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Britten Resonances
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Dramatic Fantasia (1906) [11:29]; Gargoyle (1926) [4:02]
John IRELAND (1879-1962) Ballade of London Nights (published 1968) [6:22]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Five Waltzes (1923-25) [10:33]; A Little Idyll (1930) [2:29]; Night Piece – (Notturno) (1963) [5:21]
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989) Six Preludes Op.23 (1945) [10:20]
Ronald STEVENSON (b. 1928) Sonata Serenissima (1977) [6:50]
Colin MATTHEWS (b. 1946) Five Studies (1974-76) [14:23]
Anthony Goldstone (piano)
rec. Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 27-28 March 1991 (except track 9); Track 9, St John the Baptist Church, Alkborough, Lincolnshire, 15 August 2004.
DIVERSIONS 24118 [71:46]
 


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!

The Nightpiece (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 is pervasive.

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 in Venice.

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.

Anthony 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.
 
John France
 
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