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Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Complete Piano Music Volume 1: Suites and Miniatures

Suite In Olden Style op. 71 No. 11
Deuxième Suite op. 75
Pastoral Suite
Indian Suite
Handelian Rhapsody op. 17
Valse Caprice; Requiescat; Soiree Japonaise; Vistas; Cherry Ripe; Autumn Idyll; Notturno; Three Old Country Dances; Two Alpine Sketches; Sphinx; Vesperale; Three Pastorals; Three Dances; Twilight Tide; A Pageant; Miniatures; Three Little Waltzes.
Leslie De’Ath (piano)
rec. January 2004, Wilfrid Laurier, University of Ontario. DDD
Viva Voci VVC CD 101/2 [2 CDs: 136:54]
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If only one could for a moment consider music and the arts from the standpoint of the early 1920s; then it might be easier to understand the progressive - even revolutionary – nature of the music of Cyril Scott than it is today. Like Constant Lambert’s ‘pink coat’ the development of 20th Century music has blazed so many trails that they must dilute that initial assessment.

Of those composers who studied at Frankfurt-am-Main, who had an enlightened continental attitude to music yet untouched by the radical ideas of the Second Viennese School and were to a certain extent unconnected with current trends in Britain, only Percy Grainger has held a prominent position. That respect is perhaps more affectionate than critical, centred on the perennial ‘Country Gardens’ and ‘Shepherd’s Hey’, with scant regard for such innovative scores as ‘The Warriors’.

A similar fate has attended the music of Cyril Scott who, having contracted with Elkin’s publishing house to provide an annual quota of saleable piano pieces and songs, found his reputation resting on what Christopher Palmer called "agreeable trifles" (the unkind and uncritical called them ‘potboilers’) such as ‘Lotus Land’ ‘Water Wagtail’ and ‘Danse Nègre’. His reputation also suffered a little from a distrust of his un-English theosophical and occult philosophies and his excursions into dietary matters – and more, as a result of well meant championship from Debussy which pigeonholed his work as ‘The English Debussy’. How significant the Frankfurt tributary was as a whole, with its lineage of Wagner, Grieg, MacDowell and Delius, should be more seriously evaluated. Certainly a reassessment of Scott’s work is long overdue. Therefore it is exciting now to find the first of a promised series of recordings (emanating from Canada – shame on our own musical establishment!) that is to provide a complete survey of the piano compositions.

This first double CD is doubly welcome. It tackles at once the myth that Scott’s short pieces are mere ‘trifles’, but that even the slightest of these is not only craftsmanlike but also expressive of Scott’s highly individual personality and in fact prefiguring many of the later trends of the 20th Century (Demuth used the word ‘prophet’)

The first of the discs includes four of the seven works in his music to which he gave the title ‘Suite’ – and the second disc contains an interesting selection of the short pieces.

So far so good. But there are revelations! Apart from the very original pastiche of the Suite in old style (listen to the Sarabande – more Ravel than Bach?) and the exotic ‘Indian Suite’ we hear for the first time the vast canvas of the disarmingly entitled ‘Deuxième Suite’ – op. 75 from 1910, dating roughly from that experimental period that produced the first Sonata op. 66. This Suite is an astonishing work. Its architecture is curious – two substantial movements and three shorter pieces. It seems to have no real structure, although it is not a conglomerate of dance tunes. Yet the theme of the second movement ‘Air varié’ is echoed in the final fugue subject of the last movement. In fact these two movements could readily stand as works in their own right. These are punctuated by the opening Prelude (a progression of obsessive triplets), a Solemn Dance which shares Quilter’s world, and a dramatic Caprice. The Air is a solemn extended theme developing into a flood of arabesque, the piano writing of considerable virtuosity with constantly varied time signatures. A cadenza-like movement leads, through a decorated cortège section to the final Coda which is very close to the op. 66 Sonata in mood. The culmination of this ‘Suite’ is an Introduction and Fugue. A characteristic chordal progression (shades of MacDowell) recalls ‘Pierrot Triste’ and is followed by the fugue subject, a variant of the Air from the second movement. This chromatic figure proceeds with cumulative inevitability to a climax and the restatement of the subject. The final work on this disc is a joyous yea-saying Handelian Rhapsody which one could well imagine played with colonial gusto by the ebullient Grainger (who edited the piece).

The second disc demonstrates, in its judicious selection of short pieces – those ‘salon’ items which Scott had to provide in fulfilment of his contract with Elkin – that Scott was a craftsman sufficiently skilled to invest such pieces as Vesperale and Notturno that verged on sentiment, with a rare enough distinction. There is delightful variety – the delicate, Chaminade-like ‘Valse Caprice’ – and immediate contrast in the solemn ‘Requiescat’ – a tolling E flat pedal with a majestic climax (written in memory of Archie Rowan Hamilton who died of wounds October 1915). In contrast with Vesperale and Notturno, the enigmatic ‘Sphinx’ and the strange ‘Vistas’ – this last a set of three atmospheric pieces whose opening ‘Lonely Dell’ is an eerie evocation. The second of the pieces is drenched with bird-song recalling Palmgren, and the concluding piece is a bucolic ‘Jocund Dance’ In ‘Twilight Tide’ there are unquestionably echoes of ‘Voiles’ and no noses should be turned up at the first of the Alpine sketches – this is light music at its best.

This well-chosen selection is played beautifully by Leslie De’Ath and complemented by a personal memoir by the composer’s son Desmond Scott. I shall look forward to subsequent recordings – the ‘Poems’, (together with Scott’s own verses)- the three Piano Sonatas (op. 66 in its original form?) ... and more?

Colin Scott-Sutherland

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