It is difficult to
believe today that, if you asked a European
musician in the earlier years of the
20th Century to name some contemporary
British composers, the names he was
most likely to know were those of Delius
and Cyril Scott. For about three decades
Scott was known as the "English
Debussy"; his admirers were headed
by Debussy himself and his interpreters
included Walter Gieseking. In the context
of post-romantic decadence he really
belonged more with the likes of Schreker
or Florent Schmitt, or indeed Scriabin,
and among these he held a position of
honour. The 1930s were clearly not a
good period for performing British music
in Germany and by the time the war was
over a new musical climate had come
into existence. Scott’s music was not
taken up again on the concert platform
and his virtual boycotting by the British
musical establishment ensured his demise
in Europe too. Gieseking did not return
to his work, much less record any of
it; we may suspect that none of the
great pianist’s many admirers in England
ever tried to persuade him to do so.
Even so, the name lingered on and still
today a cultured European musician of
the older generation is more likely
to know the name of Cyril Scott than
that of Vaughan Williams.
These facts in themselves
would justify satisfying our curiosity;
months an issue of Scott’s Third
Symphony, "The Muses", has
astounded even those predisposed in
his favour, and the Cello Concerto is
on the way. Up till now two complete
discs have been dedicated to Scott’s
piano music, played by Dennis Hennig
(recently reissued on the ABC label,
see reviews on site) and by the present
writer (on Tremula, also reviewed on
the site). Although my own disc was
prepared without any knowledge of Hennig’s
programme, in the event only the two
"Pierrot Pieces" were duplicated.
A number of other pieces have appeared
on various mixed recital discs, somewhat
difficult to keep track of and, still
never transferred to CD, there are Scott’s
own enthralling performances from 1928-30
of ten short pieces and two songs if
you can get access to them. He also
made a number of piano rolls, though
the mechanical aspects of this process
Dennis Hennig’s disc
was intended as the start of a complete
recording of all this music. The project
was generously funded by an Australian
government arts programme but alas,
the pianist died of AIDS before getting
any further. Now the Canadian pianist
Leslie De’Ath has taken up the challenge.
He has carefully avoided duplicating,
for the moment, any pieces on Hennig’s
or my own discs (actually Hennig’s,
in its ABC reincarnation, contains the
"Two Alpine Sketches" which
were not on the original Etcetera issue),
or for that matter Scott’s own performances,
thereby doubling the amount of Scott
piano music available at one fell swoop.
Just a few pieces here – the "Handelian
Rhapsody", the "Soirée
japonaise", "Cherry Ripe",
the "Autumn Idyll", the "Two
Alpine Sketches" and "Sphinx"
– are not actually claimed as first
recordings, though in the case of the
second of the three "Vistas",
De’Ath’s compatriot Frances Gray has
pipped him to the post (see review of
"The Evocative Piano"). The
entire project will occupy seven or
eight CDs, depending on a few matters
still to be clarified, such as the availability
and length of a few unpublished pieces,
whether to record both versions of the
First Sonata (the differences are substantial)
and whether such items as the "Technical
Exercises" are really worth including.
Regarding Scott’s own
performances, it must be said that they
possess a freedom of spirit, an imaginative
flair and a translucency of touch which
no one else has matched. He was extraordinarily
free with his scores and I suspect he
played from memory and "reinvented"
the music as he went along, revealing
that each of his works sprang from a
poetic idea around which he improvised,
and that the music did not necessarily
have a definitive form represented by
the printed score. Nowadays, of course,
we must obviously take the printed score
as the definitive form, but we should
at least try to give an impression of
Scott’s own freedom. Incidentally, just
in case anyone suspects a hidden message
here, i.e. that I think I might have
succeeded in this myself, I will put
on record that I was not able to hear
Scott’s own recordings until long after
I had set down my own performances.
Anyway, fortunately I do not have the
embarrassing task of comparing any of
the present interpretations with my
I have had to be rather
dismissive of some other Scott performances
recently so it is a pleasure to say
that there are some here which I cannot
imagine bettered, most of the rest are
good, and I have queries over just a
few. I have scores to about two-thirds
of this music and will make it clear
in my comments which are the pieces
I have followed with the score.
The first disc opens
with the "Suite … (in the Old Style)",
a work I much love for its gentle melancholy
combined with serene calm. Or at least,
so I believed but De’Ath sees its three
movements rather differently, with the
Prelude rapped out brightly, the Sarabande
kept on the move and the Minuet tripping
along very gracefully. Can the score
clear this up? Yes, I think it can,
for the Prelude is an Allegretto in
four while De’Ath’s sounds to my ears
like an Allegro in two, the Sarabande
is marked Adagio which this only is
if you think one-in-the-bar not three
as written; it feels more like a minuet
than a sarabande. If De’Ath’s Sarabande
is a minuet I don’t know what this makes
his Minuet proper; again, the marking
is only "allegretto". On the
other hand, it all sounds very bright
and charming played like this, but I
do believe there are depths in this
Suite that are not explored here.
At 28’ 16" the
"Deuxième Suite" is
the most ambitious work in this volume
and among Scott’s largest-scale piano
works. Much of the weight is to be found
in the second movement, an "Air
varié" (an extraordinarily
varied one at that) and the fifth and
last, an "Introduction & Fugue".
These last respectively 8’ 49"
and 10’ 28" and will come as a
surprise to anyone who knows Scott only
as a miniaturist, for he shows here
a boldness, a bigness and a magnificent
sense of structure. The shorter movements,
a calm "Prelude", a gently
poetic "Solemn Dance" and
a lively little "Caprice"
may look on the face of it irrelevant
but each makes its contribution. The
proportions are odd but convincing.
It seems strange that this did not become
a standard work for debutantes, rather
like the Franck "Prélude,
Choral et Fugue", for it is similarly
the sort of piece that young and upcoming
pianists would love to get their hands
on and surely it could not fail to arouse
I have no score to
this, but De’Ath’s performance has such
enormous conviction that I cannot believe
it other than magnificently right in
its essentials. He builds up the big
movements with real sweep and manages
to cap climax upon climax without hardening
his tone. But he is also radiant in
the "Prelude", sensitive and
flexible in the "Solemn Dance"
and mercurial in the Caprice.
Suite" is much smaller in scale,
and brighter in tone than the "Suite
… (in the Old Style)", though its
irregular bar-lengths and quirky phrasing
make it a work of considerable individuality.
After my reservations over tempi in
the earlier work I was happy to hear
De’Ath playing the Allegretto of its
opening "Courante" with a
gentle charm which seems to me exactly
right. All is more than well in the
following three movements (a "Pastorale",
"Rigaudon" and "Rondo")
but I wonder about the closing "Passacaglia".
De’Ath finds a delicate wistfulness
in its minor-key theme, but the marking
is "Allegro con spirito" and
I had always supposed a Grainger-like
romp to be intended, or an "English"
companion piece to the "Dance"
from the "Little Russian Suite".
This "Passacaglia" enjoyed
considerable popularity in its day.
De’Ath’s notes (which
are well-written, thoroughly researched
and invariably helpful) remark that
the "Indian Suite" "will
require a suspension of cynicism for
many modern listeners, because the material
employs gestures in the pseudo-exotic
manner of Albert Ketèlbey".
My colleague Jonathan Woolf, when writing
on this site about the "Impressions
from the Jungle Book" which appear
on my own disc, and which could evoke
similar "cynicism", remarked
that "there is a tactility, an
evolving drama in these little pieces
that seems to move beyond the merely
descriptive, indeed beyond the original
source itself". These, I feel,
are the qualities we should be seeking
in Scott’s orient-inspired pieces, although
of course some shed the merely descriptive
better than others. The "Indian
Suite" seems to me among the more
successful in this sense.
Fortunately any embarrassment
De’Ath feels is not evident in his playing,
which is sympathetic and sensitive.
My only slight reservation is that his
tone, as recorded on this piano and
in this acoustic, is pleasing rather
than actually seductive and one wonders
what a Gieseking might have extracted
from the music.
Rhapsody" is actually Percy Grainger’s
rewriting of a Sonata in D major which
Scott wrote for him. De’Ath tells us
the original was "diffuse and experimental"
and it remained unpublished. It will
be included in a later volume. What
we have here is a bravura-piece, sardonically
un-Handelian except in its boldness.
I have no score but this is another
case where De’Ath is wholly convincing
– evidently he revels in "big"
works. The music does sometimes seem
over-insistent in its gestures but I
don’t think this is the pianist’s fault.
It makes a splendid conclusion to the
first CD. Incidentally, this and the
"Deuxième Suite" were
recorded on a single day. I call that
a remarkable achievement.
The second CD presents
a series of Scott’s numerous miniatures.
There is a certain divergence to be
found between those published by Elkin,
in which Scott managed (usually) to
appeal to the amateur pianist without
compromising either his standards or
his individuality, and those published
by Schott in which the composer evidently
felt free to write as he wished. I think
it perhaps a pity that an approximately
chronological order was not chosen in
order to demonstrate Scott’s development
from salon works to more personal forms
of expression, and also to show that
the parallel development of the Schott
and Elkin pieces in reality led in the
same direction. However, as a sequence
the disc works well.
The "Valse Caprice"
is one of many such graceful salon pieces,
brought off here with affectionate rubato.
is a touching piece over an ostinato
bass. No score, but the performance
I don’t really see
what is Japanese about the "Soirée
japonaise" but it is a bright and
tuneful piece. No score here either,
but De’Ath’s perky performance sounds
just the job.
The three "Vistas"
strike a deeper note and De’Ath finds
a melancholy poetry in the first, "A
lonely Dell". I said above that
his "premier recording" of
no.2, "In the Forest", had
been pipped to the post by Frances Gray,
but in another sense the primacy is
still De’Ath’s since he finds so much
more in it, especially in the first
page which sounds very confused in Gray’s
hands. His performance of the last,
"The Jocund Dance", is quite
wonderful. This is the sort of Scott
piece that can sound thick and clumpy,
but De’Ath’s infectious rhythm makes
it sound truly jocund.
is a Graingerish affair in which Scott
dresses up the familiar melody in outrageously
"unsuitable" harmonies. The
trick is not to take it too seriously
but to play it with the sort of gentle
simplicity you would apply to a performance
of the original melody, and De’Ath succeeds
I have doubts about
the "Autumn Idyll". The performance
here is fluent and attractive (and energetic
in the middle section) but, if Scott
had intended this as gentle pastoral
movement, would he not have written
the music in 6/8 rather than 6/4? I
also note that the chords in the middle
section, while not marked legato, are
not marked staccato either, as they
are played here. I feel that something
more bleakly autumnal could have been
extracted from this piece.
is more agitated than you would expect
from the title and seems unduly heavy
in its thick chords. In the absence
of a score I am unable to say whether
De’Ath might have done anything to alleviate
this, but I rather think not.
The "Three Old
Country Dances" are one of the
most disappointing of all Scott’s sets.
In the outer pieces De’Ath’s rhythmic
verve at least makes them listenable
but he does not convince me that the
middle one is anything but undistinguished
note-spinning heavily harmonized. I
have no suggestions as to how to make
it sound any better, however.
The "Two Alpine
Sketches" are very brief and of
little consequence. The first is quite
pretty and is neatly done. In the second
I note that, while the left hand has
staccato-dots, it also has slurs, so
the touch implied is "portato",
a delicately caressed non-legato rather
than the full staccato De’Ath plays.
This and the "Allegretto"
marking seem to indicate that the piece
has a lazy, lilting character, while
what we have here is bright and perky.
On the other hand it is a very undistinguished
piece and after various experiments
I cannot say it sounds any better played
in what I believe to be the correct
manner; indeed, De’Ath’s approach maybe
brightens it up a bit.
is another of the oriental pieces; it
sounds strange but perhaps not quite
as strange as it ought. No score, but
I don’t think De’Ath is to blame.
is a melodious little salon piece which
once enjoyed much popularity – it was
also arranged for violin and piano.
De’Ath’s affectionate rubato seems to
Though I have the score
only to no.2, the "Three Pastorals"
prove here to be among the most attractive
of the smaller sets – very fresh and
charming indeed, but also individual.
The "Three Dances"
are among the earliest music on these
two discs and the second, an "Eastern
Dance", shows that the oriental
bug got Scott quite early on. These
are actually all fresh and attractive
pieces. No scores but lively and colourful
is a rare case where the "English
Debussy" actually sounds like the
French one – a very evocative piece,
warmly performed (no score).
The three pieces making
up "A Pageant" are fascinating
in their harmonic individuality and
cast a strong spell. I think the first
two – "Sentimental Waltz"
and "Exotic Dance" could have
been more seductive still at slower
tempi but the respective markings ("Sostenuto
e con sentimento" and ""Non
vivo") could mean a lot of things
and seem to describe atmospheres more
than tempi, so this is just my opinion.
Sympathetic performances in any case.
The "Three Miniatures"
are very slender offerings but again,
a slower interpretation of "Allegretto"
might have brought out better the wistful
MacDowell-like poetry of the first.
The most memorable feature of the second
is its title, "A Ballad Told at
Candle-Light". Something closer
to the spirit of the title can be extracted
by playing it more slowly and gently,
but the marking is "Tempo di Marcia"
and De’Ath’s tempo certainly is that.
Much the most attractive piece is the
last, "A Little Dancer from Spain".
De’Ath makes the dancer a very upfront,
lively lady. I had always seen her as
trippingly delicate and (here we go
again) the marking "Allegretto"
would seem to bear me out; however,
some might feel that the Carmen quotation
at the end justifies De’Ath’s approach.
He certainly makes it sound effective.
This first volume closes
with three very early pieces indeed
(probably from 1898 or earlier). De’Ath
finds that "the middle waltz borders
on the sentimental" but I wonder
if Scott is not deliberately evoking
the music hall, as he did a few years
later in the "Pierrot Pieces"
and I think more might be made of this
"vulgarity". The first pieces
provides further fuel for the "Allegretto
versus Allegro" argument and it’s
all Scott’s fault; the title is given
as "Allegro poco scherzando"
and underneath it is marked "Allegretto
poco scherzando"! De’Ath goes for
"Allegro"; I would prefer
"Allegretto" but who can prove
anything? In any case, a set of lively
performances to round the disc off.
It is more customary,
at the beginning of a series like this,
to make vague, generalized comments
about "sympathetic performances"
and the like. I make no apology for
going into more detail since I hope
I have made it plain that this is an
important corpus of music and by rights
there should be two or three sets available,
plus a host of single-disc selections.
At least the first complete survey is
under way and it has many performances
which any future sets will find hard
to match. The "Deuxième
Suite" is of itself enough to make
purchase essential. De’Ath is at his
finest when Scott is big and bold, but
he also responds to Scott the wit, Scott
the salon charmer and often to Scott
the poet. I wonder if he is quite so
much in tune with Scott the philosopher,
whether he has yet realised the mantra-like
stillness which lies behind some of
this music. Although as a matter of
fact not many of the pieces here are
of that nature so this is a question
that will be answered later in the series.
There is, in any case, far more cause
for congratulations than for niggles
– though I hope he will reconsider later
on what Scott meant by "Allegretto".
and, as well as De’Ath’s own notes,
an interesting memoir by the composer’s
son Desmond. I hope the cover scanning
is of sufficiently good quality for
readers to note that Scott, as well
as a composer and poet (and much else),
was also no mean painter. For the moment
these discs are a semi-private issue,
obtainable from the pianist at the e-mail
address above. However, talks are under
way with a British company which may
well take it into its catalogue. The
next instalment is to be recorded in
See also Chris
Howells recording of Scott Piano Music