Tuesday 16 January 2024

William Wordsworth's Piano Music played by Richard Deering

Like London buses, recordings of William Wordsworth’s piano music come in pairs. Only a few weeks ago, I assessed Christopher Guild’s edition of the complete edition on the Toccata label (TOCC 0697), here.

A previous generation’s approach this repertoire was the subject of an early release by Lyrita Records in 1963 (RCS13). Here Margaret Kitchin played the Ballade, the Sonata and the Cheesecombe Suite. It was subsequently re-pressed in the late ‘seventies and then issued on CD (Lyrita REAM.2106) in 2008. Reviewed here.

In the late 1980s, Richard Deering published a cassette tape of Scottish Piano Music on the British Music Society label (BMS 407). It included everything on this present CD save the Piano Sonata. Despite the cassette’s title only one of the composers was born in Scotland – Edward McGuire.

For details of William Wordsworth’s life and achievement see Paul Conway’s essay, here.
The musicologist Lisa Hardy authored the definitive book about The British Piano Sonata, 1870-1945 (Boydell Press, 2012). She provides the liner notes for Wordsworth’s Sonata in D minor, op.13. Hardy explains that it was completed in 1939 but was not published until 1984. The implication is that Margaret Kitchin must have made her 1963 recording from the holograph.

The Sonata lasts for about half an hour. The first movement is as long as the other two combined. It is emotionally complex and diverse. The opening Maestoso is ghostly but is soon complimented by a vigorous Allegro deciso. There is a “calm and intimate” Allegretto which leads to an overwrought development section with many changes of temper and pace. Towards the end of the movement there is a reprise of the “calm” music before it comes to a caustic conclusion. I mentioned in my appraisal of Christopher Guild’s recording of this Sonata that Harry Croft-Jackson, (RCS13, liner notes) likens the ominous slow movement Largamente e calmato attacca to “a deeply felt, contemplative landscape” with the “quality of a John Piper water colour.” It is, I think, a good metaphor. The final movement follows on without a pause. Hardy observes that this Allegro molto suggests a military march. I am not sure: for me it is dance-like with its insistent rhythms. There is a reprise of the “intimate theme” from the opening movement before the march/dance theme brings the Sonata to a vibrant conclusion.

The parameters are romantic, but with an occasional nod to the acerbity of Bartók. This is an “epic and emotional work,” which deserves a place alongside Frank Bridge’s Piano Sonata (1921-24). Both were conceived as a “response to war”: both men were pacifists. 

Richard Deering gives a superb account of this powerful piece. He brings the stylistic threads together in a satisfying unity.

The liner notes explain that, during the Second World War, Wordsworth was sent to work on a farm near Alton, Hampshire. This was in lieu of military service, as he was a conscientious objector. Whilst there, he met his wife Frieda and made numerous acquaintances. The Cheesecombe Suite (1945) is dedicated “To my friends B.A., C.A., D.C., and G.E. whose initials provide the theme for these pieces”. Using these scalar “letters” he created much of the musical material for this absorbing work. A thoughtful Prelude is followed by a quicksilver Scherzo. Then comes a deliberately unbalanced Nocturne: the middle section is despairing surrounded by a restrained presentation of the theme. The final movement, a moderately paced Fughetta, is not academic in any way. It starts from a quiet statement of the subject before it moves to a vivid, but hasty, conclusion. The name Cheesecombe may refer to a farm near Lyme Regis where Wordsworth also did agricultural war-work. (see Paul Conway’s study).

The Ballade, op.41was completed in 1949 and dedicated to the pianist Clifford Curzon. Wordsworth has not provided a “literal” programme, although the critic Harry Croft-Jackson’s comment (Lyrita, RCS 13) is apposite: “the harmonic freedom, rhythmic variety, and, in the closing pages, restrained tension leaves the listener in no doubt as to the temper of the work – [it] matured in a period of conflict”. The Ballade seems to move from angst to resolution, by way of a stormy introduction, a short soliloquy, followed by an energising and intense Allegro con brio before it closes in a relative whisper. Recollections of Bax and late Brahms have been heard here.

The final work by Wordsworth on this CD is Valediction, op. 82 (1967). This longish piece, lasting for over eight minutes, is really a journey rather than simply a lament. It was written after the death of his friend, the socialist activist Joe Green in a car accident. In the composer’s words, “the mood changes from the backward-looking idea of a lament to an affirmation of the survival of the spirit of a good man.”  The listener will be beguiled by Wordsworth’s use of “the kind of music played by a Highland piper at the burial of a hero.”  It was dedicated to the pianist/composer Ronald Stevenson who gave the first performance. This is a deeply felt piece that hovers between romanticism and a Scottish vernacular. It is both mournful and heart-warming at the same time.

Thomas Wilson’s Incunabula (misspelt Incanabula in the booklet text) (1983), had its origins in an idea that he had used in his song-cycle, The Willow Branches (1983). It was later deployed into the Piano Concerto (1984). Musical recycling! The title means “the earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything.” (Oxford English Dictionary). Interestingly, it can also mean “books produced in the infancy of the art of printing; especially those printed before 1500” as well as a third meaning, “the breeding-places of a species of bird.” The liner notes insist that it is the first of these. Certainly, its progress would confirm that “evolutionary” concept. There are six sections which seem to grow or blend into each other, with no “obvious recapitulation” of material. However, there are echoes of previous figurations that may become more obvious with a score in hand. Typically introspective, Incunabula has moments of stress, but never becomes unbearable. It was composed for Richard Deering and was premiered by him in 1984.

Edward McGuire’s Prelude 7 (f.p.1983) was another Deering commission. McGuire explains that it reflects his interests at that time: the recently new-fangled fad for Minimalism and allusions to Gaelic folk song. It would appear to have been included in the first of his two sets of 24 Preludes, many of which were composed between the 1970s and 2015. They feature a wide range of instruments including accordion, clarsach and castanets. The second set, according to McGuire’s website, would appear to be an ongoing project.

The Six Small Pieces in C major (1971) are once again products of McGuire’s interest in minimalism. Also prominent are nods to Erik Satie and John Cage. There is significant beauty in these simple, but subtle and nuanced, miniatures.

The liner notes by Lisa Hardy, John Dodd and Edward McGuire give the listener all the information required to enjoy this CD. I am beholden to them in the preparation of this review. There is a brief resume of Richard Deering’s career. The recording of both the Sonata (2023) and the other works (1985) is ideal.

The obvious question. What is the best edition of Wordsworth’s piano music: Richard Deering, Christopher Guild or Margaret Kitchin. Listeners must realise that the latter was recorded mono. A contemporary analysis of Kitchin’s recording suggested that “the first two movements [were] lacking in impetus” and that the break between the end of the second movement was misjudged: it should “drive loudly and unhesitatingly into the pianissimo of the Allegro molto [finale]” (The Gramophone, June 1963). Both Guild and Deering avoid these criticisms. Yet, this early recording was a landmark of its day, and I am guessing that it was made with the composer’s blessing.

One point in favour of Guild’s recording is that it includes the undated Three Pieces for piano and Wordsworth’s contribution to the didactic Five by Ten. It is truly a comprehensive edition. On the other had I was most impressed by Deering’s performances of this music (and the McGuire and Wilson as well)

As an enthusiast of William Wordsworth, I would wish to have all three versions in my collection. It is a rare thing for a relatively unknown composer to have had so much attention from three outstanding pianists.

Track Listing:
William Wordsworth (1908-88)

Piano Sonata in D Minor, op. 13 (1938-39)
Ballade, op. 41 (1949)
Cheesecombe Suite, op. 27 (1945)
Valediction, op. 82 (1967)
Thomas Wilson (1927-2001)
Incunabula (1983)
Edward McGuire (b.1948)
Prelude 7 (f.p.1983)
Six Small Pieces in C major (1971)
Richard Deering (piano)
rec. 16 July 2023 Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth (Sonata); 1985 University of Wales, Cardiff
Heritage HTGCD142 [77]

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