these works. They were issued as part of the Frank Merrick Society/Rare Recorded Edition LPs. Many were written by Merrick, with two (Rubbra and Stevens) provided by the composers themselves. They are model notes that err on the technical, rather than the descriptive, model more popular today. But they are perfectly comprehensible to anyone who has a moderate understanding of musical theory. They make for fascinating reading, especially if one has the score at hand.  I was unable to find the note for Bax Sonata no.1: the text seems to jump from the Ballad to no.2! And nothing about the Prokofiev Cinq Mélodies either.

The final piece of editorial information is the ‘Note on the LP Sources.’ Listeners need to understand that the original records were made for private listening. The Merrick Family suggest that less than 100 copies of each LP were pressed.  In total there were some 24 numbered releases, with 20 issued by the Merrick Society and four by the Rare Recorded Edition (RRE) and Cabaletta. A further 17 volumes were issued by RRE including the nine-volume edition of the ‘complete’ piano works of John Field. The recording dates of each work are not given, although the ‘source LP’ is cited (see above).

I guess that relatively few people will purchase this set to have pristine recordings of these important works. They are quite clearly historical and reflect the fact that they are around 50-60 years old. Listeners who wish to explore virtually the entire corpus of the Holst/Merrick discography will be delighted. And they are essential listening for all enthusiasts of Arnold Bax.

Track Listing:
Gunnar de FRUMERIE (1908-1987)
Violin Sonata No.1 in A minor, op.15 (1934 rev.1962)
Violin Sonata No.2 in C sharp minor, op.30 (1944)
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Sonatina[e] in E major, op.80 (1915)
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Violin Sonata No.5 in F sharp minor, op.84 (1905)
Suite im alten Stil, op.93 (1906)
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Five Melodies, op.35bis (1920)
Frank Merrick (piano), Henry Holst (violin)
rec. 1950s-60s

The LP sources FMS (Frank Merrick Society); LPA (Concert Artist Record)
FMS 18 Bax: Ballad, Violin Sonata No. 2 & No. 3
FMS 19 Reger: Violin Sonata No. 5; Suite im alten Stil; Prokofiev: Cinq Mélodies
FMS 21 Bax: Legend; Isaacs: ‘Andantino’; Rubbra: Violin Sonata No. 2; Stevens: Fantasia
FMS 23 De Frumerie: Violin Sonata No. 1 & No. 2; Sibelius: Violin Sonatina
LPA 1099 Bax: Violin Sonata No. 1; Delius: Violin Sonata No. 2
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 16 September 2019

Frank Merrick (1886-1981) & Henry Holst (1899-1991) Violin and Piano Works on Nimbus (Part 1)

There needs to be a listening strategy for this exploration of music played by Henry Holst and Frank Merrick. It begins with an acceptance that each of these recordings were (probably) made at one sitting. There was little chance for editing and enhancement of the final tapes. Here and there Holst seems to be a ‘bit’ out of tune, or at least not quite getting the intonation right (flat). This said, I guess that what will impress the listener most is the enthusiasm and the sheer creative ‘bravery’ in laying so down many works that were not in the public eye (or ear). On this basis, this four-CD collection is essential listening to all who are interested in 20th century music and its performance history. A biographical history of both artists is easily accessible on the Internet: I will not rehearse it here.

Clearly, it is important to have the first complete recorded cycle of Bax’s Violin Sonatas (at least as published). That said, I would not recommend these as ‘my first choice’ for someone new to Bax.
The collection opens with Arnold Bax’s ruminative Legend. This was completed during February 1915 in the early stages of the First World War. Nobody knows what the actual ‘Tale’ is, but clearly it is a combination of romantic love, melancholy and frightening visions of conflict. Bax himself insisted that ‘this piece was always associated in my mind [with the war] …and came straight out of the horror of that time…like so much of the second violin sonata.’  The overall mood of this Legend is one of melancholy: it is more a lament than ‘battle music’.
The following year finds Bax composing his Ballad for violin and piano. He was now less concerned with the Great War and more interested in the politics of Ireland and the Easter Rising of 1916. The music has a seascape feel to it as well: it is a ‘stormy thing.’ There is beauty as well as anguish here. Once again, we do not know the story behind the Ballad. It is a complex and difficult work for both players.’
I enjoyed Henry Holst and Frank Merrick’s recital of these two rarely heard and underrated pieces.

Colin Scott Sutherland has given a rule of thumb for appreciating Bax’s three violin sonatas: the first two are ‘sensuous and ornate’ and the third is ‘more austere and scored economically.’
I felt that I was in the presence of two master-craftsmen with this recital of Bax’s Violin Sonata no.1 in E major. It was composed between 1910-15 and was subsequently revised in 1920 and 1945. I understand that it is the 1920 version that is presented here, although the liner notes suggest it is the later revision. Certainly, Graham Parlett’s Bax Catalogue (Oxford, 1999) states this to be the case. All subsequent recordings are played from the 1945 version – Gruenberg/McCabe on Chandos, Gibbs/Mei-Loc Wu on ASV and Jackson/Wass on Naxos. This final CD is invaluable, as it includes the 2nd and 3rd movements from the original 1910 version.
I found Henry Holst’s tone just that little bit astringent during much of this Sonata. Even the passionate and romantically charged opening movement suffers from this sharpness of tone. The ‘scherzo’ is not quite as ‘quicksilver’ as I would have liked: the recording gets a little muddy in places. The finale is quite lovely. With its references to the opening movement and its ‘consolatory’ mood concludes what is a remarkable performance, despite my concerns noted above. The entire work is worthy of the beautiful lady, Natalia Skarginski whom Arnold Bax followed across Europe to the Ukraine in order to plead his suit.

The Violin Sonata No.2 (1915 rev.1921) was conceived in four movements. The composer insisted that they be played without an obvious break. The work is dominated by a single motif, which Bax also used in his orchestral tone poem November Woods (1917). I felt that Holst’s technique here was very brittle and quite ‘hard’ on the ear. I compared it to extracts from the Gibbs/Mei-Loc Wu recording on ASV and confirmed my opinion. That said, Holst does capture the angst and despair that colours this entire work. This is no romantic rhapsody, but a deeply felt work that reflects the crisis of the times. There are some moments when serenity seems to be reached, only to be pushed to one side. This Sonata is characterised by the nihilism of the final ‘allegro feroce’, although this does eventually lead to a more positive conclusion. Alas, the recording does seem to let the side down. That said, it is clearly committed and passionate playing by both men. It is a sonata that deserves more than its less-than-tenuous hold in the repertoire.

CD 2 opens with Bax’s Violin Sonata no.3, composed in 1927.  It is constructed in two linked movements. In the opening section Bax makes use of a ‘wayward Celtic song.’ There is more of the Celtic twilight here than might be expected. Despite the typically more taught soundscape there are some interludes which capture the composer’s brooding. There is an Irish dance tune in the finale as well as autobiographical ‘dreaming’ by Bax himself. I felt that Holst and Merrick managed successfully to balance the diverse elements in this powerful Sonata.

Frederick Delius’s Violin Sonata (1923) inhabits the misty quasi-impressionistic world of Ophelia, and, as Rob Barnett has suggested, Frank Bridge’s elusive There is a willow grows aslant a brook.  The duo has given an attractive performance of this lyrical rhapsody.

The ‘andantino’ from Manchester-born composer and pianist Edward Isaacs’s Violin Sonata in A major (1910) is hardly a masterpiece. Yet it reflects the sentimental taste of Edwardian Britain. This work is melodically attractive, but with a touch of melancholy. The middle section is livelier. Merrick and Holst have convinced me that the entire Sonata deserves at least one revival and/or professional recording.

Edmund Rubbra’s Violin Sonata no.2, op.31 (1931) contains something quite surprising. The finale features a vibrant Iberian dance, which is like nothing I can recall in his opus. It nods towards Bartok and Manuel de Falla in its impact. This does not quite ‘come off’: there seems to be a lack of passion and drive, although I have not heard this work in any other version. The middle ‘Lament’ is truly tragic in sound.
Neither does Bernard Steven’s Fantasia on a Theme of Dowland for Violin and Piano, Op.23 quite work for me here. Stevens has a theme (‘Can she excuse my wrongs’) that can be realised in a forlorn mood or as a vibrant Galliard. I appreciated this work but guess that I would turn to Kenneth Sillito and Hamish Milne on Albany (TROY 572). That said Holst and Merrick bring great depth to the more introverted parts of this work. Jonathan Woolf, in his review of this collection, is correct in suggesting that here, the duo is ‘at something less than their best.’

Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Legend (1915)
Ballad (1916)
Violin Sonata No.1 in E major (1910-15, rev 1920, 1945)
Violin Sonata No.2 (1915, rev.1921)
Violin Sonata No. 3 (1927)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Violin Sonata No.2 (1923)
Edward ISAACS (1881-1953)
Violin Sonata in A – Andantino (1910)
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Violin Sonata no.2, op.31 (1931)
Bernard STEVENS (1916-1983)
Fantasia on a theme of Dowland, op.23 (1953)
Frank Merrick (piano), Henry Holst (violin)
rec. 1950s-60s

The LP sources FMS (Frank Merrick Society); LPA (Concert Artist Record)
FMS 18 Bax: Ballad, Violin Sonata No. 2 & No. 3
FMS 19 Reger: Violin Sonata No. 5; Suite im alten Stil; Prokofiev: Cinq Mélodies
FMS 21 Bax: Legend; Isaacs: ‘Andantino’; Rubbra: Violin Sonata No. 2; Stevens: Fantasia
FMS 23 De Frumerie: Violin Sonata No. 1 & No. 2; Sibelius: Violin Sonatina
LPA 1099 Bax: Violin Sonata No. 1; Delius: Violin Sonata No. 2
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 13 September 2019

Ronald Smith: Piano Masterpieces (1960) on Extended Play

In 1963 my late father invested in a radiogram. Up until that point the family made do with the Pye radio and the black and white television set rented from DER (Domestic Electric Rentals). My father was never one to follow trends, but I guess he must have realised that his son was getting to an age when pop music would begin to become relevant. Already, I had been ‘dancing’ to the Beatles at the Cub Christmas Dance. I think the young lady I danced with was called ‘June.’ On the other hand, my father was never one for the latest developments of pop and rock. Clearly, he had heard of the Fab Four and Elvis, but was more comfortable with the crooning of Bing Crosby, the powerful voice of Paul Robeson and the soulful jazz of Ella Fitzgerald.
The new radiogram was put in the sitting room. We rarely ventured in there, except at Christmas or when my parents were entertaining family or friends.
I remember the long, sleek, dark oak box on slim legs that contained the gubbins: Radio (Long and Medium Wave) and record deck. It included an autochanger for stacking records and a switchable stylus for playing old ‘shellac’ discs as well as ‘microgroove’. There were four speeds: 78, 45, 33 and 16 rpm. I guess this latter setting was never to catch on. The speakers were integral. There was an internal space to store about 30 albums, EPs or singles.

And then the first record arrived. My father came home from work one evening and handed my mother a present. Inside the brown paper bag was Ronald Smith’s Piano Masterpieces. (Embassy Records, WEP1103). I think he had bought it at the long-lamented Lewis’s Department Store in Argyle Street, Glasgow (now Debenhams). It was an EP – extended play record - with four numbers: it had been released in 1963. I remember going into the parlour. The record was duly put on the record deck. Specs perched on the end of his nose my father worked his way through the instructions. I guess the last record player he had used was a wind-up affair sometime during the War. Soon Bach was coming through the speakers. It was the first classical record I had heard, and I wasn’t impressed. I fidgeted and got into trouble.  That for me was that. Meanwhile my mother bought me Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday EP which I played nearly to destruction. Soon, I invested my pocket money in the Beatles ‘Hard Day’s Night’ single. My record collection had begun.

A few year later, when I had just begun to listen to classical music, Smith’s EP was still in the radiogram. It had been joined by several other records including Handel’s Messiah (selections) sung by the Huddersfield Choral Society and conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. The only other classical album was Kathleen Ferrier singing British Folk Songs. It was to be many years before I appreciated this masterclass of singing. I guess that Led Zeppelin and  Yes got in the way! 

One day, when I came home from secondary school, I did listen to Ronald Smith - when my parents were out.  I had just been selected to play a pirate in the G&S operetta The Pirates of Penzance. I needed to get to know classical music quickly, else my street cred with my schoolmates would be zero. Smith’s EP was my introduction to ‘classical’ piano music. And a splendid and varied one at that.

First up was Dame Myra Hess’s beautiful arrangement of the 10th section of J.S. Bach’s Cantata no.147, ‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,’ (Heart and mouth and deed and life), BWV 147. The piano perfectly presents the two separate threads of music: the chorale and the descant. It is a perfect fusion of musical parts.
The second piece on the first side was Frederick Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary’ Study, op.10, no.12. This is believed to have been composed in Stuttgart around 1831 and was dedicated to Franz Liszt. It reflects the composer’s anger at the failure of Poland’s revolution against Russia. The piece is dominated by varying patterns in the right hand with a ‘restless running bass’ in the left.  It opens with a loud dominant seventh first inversion chord. To my untutored ear it sounded wild and stormy.
Turning the EP over, I listened to the piano piece that Sergei Rachmaninov came to despise: The Prelude in C sharp minor, op.3 no.2. It was part of a set of five pieces entitled Morceaux de Fantasie, written around 1892. The composer was only 19 at the time. He was asked to play this warhorse at every recital to the detriment of public appreciation of his other music. Rachmaninov once said that he wished he had never written it. I loved it.
The final track on the EP was Franz Liszt’s gorgeously romantic ‘Liebesträume’ in A flat, op.62, no.3. It was written originally as a song but was ‘transcribed’ by the composer into the pot-boiler it has now become. It supposedly represents the composer’s ‘discovery’ of Chopin’s music.
So, in less than half an hour I had introduced myself to Bach played on the piano. To this day I prefer pianoforte performances of his keyboard works to those played on the clavier or the harpsichord. It was to be many years before I was able to appreciate the fine playing of Myra Hess. I had also been introduced to the ‘political’ element in music in the ‘Revolutionary’ Study by Chopin. The towering pianism of Rachmaninov impressed me with his hackneyed Prelude - I did not know this then. It was not long before I discovered his Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor. And finally, an introduction to Liszt. Both to his transcriptions, which did take me a while to get my head around, and more importantly the sheer romance of his music.
In many ways I guess that much I enjoy in music to this day, is largely underpinned by the ethos of these four pieces of music. My interest in British music was to come later.

I know that I was impressed by Ronald Smith’s playing but cannot recall the details. I was unable to find a contemporary review of this EP however reviews of his other recordings are encouraging and exceptional.  Alas, the record disappeared after my father’s death. It probably ended up in the house clearance sale. I wish I had kept it! Finally, my father’s radiogram lasted until the early 1980s when it was given away. A new sound system was invested in.

Tuesday 10 September 2019

1939: Three Violin Concertos played by Fabiola Kim

Europe had been in great turmoil for some years. Recently, there had been the Spanish Civil War, the invasion of Austria and the annexation of the Sudetenland. But this was finally it: the 1 September 1939 was the ‘official’ start of World War 2. This new two-CD set explores diverse violin concertos by William Walton, Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Bela Bartók, all written, completed or premiered in that momentous year.

I was unable to find any indication as to which version of William Walton’s Concerto for violin and orchestra is played here. Is it the original 1939 version or the revision that the composer made in 1943? This reduced the size of the percussion section. I know that it is the revised version played here, but it would be helpful to be told. (I may have missed it somewhere deep in the text of the liner notes).  
This Concerto (1938-39) was specifically written for Jascha Heifetz (1901-87). However, Walton did have an eye on the 1939 World Fair in New York, and the British contribution to that event.  The story of his failure to complete his Violin Concerto on time and the problems as to who the soloist should be, makes a major essay. This has been detailed in Battle for Music: Music and British Wartime Propaganda 1935-1945 by John Vincent Morris (Exeter University Thesis, 2011).
The first performance was at the Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio on 7 December 1939 with Heifetz and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Artur Rodzinski. The London premiere took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 1 November 1941 with the violinist Henry Holst and the composer conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
There are currently 29 versions (or re-packaging’s) of this concerto listed in the Arkiv Catalogue: I have heard several of them, but by no means all. The first version of this work that I bought in the 1970s, was the Menuhin/Walton/ London Symphony Orchestra, LP (HMV ASD2542, 1970) LP, followed 15 years later with the Kennedy/Previn/Royal Philharmonic recording on CD (EMI CDC 49628 2, 1987). And then there is Heifetz’s, the dedicatee’s 1941 recording released on Naxos 8.110939 in 2001, which bounces along a wee bit too much for me.
My touchstone for this concerto is ‘Mediterranean warmth’ and ‘romance’ as inspired by Walton’s lover Alice Wimborne. I want my heart broken by the ‘big tune’ in the final movement. It is one of the most beautiful moments in the literature of British music. Kennedy does it for me; Menuhin doesn’t quite make it. Fabiola Kim gets it to near-perfection. Generally, her interpretation needs to be just a little touch more ‘sultry’ and ‘bluer’ reflecting the Tyrrhenian Sea visible from Ravello on the Amalfi Coast. This is where Walton wrote most of this Concerto in the days before war broke out.  

The Violin Concerto no.2 in B major, Sz.112 by Béla Bartók has largely passed me by. It is my loss. I do know, however, that it is one of the most important works from the composer’s pen from the immediate pre-Second World War period. It was composed at time when Bartók was desperately worried by the development of fascism in Europe. His place in Hungary was not secure and he suffered considerable trouble with the political elite there.  In 1940 he would become an exile in the United States.
The Concerto was commissioned by the violinist Zoltán Székely.  The story goes that Bartók wished to write the work as a set of extended variations, however, Székely demanded that he follow the ‘traditional’ formal structure of a classical concerto. All well and good, however, Bartók later conceded that despite the apparent fast/slow/fast movements, he had contrived to carry out his initial plan: the middle movement is a set of variations and the final movement is a ‘free variation’ on the first movement.
The sound world of this work is an effective balance between dissonance and lyricism. Once again, the liner notes do not state whether this recording includes the revised or original ending of the final movement. Bartók had originally concluded the work with an ‘extended passage’ for orchestra only. When Zoltán Székely saw this, he insisted on a big finish for the violin soloist. It is this version that is heard here.
I found that Fabiola Kim has emphasised the lyrical nature of this Concerto. This is not at the expense of some of the more dramatic and exuberant moments of this work. Kim copes well with the folk-music inspired first movement but also including a 12-note ‘melody’ and the sophisticated set of variations forming the second movement. Both sound worlds are fused into a complex but satisfying finalé.
Béla Bartók’s second violin concerto was first performed on 23 March 1939 in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Willem Mengelberg with Székely as soloist.

I do not know if Kim’s performance of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funèbre (Funereal Concerto) for violin and string orchestra is given from the original 1939 version or the substantial revision made in 1959. I am guessing that it is the later version, but the liner notes do not make this clear.
What Hartmann has done is to compose a lament or requiem for the whole continent of Europe. The germinal thought behind this concerto is the occupation of parts of Czechoslovakia by the Germans.  The rise of fascism was inexorable. The work opens with a quotation of the ‘Hussite Song’, previously heard in Smetana’s Ma Vlast and Dvorak’s Hussites Overture. Stylistically, Hartmann’s concerto displays a diverse musical character: a post-romantic mood in the second movement ‘adagio’, the motoric ferocity of the third movement ‘allegro di molto and the sustained choral of the ‘finalé.’  

The liner notes by Thomas Otto give a good overview of all three concertos and their composers as well as setting these works in context. There is a long bio of Fabiola Kim and a slightly shorter one about the conductor Kevin John Edusei and the Munchner Symphoniker. They are given in English and German.

This is a splendid introduction to three important works and composers who were active at a time of great crisis in Europe and later the entire world.  Three different perspectives are given here: Walton’s romantic sunshine, almost oblivious to the coming catastrophe, Bartók’s reminiscences of a world that was passing (or had passed), and Hartmann threnody for the pain and suffering that was to begin in 1939 and continues for six years. The mood ranges from optimism to deep pessimism. It is as it should have been.

Track Listing:
1939: Fabiola Kim
CD 1
William Walton (1902-83) Concerto for violin and orchestra (1939)
Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-63) Concerto funèbre (Funereal Concerto) for violin and string orchestra (1939, rev 1959)
CD 2
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) Violin Concerto no.2 in B major, Sz.112 (1939)
Fabiola Kim (violin), Munchner Symphoniker/Kevin John Edusei
Rec. Bavaria Musikstudios, Munich, 5-8 November 2018 (Walton & Bartók); 23-24 January 2019 (Hartmann)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday 7 September 2019

William Wordsworth: Cheesecombe Suite for piano solo (1945)

I first discovered William Wordsworth’s (1908-88) music back in 1975. I had been assiduously exploring the record browsers in the music department of Harrods’ Knightsbridge store. Amongst the usual fare, I found two Lyrita albums of piano music: Franz Reizenstein (RCS19) and William Wordsworth (RCS.13). I immediately bought them, despite having no clue as to their sound world: the prestigious record label was reason enough. After returning home to Glasgow I listened to both with eager anticipation. I confess that I was a little disappointed. Both albums presented music very different to the diet of Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Delius that I was exploring at that time.
I had imagined that the Cheesecombe Suite would have been a ‘pastoral’ ramble, clearly inspired by some real or imaginary place in the depths of the English countryside. In fact, it was probably the title that persuaded me to buy this record of music by a composer I knew nothing about.
Interestingly, Mosco Carner, writing a short review of an early performance of the Suite in The Daily Telegraph (24 October 1950) pointed out that on the previous evening, pianist Frank Merrick had included the Cheesecombe Suite in his recital at the Conway Hall. He felt that this ‘proved to be pastoral [my italics] music as its name suggests, not particularly pianistic in character but unpretentiously pleasing.’ Other works at Merrick’s recital included Prokofiev’s Third Sonata. 
The ‘pastoral character of the music is not a view I would concur with. In fact, it is one of the reasons that I did not warm to this Suite in 1975: it did not evoke (for me) a mood of topography or countryside meditations.

William Wordsworth’s Cheesecombe Suite was composed in the spring of 1945. The work carries the following dedication: ‘To my friends B.A., C.A., D.C., and G.E. whose initials provide the theme for these pieces.’ At this point I would only be guessing in trying to tie a name down to each set of initials.
There is some discussion as to where ‘Cheesecombe’ is, and the composer’s relation to it. Roger Fiske, (The Gramophone June 1963) presumes that it is the name of the Wordsworth’s house at Hindhead. I think that he is wrong. At the time of composition, Wordsworth was living at Little Hatch, Churt Road, Hindhead. This village, which is the highest in Surrey, lies some 10 miles south west of Guildford. It is close to the Devil’s Punch Bowl, which is a local beauty spot.
Paul Conway (MusicWeb International) has suggested that ‘Cheesecombe’ was in fact located near Lyme Regis in the village of Harcombe. It was here that Wordsworth, who was a conscientious objector, may have carried out agricultural war-work in lieu of military service.

Harry Croft-Jackson provided the original liner notes for the Lyrita LP.  I quote the description of each movement:
Prelude: Pensive Andante tranquillo in A minor, full of charm and innocence.
Scherzo: A deft Allegro scherzando in G. Although written in simple triple time [3/4] the beats often divide into triplets as the music chuckles its way through a series of impish key changes.
Nocturne: An example of the composer’s ability to express with economy and restraint a sustained, nostalgic mood.
Fughetta: Like the Prelude, this 9/8 Allegretto is in A minor, with a soft aeolian flavour. Subject and answer are announced ‘delicato,’ and are followed by three ‘pianissimo’ middle entries. There after the Fughetta gradually mounts in excitement to a vigorous conclusion.

Paul Conway rewrote the liner notes for the CD reissue of this album. The only additional comments he makes is to note the ‘capricious key changes and constantly varying rhythms’ making ‘the gambolling Scherzo a light-hearted romp, revealing the composer’s humorous side.’  He believes that the Nocturne ‘is the most profound movement’. This initially wistful pieces ‘intensifies to generate a powerful climax, before falling back on its initial reveries’.

The premiere of Wordsworth’s Cheesecombe Suite was given during a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall, on 19 May 1948. Miss Yvonne Enoch’s playing was apparently too tentative to ‘invest its four short movements with positive character.’ (The Times, 24 May 1948).

The sheet music for the Cheesecombe Suite was published in 1948 by Lengnick, London. It was reviewed by Kenneth Avery in Music and Letters (July 1948). Avery considered that ‘Mr Wordsworth’s suite of four pieces…shows considerable ability in working with insufficient material. The pieces all have the disadvantage of sounding uninteresting, although this composer’s great talent is apparent on every page he writes. Pianists are recommended to purchase the ‘Cheesecombe Suite’, however, for it is, after all, the most accessible work by one of the foremost of our younger composers.’

The Prelude & Fughetta from the Suite was played on Radio 3 during a recital of Scottish music by pianist William Wright on 18 October 1974. Also included in that programme was Wordsworth’s ‘Valediction’ for piano (Op.82) which was composed for Ronald Stevenson, in memory of Joe Watson. It was later arranged by the composer for full orchestra (op.82a, 1969). Other pieces included the now forgotten Suite by John Bevan Baker (1926-94) and Frank Spedding’s (1902-84) Eight Impromptus after Paganini.

The recording history is straightforward. Originally released by Lyrita in 1963, this is a mono album. Margret Kitchin (1914-2008) also featured Wordsworth’s splendid Piano Sonata in D minor, op.13 (1938) and the rhapsodic Ballade, Op.41 (1949). The music was recorded during July 1959 in the ‘Music Room’ of Lyrita record producer Richard Itter’s house.
The original LP was discussed in The Gramophone (June 1963) by Roger Fiske. He was moderately impressed and stated that ‘the final fughetta…ends splendidly and is very well played.’ He considered that the Prelude and the Nocturne ‘took too long to end, but…are otherwise pleasant enough.’ 
The album was re-released in identical packaging in 1975. In 2007 the LP was remastered for CD as  REAM.2106. This disc also includes Margaret Kitchin’s splendid recordings of Iain Hamilton’s Piano Sonata, op,13 (1951) and Michael Tippett’s Piano Sonata No.1 (1937, rev. 1954).

In 1975 Michael Oliver reviewed the LP (vinyl) re-release of this album for The Gramophone (September 1975). His thoughts on the composer in general are worth recalling. He considers that Wordsworth is a ‘perplexing composer…despite writing in an accessibly tonal language and being superficially dismissible as a late romantic…’ The ‘predominant mood of his music is a craggy brooding darkness, degenerating at times into glum heaviness or apparently aimless wanderings, but at its best conveying a brusque, unaccommodating nobility. It is not music for every day and it is undeniably uneven in quality, but there are several passages… whose sombre gravity evokes the world of Thomas Hardy or even of the composer’s namesake and kinsman himself.’ This is a cue for a dissertation.

Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 8 September 2008), reviewing the CD release, writes about the Cheesecombe Suite: ‘…darkling gloom pervades both the Prelude and the pensive overcast tolling of the Nocturne but is dispelled by the devil-may-care angularity of the Scherzo. The little Fughetta finale comes and goes in a few turbulent moments.’

Writing for MusicWeb International, (8 October 2008) Jonathan Woolf explained that the ‘Cheesecombe Suite…opens in vertiginous [lofty] but wholly tonal style and has its ‘darkling thrush’ [Thomas Hardy] moments. Cool and still and also vaguely watchful the Nocturne sits at its heart but there’s also a frantic Fughetta to end things – almost, it has to be said, in hysteria. Adherents of British piano music of the period will want to seek out Margaret Kitchin’s pioneering disc…’

For the record, I feel that William Wordsworth’s Cheesecombe Suite is a delightful excursion into neo-classicism, that has touches of romanticism, little in the way of modernism and virtually nothing of the ‘cow and gate.’ Despite its occasional lack of pianism, it is a worthy Suite that deserves pianists’ attention in 2017.
The Cheesecombe Suite, finely played by Margaret Kitchin, can be heard on LYRITA REAM 2016. It remains the sole recording of this work. It is available to subscribers of the Naxos Music Library.

With thanks to the Remembering Margaret Kitchin, Website where this article was first published in December 2017