The present CD introduces the
listener to a cross section of Rutland Boughton’s chamber music, ranging from
the early Celtic Prelude to the post Second World War Trio for violin,
violoncello, and piano. I am grateful to the excellent liner notes in the
preparation of this review. Also helpful was Michael Hurd’s 1993 volume Rutland
Boughton and the Glastonbury Festivals.
A few pointers to Rutland Boughton’s life and achievement may be of interest. He was born in Aylesbury on 23 January 1878. Twenty-two years later he entered the Royal College of Music to study with Stanford and Walford Davies. Sadly, academic rigour did not agree with him, and he left after year, to pursue his own interests. Under the auspices of Granville Bantock, he taught at the Midland Institute. In the early years of the 20th century, Boughton developed a desire to found a “British Bayreuth” at Glastonbury. The idea was to promulgate the legends of King Arthur. To this end he wrote a series of Arthurian operas/music dramas. Although the festival ran for a number of years, the proposed theatre was never built. His biggest success was his opera, The Immortal Hour based on the doings of nature spirits and fairies. Sadly, Boughton’s political views, which were left wing (he was a member of the Communist Party), may have led to the lack of financial interest in his project. Aside from opera, he composed much orchestral and concerted music, chamber works and several cantatas. Sadly, most of his oeuvre remains unheard in our day.
Jeremy Dibble has succinctly
summed up Boughton’s musical aesthetic: “[His] style
ranges from the genuinely symphonic (as in the Third Symphony of 1937) to the
naively simple…underpinned by a conservative harmonic vocabulary symptomatic of
his socialist realism.” (The Oxford Companion to Music). Rutland
Boughton died on 25 January 1960.
It is unbelievable that the Trio for violin, violoncello, and piano, written in 1948, was not performed until the present ensemble played it at a lunchtime recital in Aylesbury, during March 2019. It is presented in two balanced movements, played without a break. The opening Allegretto sostenuto packs many moods into its progress. There are nods to the English pastoral school, as well as moments that are angry, tempestuous, but eventually triumphant. The movement ends in peace. Immediately following, is a bouncy “scherzo” which is both “extrovert and slightly comical.” Boughton runs with four themes, not quite contrasting, but always rewarding. The Trio concludes with an uplifting coda, Piu Allegro, which seals the optimistic conclusion to this remarkable work.
There is no doubt that Boughton’s Sonata in D major for violin and piano is “an impressive and virtuoso work, structured on a grand scale.” It was completed at Glastonbury during May 1921, and was dedicated to the violinist Désirée Ames. The entire sonata can be construed as a “love letter” to Boughton’s third partner Kathleen Davis. Each movement is prefaced by a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, Also Sprach Zarathustra. Whether this volume’s consideration of the Übermensch, the death of God, the will to power, and eternal recurrence, is a suitable source for a romantic offering remains to be seen. I looked up the quotations in Michael Hurd’s biography: I am not sure I understand Boughton’s drift. Perhaps it is the translation of Nietzsche’s text that is difficult. Hurd wonders if the Sonata does not live up to the promise of its thematic material. He gives an example of the beautiful slow movement “dissipating its strength in a trivial folk-dance ending.” It does seem to be a characteristic of the entire work: bold material petering out. Yet, it caused me no problems, and made an interesting change to the “big finish.” In fact, it mirrors the quixotic mind of the composer. Stylistically, this Sonata nods to Brahms and Franck rather than anything more modern.
Whether one agrees with a
contemporary reviewer in the Daily Telegraph (8 February 1922) that “the
music [flows] from the words which the composer has taken as his motto,” one cannot
deny that the overall impact is “a work of vigour and vision.” The present
violinist told me that Boughton writes well for the violin and shows great understanding
of its possibilities and strengths. She considered that this virtuosic sonata
is appealing to the listener as well as being extremely enriching to perform. Certainly,
Jane Faulkner has created a convincing and substantial account of this
imaginative work. Hopefully, it will remain in her repertoire for many years.
The Sonata for violoncello and piano is another late composition, completed in 1948. It was also dedicated to Kathleen Davis. Davis was an accomplished singer as well as a composer and cellist. Once again, the liner notes offer no indication that this Sonata was performed in Davis’s lifetime. It is suggested that it “may have been more difficult than she could play.” The work was premiered in 2010 at a recital in Hitchin. The general mood of the piece is introspective, especially in the long Poco adagio. Yet here and there bursts of passion explode through the typically dark progress. There is even a hint of Celtic wistfulness. The opening movement has two contrasting themes, one “declamatory” and the other “playful.” The development section is full of rhythmic variety, leading to a Largamente climax, with the spirited tune now transformed. The finale is a jig, with a thoughtful middle section, which recalls the Adagio. This is a splendid sonata, full of life, variety, and technical wizardry. It is incredible to believe that such a striking work has remained in the shadows for three quarters of a century. It is given a stunning performance by Pál Banda, cello, and Timothy Ravenscroft, piano.
The Celtic Prelude was composed in 1917, whilst Boughton was on active service with the Cambridgeshire Regiment. It was originally part of incidental music from W.B. Yeats’s’ play, The Land of Heart’s Desire. It is through-written with various contrasting sections including a folk dance and a “tender and dreamy” moment. It makes use of modal tunes and gentle harmonies. Michael Hurd suggested that it was “pleasant rather than powerful.” I find this a delightful miniature that does indeed create the mood of the Celtic Twilight.
Sadly, Boughton’s proposed Celtic Sonata never came to fruition. It would have been dedicated to The Sonata Players. He did, however, write the short Winter Sun for them. It was premiered by the dedicatees on 4 February 1934. The liner notes explain that it was based on Boughton’s eponymous orchestral piece completed in 1932. It “can be considered as a meditation on the tragic story of Elaine, the Lily Maid of Astolat.” As all enthusiasts of Arthuriana will recall, this Lady of Shalott was deserted by Lancelot, after she had nursed him back to health. Winter Sun is not programmatic but is a deeply felt musing, and packs a wide variety of emotions into its four-minute duration. The opening and closing sections present frosty music.
I was impressed by the English Piano Trio’s performance of all these pieces. The recording is outstanding. Like all EM Records, the liner notes are ideal. There is a brief introduction to the composer by Ian R Boughton, the composer’s grandson. The detailed and informative programme notes are by members of the English Piano Trio. There is a resume of the ensemble.
There is nothing difficult in these five works: but challenge is not the be all and end all of a listener’s pleasure. What Rutland Boughton provides is enjoyable and inspiring music that is characterised by melodic interest, well-devised formal structures and satisfying harmonies.Track Listing:
Rutland Boughton (1878-1960)
Trio for violin, violoncello, and piano (1948)
Sonata in D major for violin and piano (1921)
Sonata for violoncello and piano (1948)
Celtic Prelude (The Land of Heart’s Desire) for violin, violoncello, and piano (1917)
Winter Sun for violin and piano (1933)
English Piano Trio: Jane Faulkner (violin), Pál Banda (cello), Timothy Ravenscroft (piano)
rec. 23-25 March 2022, SJE Arts, Oxford, England
EM Records EMR CD081