This CD explores
the works of composers that were prominent in the life of Benjamin
Britten. Britten was taught by Frank Bridge and John Ireland.
He was friends with Lennox Berkeley and Ronald Stevenson. Finally
he influenced Colin Matthews’ musical style. This last composer
was to become Britten’s amanuensis. Last but not least, the
CD has a few works by BB himself.
No CD could commence
with a more attractive and impressive work than Frank Bridge’s
Dramatic Fantasia. The piece was composed between Bridge’s
two Phantasies which had been written specifically for
W.W. Cobbett's prestigious chamber music competitions. The present
piano piece was composed very much under the formal spell of
these chamber pieces and uses a similar constructive framework.
This is a particularly
complex work that reveals the composer’s ability to compose
in a strong and effective pianistic style. It was written under
the influence of the prevailing Western, late-romantic school
of pianism. However it is fair to say that there are plenty
of moments when a touch of Englishry is perceived in these difficult
and fascinating pages. It’s a ‘big’ work that covers considerable
emotional ground – sometimes intense, often romantic, occasionally
ominous and often just quite simply gorgeous. Do not try to
hunt the influence – just thank goodness that the piece exists,
that it moves the heart and the soul and that it is played to
such effect as it is on this recording by Anthony Goldstone.
An absolutely stunning opening number.
The stark and brittle
Gargoyle was composed some dozen or so years after the
romantic Fantasia. The First World War had taken its
toll on a musical generation and Bridge had responded deeply
to this loss. This is a modernist work that ‘confronts modernism
head-on’ and absorbs much that was musically in the air at the
time, especially Scriabin and Debussy. Sadly, although Bridge
lived until 1941, Gargoyle was his last piano work. Do
not get this piece wrong – this is no friendly ‘carved creature’
that mischievously graces the gutters and spouts of an English
Cathedral. This is a demon from the hell of the Somme.
The next piece is
one of the least known works by John Ireland. In fact The
Ballade of London Nights was not part of the repertoire
until after the composer’s death. The progress of the work encompasses
a wide variety of moods – from tranquil, dreamy music to ‘a
shattering bitonal cascade traversing several octaves.’ It is
a piece that I believe is totally in keeping with the Ireland
canon – it serves as ‘an evocative tone picture’ of the city
that Ireland lived in and probably had a love/hate relationship
with. It sits well with the London Overture and the London
Pieces as an effective evocation of the Capital city. Strangely
this present version appears to be the only recording of this
work currently available.
The Britten works
comprise three attractive numbers that represent virtually half
of what the composer wrote for the piano. It is eternally surprising
that Britten, who was such an accomplished pianist, should have
written so little for his own instrument.
The Five Waltzes
were selected, by the composer, from his childhood portfolio.
They are interesting perhaps because of the precocity of the
composer, rather than for any profound musical value. It would
be wrong to attempt to spot too many later ‘Britten’ fingerprints
in these juvenile waltzes. I doubt many people would ‘guess
the composer’ if subjected to an ‘innocent ear’ test. Yet this
does not deny the fact that they are interesting examples of
the genre – especially the final number, which has the most
memorable tune and was composed when BB was nine years old!
I had not heard
the short ‘A Little Idyll’ until this recording – and
I must confess that I found it quite engaging. It is extremely
chromatic in its linear progress. In fact, in places, it appears
quite ‘Spartan’ in texture. Yet towards the conclusion the impression
is of a well controlled romanticism. Unfortunately the CD clicked
and bounced and stopped during the final bars of this piece
– so I missed the ‘slightly incongruous sweet added sixth’ of
the ultimate chord. Yet my impression is that this is one of
the loveliest of Britten’s offerings – but I must confess to
the reader that I am biased: I am a fan of early Britten as
opposed to late!
(Notturno) was composed in 1963 as a test piece for the
1st Leeds International Pianoforte Competition. It is not a
showpiece or war-horse, but rather a restrained study in more
introverted pianistic styles. Of course it is not an easy work
– as the pianist has to deal with considerable technical problems
of interpretation and balance. The Italianate mood does predominate
– more perhaps in an operatic sense than any impressionistic
musing on the Bay of Naples by moonlight. A valuable addition
to the CD catalogue.
The programme notes
point out that collaborations between composers are rare – yet
Britten and Lennox Berkeley produced a fine set of Catalan dances
called Mont Juic. This reflected their time in Barcelona
in 1936. These dances show the empathy between the two men and
even today it is hard to decide – just by listening - which
composer wrote which dance.
The Six Preludes
are perhaps some of the most performed and recorded works in
the Berkeley catalogue. There are at least three recordings
of this work available, including those by Colin Horsley, Margaret
Fingerhut and Len Vorster. Yet this attention is certainly well
justified. These Preludes are excellent examples of the
‘Gallic’-influenced style that permeated Berkeley’s works. Certainly
Poulenc never seems to be far way – and the spirit of Chopin
The first prelude
is ‘toccata-like’ with ‘horns of elf-land’ predominating in
the melodic pattern. This is intricate music that balances romanticism
with a neo-classical perfection. No.2 is a brooding essay where,
although the melody asserts itself it seems to be shrouded in
the dark. We are back in the classical world with the third
prelude which is full of a bubbling vitality: it is like a mountain
stream. The fourth is a Valse Triste which could almost, but
not quite, be played in the piano bar of the Savoy Hotel. It
is certainly not pastiche – but it is a beautifully crafted
exercise in writing a waltz. Number 5 is described in the programme
notes as a ‘whistling tune’ which suggests gaiety. Yet there
is something darker in the middle section of this prelude. The
last is in the form of a lullaby – and a ‘baby sings the blues’
one too. Perhaps this is the most memorable of the six?
These preludes are
always approachable without being musically patronising or condescending.
The Six Preludes Op.23 was composed in 1945 for Colin
Horsley who gave them their first performance.
I learnt something
I never imagined whilst reading the excellent programme notes
to this CD. I had always assumed that Ronald Stevenson was the
arch-typical Scottish composer. The couple of times I have met
him did nothing to disabuse me of this view. Yet I read here
that he was born in Blackburn, Lancashire! You live and learn.
Stevenson is best
known for his massive Passacaglia on DSCH or the shorter
Fantasy on Peter Grimes so it is interesting to hear
a lesser known piece from his catalogue.
The present Sonatina
Serenissima was written in 1973 as a tribute to Benjamin
Britten. Stevenson uses an ‘encoded’ version of the composer’s
name to generate the musical material in a similar manner to
the method used in the Shostakovich tribute. The work is written
in four very short movements comprising a Barcarolletta,
a Fugetta, a Chorale and a Carol. There
are a number of references to Britten’s late opera Death
This is a completely
satisfying work that seems to me to be stylistically consistent
and musically interesting. Pianistically, this reveals Ronald
Stevenson as the consummate artist – both as composer and concert
pianist. I have never been a huge fan of BB – so it may come
as no surprise that I prefer the piano music of the dedicator
to the dedicatee!
The Five Studies
by Colin Matthews are a bit of a mixed bunch. The work exploits
the composer’s interest in ‘minimalism’ and ‘Indonesian’ exotica.
The first study uses chords that are strangely reminiscent of
Gorecki’s Third Symphony. Yet neither work depended on
the other. The second is a rather turbulent and involved ‘toccata’
that calls for the pianist’s left hand to play only white notes
and his right, black. The third study evokes the sound of an
Indonesian Gamelan – an example of his indebtedness, perhaps,
to Britten who made transcriptions and recordings of gamelan
music in Bali. The fourth is a ‘chordal study’ which frankly
did not impress me. However the last number is definitely the
best. It may well be ‘minimalism’ run riot yet it is an attractive
piece for all that. These Studies definitely deserve
a secure place in the repertoire.
Goldstone has recorded music by a variety
of lesser performed British composers,
including Thomas Pitfield, Kenneth Leighton,
Edgar Bainton and Anthony Hedges. His
performance on this present CD is excellent
and makes each one of these works fresh,
vital and essential. The programme notes
are good and the sound quality of this
Diversions disc is great.
I recommend this disc
to all lovers of British music and also to enthusiasts of piano
music who maybe do not know this particular repertoire. If this
is the case, begin with the Frank Bridge Dramatic Fantasia
and follow through with Berkeley’s Preludes.