On Heather Hill: Duo-Piano Discoveries from the British Isles
York Bowen Complete Works for piano duet .
Mervyn Roberts A Christmas Prelude. Passacaglia. Two
Chorales for two pianos. Elegy for two pianos
Alan Richardson Debutante. Grandmother's Waltz. On Heather Hill.
Improvisation on a Nursery Tune
Hamilton Harty Fantasy for two pianos op.6
Bruce Posner and Donald Garvelmann
The American piano Duo of Bruce Posner and Donald Garvelmann claim, on this
exciting disc, to have discovered a wealth of British pianism. I venture
to suggest that, for a great many listeners, the 'discovery' will prove a
'revelation'. For those of us who can (smugly) claim to have known this music
for years (with the exception of the Harty, which IS a revelation) the feeling
is more likely to be one of satisfaction that this music - usually heard
only at intimate gatherings of cognoscenti, or at homely musical family
'get-togethers', is now to be heard in 'The public domain' (horrible expression
that Sorabji would have shuddered at!). It is only a matter for regret that
none of the composers represented is now alive to enjoy it.
Why such richly inventive and beautifully crafted music should now need to
be 'discovered' - and in America - is a mystery. These composers weren't
in any way "prophets" whose country should deny them honour? They belong
fairly and squarely to the opening span of the twentieth century in British
music - and with a consummate sense of style, and a command of contrapuntal
technique, share the harmonic characteristics that were part and parcel of
the musical currency of the period in this country. They do not however in
any way 'date'!
For reasons why this music should have an especial character and piano writing
of such a high quality (apart from the fact that they were all themselves
fine pianists) one must look to the teachers with whom they studied, and
the width of their education Matthay (of whom one young student said ·I
thought you only taught 'touch' - and here you are teaching me music!-) Craxton,
Arthur Alexander (himself a Matthay pupil), R.O. Morris and from the same
stable came also Dale and Bax..!
Of them all York Bowen was the most prolific, with a formidable body of piano
compositions, all approachable, but of a quality which prompted the perspicacious
Sorabji to describe it as the 'finest English piano music written in our
time.' (Mi Contra Fa)
The disc's title is chosen from the elegantly contrapuntal 'On Heather Hill'
of the Scot Alan Richardson. This might suggest a programmatic element throughout
(perhaps encouraged by Garvelmann's engaging programme notes) - but while
this perhaps applies to the Harty, and to some extent to the Richardson pieces,
the other compositions are not really impressionistic but have an almost
classical 'rightness' of expression, an elegance that is subtly delivered
in the writing for the instrument. Richardson's music, like Bowen's though
less demanding technically, is very satisfying to explore.
The early Harty pieces - a discovery perhaps recalling the long neglect of
Elgar's Concert Allegro - with its quasi-Celtic overtones, is a big dramatic
work which Donald Garvelmann has prepared for this performance (the first
since 1902) Its opening gestures (hints of MacDowell) suggest tragedy, wistfully
echoed in the subtle lyricism that follows. A more heroic aspect is developed
to end with positive affirmation - altogether a 'discovery' and a valuable
contribution to the repertoire.
The darkest horse in the stable is Mervyn Roberts, a Welsh composer, all
of whose work shows a strong melodic impulse, often of a kind of Bach-like
spirituality, here underlined in the two published Chorales and in the
chorale-prelude-like tune of the Elegy. This melodic line is embedded in
very characteristic and deceptively adventurous harmony that lifts even his
shortest ostensibly 'teaching' pieces out of the schoolroom (to which so
much fine British piano music is too often relegated.) The programme note
makes a plea for his Piano Sonata (revised in 1949 and which won the Edwin
Evans prize in 1950) - and I would underline that plea: a recording of that
fine work and the beautiful
Variations on an original Theme for two pianos (both Novello) is long overdue.
The Duo's enthusiasm in their discovery of this music (and I can assure them
that there is lots more to be 'discovered') is communicated in their playing
- crisp, clear and at times bordering on the excitable! I hope they will
pursue their quest!
Colin Scott Sutherland
and Phil Scowcroft adds:
The twelve works here were "discoveries" for me, I had heard none of them
and indeed all bar the title piece are first recordings or first CD recordings.
All are attractively tuneful and most may plausibly be reckoned as light
music. Least known of the four composers is the Welsh-born Mervyn Roberts
(1906-90); even pieces like Passacaglia in F, Two Chorales,
even Elegy in E Flat Minor, the latter two for two pianos, are so
shapely and lyrical as to be immediately approachable, while A Christmas
Prelude - not based on any seasonal tune, as far as I know - is agreeable
light music. York Bowen, England's representative here, was formidably prolific,
whose output includes much lighter music, and here we have his complete output
for four hands, one piano: the two Suites of 1918 and 1923 and effectively
another suite, the marginally lighter Four Pieces (1930). All ten
movements are memorable, especially the vigorous Dance (1st
Suite) and Moto Perpetuo (2nd Suite) and the atmospheric
Barcarolle (also 2nd Suite). Bowen is surely due for major
revival. Edinburgh-born Alan Richardson (1904-78) is exemplified here by
the winsome Debutante and Grandmother's Waltz, a Victorian
"take off", and the delicious topographical tone poem On Heather Hill,
all for two pianos, and, for 4 hands one piano, Improvisation on a Nursery
Tunes ("Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush") which arouses memories of
his namesake Clive Richardson's many similar excursions. Finally, and maybe
interestingly, Donald Garvelmann has reconstructed Harty's early (1902)
Fantasy for Two Pianos from two manuscript copies, a piece obviously
Irish in flavour, which begins and ends boldly, with appealingly tuneful
contrasting episodes in between. This may be its first performance since
1902. Performances (the pianists, incidentally, are American) are crisp and
well focused, the recording and presentation excellent. This generously filled
disc enjoyably extends our experience and I cannot imagine anyone being
disappointed with it.