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Frances Gray

The Evocative Piano
William BAINES (1899-1922)

Tides, Seven Preludes: no.2, Twilight Pieces: 1. Twilight Wood
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)

Three Preludes
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)

Lotus Land op.47/1, Karma: 2. The Piper in the Desert, Vistas: 2. In the Forest, Rainbow Trout
E. J. MOERAN (1894-1950)

Three Pieces: 1. The Lake Island, Irish Love Song, Three Fancies: 1. Windmills
John IRELAND (1879-1962)

The Darkened Valley, Decorations: 1. The Island Spell
Leo SMITH (1881-1952)

Three Pieces: 1. The Song Sparrow
John Alden CARPENTER (1876-1951)

Charles GRIFFES (1884-1920)

Three Tone Pictures
Frances Gray (piano)
Recorded at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff, Alberta, Canada, January 2002
WRC8-7667 [68:18]


Frances Gray is a Canadian pianist who "enjoys seeking out lesser-known composers who may have been overshadowed by the giants of their time". She would also appear to have a liking for making up "theme" programmes from their work, since the present disc reached me with another, "Poems for Piano" on which I will be commenting later. She certainly shows here that the vast repertoire of British, Canadian and American shorter piano pieces with evocative titles can provide a worthwhile sequence of mostly little-known music ("Lotus Land" was once hugely popular and "Windmills" and "The Island Spell" were standard "contemporary" choices for diplomas with the British academies in the days when they could still be called contemporary).

Gray plays her chosen pieces with a consistently warm and rounded tone, comfortable tempi that allow clear enunciation of rapid passage-work and complete technical ease. The effect is always warm and musical, to which virtues can be added those of a rich, full-toned recording. The recital gets off to a powerful start with William Bainesís often amazingly original (for their context) pieces. Or perhaps at this stage I was still rejoicing in the discís virtues, for doubts started creeping in gradually. All the qualities I have enumerated above make a good starting-point, but it becomes increasingly evident that this is the style on offer and it is dished out in exactly the same way regardless of the music in hand. Thus the playful first Prelude of Delius is slow and heavy for its "Scherzando" marking Ė surely it should sound like a leaf blown hither and thither in the wind Ė and Moeranís "Windmills" revolve with a steadiness which suggests Gray is unfamiliar with the gusty air currents of the composerís beloved East Anglia. The marking is "Presto" and this, to my ears, is no more than "Allegro". Furthermore, there is no real attempt to "orchestrate" the music so when the melodic interest is not in the upper voice things fare badly. Thus the beautiful melody of Moeranís "Irish Love Song" emerges only fitfully from its rich surroundings and the lapping waters of the same composerís "Lake Island" impinge on the melodic line.

It was also unimaginative to choose three Scott pieces out of four in the same vein Ė ornate arabesques against a sultry strummed accompaniment Ė especially when Gray is apparently unable to make the regular chords disappear into a "psychological" background, their rigid, foursquare presence thus becoming a millstone around the musicís neck. In "Rainbow Trout", by the way, Gray reproduces with slavish accuracy two obvious misprints in the score Ė a missing tie at the end of the first line of the first page and a missing "octave higher" indication on the 4th line of p.5. With regard to comparisons I am in the slightly embarrassing position of having to admit that the only CD alternative of "Rainbow Trout" known to me is my own, and it is hardly for me to say if I managed any better (a review of this Tremula disc can be found on the site). I can comment, however, that Gray is accorded superior sound quality. I have also been sent a cassette transfer of Scottís own 1928 performance which, unlike his incomparably poised "Lotus Land" recorded on the same day, seems uncharacteristically snatched. But I find that it plays a semitone sharp so until such time as a more reliable transfer can be obtained perhaps it is unfair to judge. All Scottís recorded performances except this one (10 short pieces plus two songs) are absolutely extraordinary and should be made available on CD without delay.

Less controversially, and without potential embarrassment, I can point out that the middle section of "The Darkened Valley" sounds very perfunctory in this performance and it is quite startling how much more colour and variety of mood Eric Parkinís Lyrita recording (I donít know his Chandos remake) finds in this piece. Gray is pretty exciting in the later stages of "The Island Spell", but when you turn to Parkin you realise (if you hadnít already from the markings in the score) that itís not really a bravura piece up and down the piano at all; the magic spell which Parkin had already established far more potently grows steadily to an overwhelming climax. It sounds like another piece of music. And this is not just Parkinís idea about how the music should go; he studied with the composer.

I didnít have scores to hand for the remaining pieces, but if I found the music only moderately interesting ("The Lake at Evening", the first of Griffesís tone pictures, is surely too blatant a crib of Ravelís recently published "Le Gibet", from "Gaspard de la Nuit" to have any artistic validity of its own) it may well be as a result of similar shortcomings to those listed above.

Iím sorry to pick such a lot of holes in what is basically a nice idea and sympathetically performed up to a point, but in too many of these pieces Gray gives us only half the story.

Christopher Howell

see also Poems for Piano

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