Leslie De’Ath, who
is perhaps better known for his ventures
into Cyril Scott’s music on disc, here
tackles a decidedly different kettle
of fish. It’s rather like Gieseking
taking on Scott Joplin. Or at least
that’s how it might seem. Because for
all his virtuosity and scintillating
syncopated verve Billy Mayerl had a
penchant for tone poems and impressionism
as well. A look at his ‘Desert Island
Discs’ shows one how wide were his musical
sympathies. And this is tailor-made
for De’Ath’s explorations and sensitive
It’s instructive to
listen to the Canadian newcomer alongside
Mayerl himself, where such comparisons
exist, as well as two of the composer-executant’s
most distinguished present day promoters
– Eric Parkin and Susan Tomes. Take
that evergreen Phil the Fluter’s
Ball by W Percy French but best
known in this famous Mayerl arrangement.
In his last radio broadcast, preserved
and issued by The Billy Mayerl Society
recently, we find the composer wittier
and more incisive, jazzier, than all
his rivals – the syncopation wonderfully
voiced. As an aside we can hear in his
recording how adeptly Mayerl absorbed
Teddy Wilson’s downward treble runs
and Erroll Garner’s style as well.
In Song of the Fir-tree:
A Swedish Impression De’Ath tends
to downplay the jazz-based influences
preferring to treat it grandly and expressively.
Parkin is good here but not seamless.
Mayerl cuts through his own piece like
a knife casting everything before him.
Well, a composer taking his own music
fast and lean is nothing new but it’s
instructive in this specialised area
of syncopated piano light music to hear
how Mayerl took it. Antiquary
is a movement from Piano Exaggerations
of 1926. It just so happened that Mayerl
recorded this hot off the press in the
same year. Mayerl’s playing is a case
study in bravura scintillation and a
spirit of breathless tension. De’Ath’s
take is rather more laidback.
Mayerl tended to play
Ladybird Lullaby from Insect
Oddities as more a waltz than lullaby.
De’Ath very properly takes Mayerl at
his word. But the composer manages to
find in the peaks and troughs of his
phrasing, the canny caesuri, the teasing
rubati such a wealth of detail, such
phrasal ‘event’ that his modern admirers
cannot help but sound a little inert
in his wake. One more example will suffice.
In his own recording Mayerl’s Praying
Mantis is a cocky little feller;
Tomes’s is more reflective whilst De’Ath’s
is quite effervescent though not the
dangerous show-off of Mayerl’s invention.
These few illustrations
show that Mayerl took his own music
briskly but with considerable rhythmic
flexibility; the pulse was often broken
up and phrases were thereby given a
tremendous sense of life and vigour.
He characterised his little pieces with
infectious drama and brio. It would
be vain to expect anyone these days
to match his own barnstorming bravado.
But there are plenty
of other things to enjoy here. Try the
witty reel that is Leprechaun’s Leap
with its lyrical B section played
by De’Ath with great refinement. Meadowsweet
from In My Garden: Summertime
is played with slow warmth. The
lilting tristesse of Amber leaves
from 1947’s In My Garden: Autumntime
has more than a hint of Willow
Weep for Me about it. Then turn
to the insouciant verve of 6 am –
The Milkman: which is the Scherzo
from Three Syncopated Rambles. Mayerl
ventured into the salon for his Pastoral
from Three Contrasts but could
dish out the toccata-like virtuosity
of April’s Fool (1945) without
turning a stylistic hair. The Forgotten
Forest: A Poem is an extended tone
poem and it readily shows the classical
influences on Mayerl; Cyril Scott (we
have the right man at the piano then),
Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff,
the wistful cadences of popular song.
Jill all Alone amplifies the
Rachmaninovian element with romantic
effusion at its climax and its lashings
This typically attractively
designed CD – cover art is a Dutton
speciality – is graced by excellent
notes from the pianist. Good sound.
The performances are commanding, vivacious
and also wistful. There was always more
in Mayerl’s musical soul than mere syncopation.