Recently, I reviewed Volume 1 of Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie Complete Music for Solo Piano. I refer the reader to that review for details of the composer’s life and general housekeeping for the CD production. Volume 2 is equally rewarding as a recital and as a product. Once again, I am beholden to the excellent liner notes for much of the information I have presented in this review.
Volume 2 opens with the Rustic Scenes, op.9. It appears that these were written in 1876, although the published edition is dated 1897. No matter, these four Scenes are charming if not essential. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a score of them. As the liner notes suggest they are typical of the kind of character pieces that were popular in the late Victorian era. The titles are poetic rather than descriptive. The inevitable ‘Rustic Dance’ comes first. It seems that composers were obsessed with outwardly unsophisticated country folk in those days. It is a merry little number with just an occasional hint of melancholy. Mackenzie travels north for the ‘Forester’s Song’. This echoes the shielings of Argyll rather than the huts of Sherwood Forest. Here and there a little echo of Scottish music creeps into this happy tune. The undisputed masterwork here is the ‘Curfew Song’. This is heartfelt music that explores deeper waters than the ethos of the Suite implies. Once again, the listener can picture the Highlands. Finally, ‘Harvest Home’. I wonder how many compositions have been give this or a similar title over the years. Mackenzie’s ticks all the boxes with a good balance between riotous and prayerful thanksgiving.
The Five Pieces, op.13 (not op.15 as in the liner notes) were published in 1877. Once again, they would appear to be designed to satisfy the ‘salon music’ market. And there is nothing wrong with that! If only composers had always considered their listeners and performers rather than their egos… Howell notes that these are more technically competent that the earlier Rustic Scenes. I was only able to study the score for the opening ‘Impromptu’ and the ‘Saga’. The former is written in a well-constructed ternary (three part) form that is wistful in mood. The right-hand part is quite delicious in its pensive explorations. This is followed by a bouncy little gigue that has just a hint of the baroque about it. It is a perfect precursor for the most significant piece in this collection, the ‘Saga’. Here, Mackenzie alludes to Celtic sensibilities as well as presenting a ‘bleak Nordic tone that anticipates Sibelius.’ The middle section is way beyond the paygrade of the amateur pianist. Saga has an ascription from Longfellow’s The Saga of King Olaf which sets the tone. A reflective ‘La Coquette’ follows which is in complete contrast. This young lady is only just a little flirtatious, but clearly quite lovely. The concluding ‘Evening in the Fields’ is back to an imagined rustic simplicity. It seems to balance a lively dance with a meditation on the setting of the sun. Perhaps, the weakest of this set of Five Pieces?
Two early works are included which date back to the time when Alexander Mackenzie was studying in Germany. Neither have been published and are played here from the manuscript. The first is a sad and reflective little tone poem, Sehnsucht (Loneliness) whilst the second, Ungarisch. is a fair attempt at writing a Hungarian ‘Czardas’. Howell reminds the listener that the composer’s father died shortly after beginning his studies in Schwarzburg-Sondershausen. Sehnsucht naturally seems to reflect his loss.
Odds and Ends is by and large a good title for Mackenzie’s op.83. It is subtitled ‘Par ci, par là’ (Here and there). They were published during the Great War in 1916. The opening ‘Refrain’ curiously nods towards John Ireland with its ‘obsessive melancholy’ whilst the second, ‘High Spirits’ is wayward, without being reckless. The second ‘book’ opens with ‘Telling a Story’ that pushes its harmonic language into the 20th century, however this tale could be about anything. The final ‘Odds and Ends’ is a ‘Pavane and Musette’. The liner notes suggest Cyril Scott as an exemplar. I am not so sure: I found it a little monotonous.
The final work on this CD is Mackenzie’s ‘most ambitious single piece’ the Fantasia, op.70. It was published in 1909 and dedicated to Philip L Agnew. Agnew was chairman of the Royal Academy of Music as well as being one of the proprietors of the long-running satirical magazine, Punch. Moreover, he had created an annual prize for pianoforte awarded at the RAM. Howell mentions that ‘notable recipients’ included Leo Livens, Michael Head and Clifford Curzon.
An argument could be made that the Fantasia is a ‘one-movement sonata.’ The structure would seem to suggest a sonata. Howell points out the powerful first theme that is both confident and optimistic. This is followed by a much more reticent ‘second subject’ which could be a ‘slow movement.’ Equally, the development section has all the effervescence of a ‘scherzo.’ The inevitable recapitulation of the two main themes may well suggest that it is cyclic. Listening to this music is both rewarding and inspiring. This must rate as one of the Mackenzie’s finest excursions for piano (or any instruments).
The liner notes conclude with an interesting conceit: ‘those in search of the major piano work Elgar never wrote, may well find much of what they are seeking in this free-flowing, eloquently romantic chef-d'oeuvre by Mackenzie.’ It is a sentiment that I could well come to agree with. I note that the Fantasia was completed in the lovely West Riding town of Ilkley.
The final instalment of this survey promises to be equally good in every way. It will feature the Scenes in the Scottish Highlands, op.23 (1880) which has been regarded as Alexander Mackenzie’s ‘Scottish’ Piano Sonata. Equally promising are the early Variations in E minor (c.1861).
Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935)
Rustic Scenes, op.9 (1876)
Five Pieces, op.13 (1877)
Odds and Ends – Par ci, par là, op.83 Books 1 & 2 (1916)
Fantasia, op.70 (1909)
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan, Italy, 14 February 2017, 21 June 2018.
Sheva Collection SH229