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Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Complete Piano Music, Volume 1 – Suites and Miniatures
CD 1

Suite … (in the Old Style), op.71/1 /1910), Deuxième Suite, op.75 (1910), Pastoral Suite (1913), Indian Suite (1922), Handelian Rhapsody, op.17 (1901-1909)
CD 2

Valse caprice, op.74/7 (1911), Requiescat (1917), Soirée japonaise, op.67/4 (1910), Vistas (1918), Three Old Country Dances (1925), Two Alpine Sketches op.58/4 (1908), Three Pastorals (1919-1920), Three Dances, op.20 (1903), A Pageant: Three Dances (1920), Miniatures (1915), Three Little Waltzes op.58 (1906)
Dates refer to publication – in most cases the exact composition date is not known.
Leslie De’Ath (piano)
Recorded in the Maureen Forrester Recital Hall, Faculty of Music, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on 18th January 2004 (Deuxième Suite, Handelian Rhapsody) and 3rd-4th January 2004 (all other pieces)
VVC CD101-2 [65:43 + 71:11]

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; in recent 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 remain controversial.

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 own.

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 the public?

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.

The "Pastoral 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.

The "Handelian 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.

"Requiescat" is a touching piece over an ostinato bass. No score, but the performance convinces.

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.

"Cherry Ripe" 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 perfectly.

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.

The "Notturno" 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.

"Sphinx" 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.

"Vesperale" 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 me ideal.

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. Convincing performances.

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 performances.

"Twilight-tide" 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".

Excellent recording 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 January 2005.

Christopher Howell

See also Chris Howells recording of Scott Piano Music

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