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CD: Simon Callaghan
| English Piano Works
William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)
in F minor Op.13 (c.1837) [31:28]
William Thomas Best (1826-1897)
de Danse: Polka Originale Op.4 (1847) [02:15]; Romanesca Op.16
Hastings Parry (1848-1918)
Tunes (1911-1914) [33:41]
rec. May 2007, Concert Hall De Rode Pomp, Ghent, Belgium
DE RODE POMP RP/GMA
straight to the point, this CD is an essential purchase
for all enthusiasts of British piano music. Contrary to
what some people might suggest, the two main works on this
disc are minor masterpieces – they both move and entertain.
Furthermore, the two ‘salon’ pieces by William Thomas Best
also deserve our notice. One can ask nothing more from
a CD. Add to this, the stunning playing by Simon Callaghan,
the superb quality of the recording and the informed programme
notes; there is little else I can say other than, “Buy
who knows these works will not require my advocacy of them,
however, the newcomer to the piano music of Sterndale Bennett
or Hubert Parry may expect a little more information before
ordering this CD on the ’net or rushing down to the High
Street record store.
first came across William Sterndale Bennett’s Piano Sonata
many years ago. I had just received a parcel of sheet music
from my late uncle and was slowly sorting through a variety
of pieces for organ and piano, classical and not-so-classical.
One of the little treasures was an album of pieces by Sterndale
Bennett. I remember trying to play them through – but failing
miserably. There was virtually nothing I could get my youthful
fingers round – save for a piece called Serenata.
However, by the time I got to bar eight I was stumped.
I noted then that it was part of a larger work and put
it to one side. But I remembered the name and was delighted
when many years later I was able to hear Ilonya Prunyi
play the complete Sonata on Marco Polo 8.223526.
spite of its obvious indebtedness to Mendelssohn, and to
a certain extent Schumann, I regard this as one of the
most important British piano works of the nineteenth century.
If this Sonata had been written by a German or an Austrian
it would be comfortably and securely in the repertoire
- irrespective of who the models may have been.
Nelson, writing in the programme notes for the Marco Polo
disc has noted that Sterndale Bennett did not follow in
the footsteps of composers such as Thalberg and Liszt.
In fact, he even tended to resist “the romantic utterances
of Chopin and Schumann”. Conventional wisdom has stated
that he is beholden to Mendelssohn: he was known as the
English Mendelssohn. Yet, it is probably fairer to say
that the true models of this Sonata are the piano music
of Mozart, Cramer and Clementi – the latter two being part
of what was known as the London Piano School.
present Sonata can be seen in these terms. It does not
totally eschew romanticism, but neither does it rise to
the heights of Beethovenian classicism. And this is perhaps
why it has not succeeded in becoming an integral part of
the repertoire. However, approaching this work in the 21st century,
with a mind relatively free from prejudice, the listener
will hear an attractive work that is a fine balance between
a restrained romanticism and a well-proportioned classical
elegance. I guess, metaphorically speaking, that it is A
Midsummer Night’s Dream rather than a King Lear.
Bush has summed up the work admirably: “… the power and
depth of the musical thought are altogether new (for Sterndale
Bennett) and so are the sustained concentration and seriousness
Piano Sonata in F minor Op.13 was composed in 1837 and
was dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn. It is in four movements.
two short pieces by William Thomas Best are interesting
additions to this fine CD. Both the Grande Mouvement and
the Romanesca reveal a standard of musical content
and technique that surely deserve our attention. Both of
these pieces were written in the mid-nineteenth century,
and although they are not ground-breaking, they certainly
suggest that Britain was not quite the ‘Land without Music’ that
critics sometimes enjoy suggesting.
Tunes is another work that I have had a long relationship
with. I remember finding a rather dusty ‘new’ copy of
this work in a Glasgow music shop. I guess that it was
the eye-catching picture of Shulbrede Priory on the cover
that caught my eye. Additionally, for a young romantic,
the fact that one of the pieces was called ‘Elizabeth’ was
an attraction: at that time I was rather keen on a girl
of the same name. In fact, I even made an orchestral
transcription of this piece and dedicated it to her.
Thank goodness it was never played by the school orchestra …
the years I have come to consider this collection of pieces
as a valuable addition to the music of the 20th century.
However, I have come across people who would deny Parry
the honour of having composed anything worth playing in
our time, far less something deserving an accolade. The ‘unbiased’ truth
is that the Shulbrede Tunes is to Parry as the Wand
of Youth Suites are to Elgar: youth and leisure and
pleasure reflected on in the relative tranquillity and
wisdom of middle age.
first visited Shulbrede Priory in 1902 when he was 54 years
of age. He was taken by the antiquity and the beauty of
the building and its surroundings. Jeremy Dibble notes
the attraction to the composer of the “stone hall, its
lofty rooms, the vaulting, the wonderful fireplaces and
the remote rural location …” Fortunately for Parry it was
just about half-way between his home at Rustington in Sussex
and his London residence in Kensington Square.
music is largely self-explanatory but it is well worth
quoting a letter by the composer to W.A. Roberts, a Liverpudlian
organist. Parry wrote, “Shulbrede Priory … is the place
where my daughter Mrs. Ponsonby lives with her husband
Arthur Ponsonby and her two children Elizabeth and Matthew.” He
continued with a brief description of the Priory before
explaining that “All the personally named tunes are portraits. ‘Dolly’ is
Mrs Ponsonby; she had to have two tunes, as she has two
distinct phases. Elizabeth is a lithe, slip of a girl,
very springy in her gait; Matthew, a dear little boy of
10, of very enquiring mind (that’s why he [his tune] begins
with a question), and a serious side, and a great interest
in country life and animals. ‘Father Playmate’ is all sorts
of delightful things - a great companion to the children
as well as a great politician and deeply interested in
Art and Music as well.” He concludes his letter by suggesting
that Shulbrede “is a great place for children’s pranks
and also for bogies and sprites - and the garden, with
the old monks’ fishponds, is adorable ...”
of the most evocative of these descriptive pieces depicts
the ‘Prior’s Chamber by Midnight’. This is a fine piece
of musical painting. Finally, perhaps the most important
piece is the opening number. The Tunes open with
a bold statement of confidence which is entitled simply Shulbrede – but
this is surely a picture of the composer himself?
anyone who loves the music of Parry this is a suite of
pieces that is both charming and often quite moving. It
is well written, enjoyable to play, subtly descriptive
and well-balanced. Shulbrede Tunes is a picture
of a personalised country landscape and a family situation
to which many aspire but few attain.
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