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Billy MAYERL (1902-1959)
A miscellany for solo piano

Leprechaun’s Leap (1940) [5:16]
Meadowsweet from In My Garden: Summertime (1947) [2:56]
Alpine Bluebell from In My Garden: Summertime (1947) [2:10]
Amber Leaves from In My Garden: Autumntime (1946) [3:04]
6am – The Milkman: Scherzo from Three Syncopated Rambles (1933) [1:40]
Postman’s Knock (1951) [1:52]
Ladybird Lullaby from Insect Oddities (1940) [3:20]
Praying Mantis from Insect Oddities (1940) [2:41]
Beguine Impromptu (1952) [3:01]
Pastoral from Three Contrasts op.24 (1929) [1:54]
Minuet for Pamela (1945) [2:58]
April’s Fool (1945) [2:51]
Weeping Willow: An Idylle (1932) [3:45]
Antiquary from Piano Exaggerations (1926) [2:29]
Siberian Lament (1934) [3:30]
From a Spanish Lattice: A Southern Tone Picture (1938) [3:58]
Clowning from The Big Top (1948) [1:39]
Entrance of the Trick Cyclists from The Big Top (1948) [1:42]
Trapeze from The Big Top (1948) [1:59]
The Forgotten Forest: A Poem (1945) [11:09]
The Cherry Dance from Three Japanese Pictures Op.25 (1931) [2:33]
Song of the Fir-tree: A Swedish Impression (1938) [2:55]
Jill all Alone (1955) [3:20]
Phil the Fluter’s Ball [W. Percy French arr: Mayerl] (1938) [2:11]
Leslie De’Ath (piano)
rec. Maureen Forrester Recital Hall, Faculty of Music, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, 24 November, 9 December 2007
Experience Classicsonline

Leslie De’Ath, who is perhaps better known for his ventures into Cyril Scott’s music on disc, here tackles a decidedly different kettle of fish. It’s rather like Gieseking taking on Scott Joplin. Or at least that’s how it might seem. Because for all his virtuosity and scintillating syncopated verve Billy Mayerl had a penchant for tone poems and impressionism as well. A look at his ‘Desert Island Discs’ shows one how wide were his musical sympathies. And this is tailor-made for De’Ath’s explorations and sensitive touch.

It’s instructive to listen to the Canadian newcomer alongside Mayerl himself, where such comparisons exist, as well as two of the composer-executant’s most distinguished present day promoters – Eric Parkin and Susan Tomes. Take that evergreen Phil the Fluter’s Ball by W Percy French but best known in this famous Mayerl arrangement. In his last radio broadcast, preserved and issued by The Billy Mayerl Society recently, we find the composer wittier and more incisive, jazzier, than all his rivals – the syncopation wonderfully voiced. As an aside we can hear in his recording how adeptly Mayerl absorbed Teddy Wilson’s downward treble runs and Erroll Garner’s style as well.

In Song of the Fir-tree: A Swedish Impression De’Ath tends to downplay the jazz-based influences preferring to treat it grandly and expressively. Parkin is good here but not seamless. Mayerl cuts through his own piece like a knife casting everything before him. Well, a composer taking his own music fast and lean is nothing new but it’s instructive in this specialised area of syncopated piano light music to hear how Mayerl took it. Antiquary is a movement from Piano Exaggerations of 1926. It just so happened that Mayerl recorded this hot off the press in the same year. Mayerl’s playing is a case study in bravura scintillation and a spirit of breathless tension. De’Ath’s take is rather more laidback.

Mayerl tended to play Ladybird Lullaby from Insect Oddities as more a waltz than lullaby. De’Ath very properly takes Mayerl at his word. But the composer manages to find in the peaks and troughs of his phrasing, the canny caesuri, the teasing rubati such a wealth of detail, such phrasal ‘event’ that his modern admirers cannot help but sound a little inert in his wake. One more example will suffice. In his own recording Mayerl’s Praying Mantis is a cocky little feller; Tomes’s is more reflective whilst De’Ath’s is quite effervescent though not the dangerous show-off of Mayerl’s invention.

These few illustrations show that Mayerl took his own music briskly but with considerable rhythmic flexibility; the pulse was often broken up and phrases were thereby given a tremendous sense of life and vigour. He characterised his little pieces with infectious drama and brio. It would be vain to expect anyone these days to match his own barnstorming bravado.

But there are plenty of other things to enjoy here. Try the witty reel that is Leprechaun’s Leap with its lyrical B section played by De’Ath with great refinement. Meadowsweet from In My Garden: Summertime is played with slow warmth. The lilting tristesse of Amber leaves from 1947’s In My Garden: Autumntime has more than a hint of Willow Weep for Me about it. Then turn to the insouciant verve of 6 am – The Milkman: which is the Scherzo from Three Syncopated Rambles. Mayerl ventured into the salon for his Pastoral from Three Contrasts but could dish out the toccata-like virtuosity of April’s Fool (1945) without turning a stylistic hair. The Forgotten Forest: A Poem is an extended tone poem and it readily shows the classical influences on Mayerl; Cyril Scott (we have the right man at the piano then), Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, the wistful cadences of popular song. Jill all Alone amplifies the Rachmaninovian element with romantic effusion at its climax and its lashings of grandeur.

This typically attractively designed CD – cover art is a Dutton speciality – is graced by excellent notes from the pianist. Good sound. The performances are commanding, vivacious and also wistful. There was always more in Mayerl’s musical soul than mere syncopation.

Jonathan Woolf


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