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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Frances Gray
piano@upei.ca

Poems For Piano
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)

Poems of the Sea
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)

Three Poems
Edward MacDOWELL (1861-1908)

Four Little Poems op.32: 4. Winter, Six Poems after Heine op.31: 2. Scotch Poem, 6. Monologue
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)

Poems
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

2 Poèmes op.32, Poème op.41, 2 Poèmes op.44, 2 Poèmes op.63, Vers la flamme: Poème op.72
Frances Gray (piano)
Recorded at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada; date not given but published in 1997
WRC8-7148 [71:22]

 

I have already commented on this Canadian artist’s companion disc "The Evocative Piano". The present programme was recorded a little earlier and spreads its net wider than the later one, which contained only music by British, Canadian and American composers. Listeners who are induced by Frances Gray’s technical security and well-rounded tone to feel she is a plausible guide to little-known repertoire may discover that the Scriabin, where alternatives abound, gives the game away. These qualities are just not enough when there is no "orchestration" of the music to clarify the often teeming textures, and the comfortable tempi reduce the composer’s strange imaginings to the level of salon music. It is useless following Scriabin’s wild journey "vers la flamme" if you are not prepared to risk singing your wings, and one is left thinking that this music should be reserved for geniuses like Horowitz and Richter who knew what reckless living was all about.

The first of Bridge’s "Three Poems", "Solitude", gives a prime example of Gray’s failure to "orchestrate". The composer’s two inner lines are not differentiated with the result that they gel to make one single accompanying figure which the composer did not write and which trivialises the piece. The second, "Ecstasy" is more impressive (in spite of its "difficulty" in the sense of having a lot of notes it is actually easier to bring off), except that in order to sound ecstatic a faster tempo seems called for and I note that Paul Hindmarsh’s Thematic Catalogue of Bridge’s works (Faber 1983) suggests a timing of 3’40" compared with Gray’s 4’33". These are not among Bridge’s more listener-friendly pieces and they do not really convince here.

In "Poppies", the first of Scott’s "Poems", the eighth-notes are all deadeningly equal without any attempt to make the melodic line sing and the other notes just supply a halo around it. Dennis Hennig (on ABC – see reviews on site) doesn’t differentiate either though his slower tempo perhaps helps the music to make the point by itself. But surely Scott’s "Lento" refers to the fourth-notes not the eighth-notes and the new idea starting at bar 8 is impossibly weighed down in both versions by the accompanying chords that are spelt out like funeral cortège. Gray is considerably more free-flowing than Hennig in the second piece, "The Garden of Soul-Sympathy" and her "Bells" (no.3) chime more joyously. Hennig ignores completely Scott’s markings of piano – crescendo – forte – mezzo piano on pages 14-15 and bulldozes through at a steady forte. Though both pianists are heavy with the repeated-note ostinato in no.4, "The Twilight of the Year", Gray achieves rather more mobility since Hennig seems to conceive the music only vertically, proceeding chord by chord without any attempt at an overall line. The last poem, "Paradise-Birds", is the most effective from both pianists – it is the one piece of the five which responds to a generalized romantic approach – but again Hennig barges through Scott’s carefully graded dynamics on the last page at an unremitting forte so Gray is preferable. One day we must hope that a pianist will set down these pieces with something of the magic and freedom of Scott’s own few recordings of his works (not including any of the "Poems"); meanwhile Gray is at least acceptable, which Hennig is not.

This was my first acquaintance with any piano music by Bloch. These pieces veer in idiom between quite astringent, modernist moments and others that are disturbingly bland. More curious than convincing.

Quite what the post-Schumann pieces by MacDowell are doing among turn-of-the-century decadents and post-impressionists I’m not sure; since the composer here jettisons his usual (quite pretty) leanings towards Grieg without putting anything in their place, the answer would seem to be, nothing very much.

If you have a particular reason for wanting any of the rarer pieces here, you will find performances that are carefully prepared and sympathetic up to a point (as I said of the other disc); the recording is less rich on this earlier record though it is decent enough.

Christopher Howell


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