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CD: Simon Callaghan

English Piano Works
William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)
Sonata in F minor Op.13 (c.1837) [31:28]
William Thomas Best (1826-1897)
Grande Mouvement de Danse: Polka Originale
Op.4 (1847) [02:15]; Romanesca Op.16 (1854) [04:31]
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)
Shulbrede Tunes
(1911-1914) [33:41]
Simon Callaghan (piano)
rec. May 2007, Concert Hall De Rode Pomp, Ghent, Belgium
DE RODE POMP RP/GMA 069/073 [71:75]
Experience Classicsonline

Coming straight to the point, this CD is an essential purchase for all enthusiasts of British piano music. Contrary to what some people might suggest, the two main works on this disc are minor masterpieces – they both move and entertain. Furthermore, the two ‘salon’ pieces by William Thomas Best also deserve our notice. One can ask nothing more from a CD. Add to this, the stunning playing by Simon Callaghan, the superb quality of the recording and the informed programme notes; there is little else I can say other than, “Buy it”!
Anyone who knows these works will not require my advocacy of them, however, the newcomer to the piano music of Sterndale Bennett or Hubert Parry may expect a little more information before ordering this CD on the ’net or rushing down to the High Street record store.
I first came across William Sterndale Bennett’s Piano Sonata many years ago. I had just received a parcel of sheet music from my late uncle and was slowly sorting through a variety of pieces for organ and piano, classical and not-so-classical. One of the little treasures was an album of pieces by Sterndale Bennett. I remember trying to play them through – but failing miserably. There was virtually nothing I could get my youthful fingers round – save for a piece called Serenata. However, by the time I got to bar eight I was stumped. I noted then that it was part of a larger work and put it to one side. But I remembered the name and was delighted when many years later I was able to hear Ilonya Prunyi play the complete Sonata on Marco Polo 8.223526.
In spite of its obvious indebtedness to Mendelssohn, and to a certain extent Schumann, I regard this as one of the most important British piano works of the nineteenth century. If this Sonata had been written by a German or an Austrian it would be comfortably and securely in the repertoire - irrespective of who the models may have been.
David Nelson, writing in the programme notes for the Marco Polo disc has noted that Sterndale Bennett did not follow in the footsteps of composers such as Thalberg and Liszt. In fact, he even tended to resist “the romantic utterances of Chopin and Schumann”. Conventional wisdom has stated that he is beholden to Mendelssohn: he was known as the English Mendelssohn. Yet, it is probably fairer to say that the true models of this Sonata are the piano music of Mozart, Cramer and Clementi – the latter two being part of what was known as the London Piano School.
The present Sonata can be seen in these terms. It does not totally eschew romanticism, but neither does it rise to the heights of Beethovenian classicism. And this is perhaps why it has not succeeded in becoming an integral part of the repertoire. However, approaching this work in the 21st century, with a mind relatively free from prejudice, the listener will hear an attractive work that is a fine balance between a restrained romanticism and a well-proportioned classical elegance. I guess, metaphorically speaking, that it is A Midsummer Night’s Dream rather than a King Lear.
Geoffrey Bush has summed up the work admirably: “… the power and depth of the musical thought are altogether new (for Sterndale Bennett) and so are the sustained concentration and seriousness of purpose”.
The Piano Sonata in F minor Op.13 was composed in 1837 and was dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn. It is in four movements.
The two short pieces by William Thomas Best are interesting additions to this fine CD. Both the Grande Mouvement and the Romanesca reveal a standard of musical content and technique that surely deserve our attention. Both of these pieces were written in the mid-nineteenth century, and although they are not ground-breaking, they certainly suggest that Britain was not quite the ‘Land without Music’ that critics sometimes enjoy suggesting.
The Shulbrede Tunes is another work that I have had a long relationship with. I remember finding a rather dusty ‘new’ copy of this work in a Glasgow music shop. I guess that it was the eye-catching picture of Shulbrede Priory on the cover that caught my eye. Additionally, for a young romantic, the fact that one of the pieces was called ‘Elizabeth’ was an attraction: at that time I was rather keen on a girl of the same name. In fact, I even made an orchestral transcription of this piece and dedicated it to her. Thank goodness it was never played by the school orchestra …
Over the years I have come to consider this collection of pieces as a valuable addition to the music of the 20th century. However, I have come across people who would deny Parry the honour of having composed anything worth playing in our time, far less something deserving an accolade. The ‘unbiased’ truth is that the Shulbrede Tunes is to Parry as the Wand of Youth Suites are to Elgar: youth and leisure and pleasure reflected on in the relative tranquillity and wisdom of middle age.
Parry first visited Shulbrede Priory in 1902 when he was 54 years of age. He was taken by the antiquity and the beauty of the building and its surroundings. Jeremy Dibble notes the attraction to the composer of the “stone hall, its lofty rooms, the vaulting, the wonderful fireplaces and the remote rural location …” Fortunately for Parry it was just about half-way between his home at Rustington in Sussex and his London residence in Kensington Square.
The music is largely self-explanatory but it is well worth quoting a letter by the composer to W.A. Roberts, a Liverpudlian organist. Parry wrote, “Shulbrede Priory … is the place where my daughter Mrs. Ponsonby lives with her husband Arthur Ponsonby and her two children Elizabeth and Matthew.” He continued with a brief description of the Priory before explaining that “All the personally named tunes are portraits. ‘Dolly’ is Mrs Ponsonby; she had to have two tunes, as she has two distinct phases. Elizabeth is a lithe, slip of a girl, very springy in her gait; Matthew, a dear little boy of 10, of very enquiring mind (that’s why he [his tune] begins with a question), and a serious side, and a great interest in country life and animals. ‘Father Playmate’ is all sorts of delightful things - a great companion to the children as well as a great politician and deeply interested in Art and Music as well.” He concludes his letter by suggesting that Shulbrede “is a great place for children’s pranks and also for bogies and sprites - and the garden, with the old monks’ fishponds, is adorable ...”
One of the most evocative of these descriptive pieces depicts the ‘Prior’s Chamber by Midnight’. This is a fine piece of musical painting. Finally, perhaps the most important piece is the opening number. The Tunes open with a bold statement of confidence which is entitled simply Shulbrede – but this is surely a picture of the composer himself?
For anyone who loves the music of Parry this is a suite of pieces that is both charming and often quite moving. It is well written, enjoyable to play, subtly descriptive and well-balanced. Shulbrede Tunes is a picture of a personalised country landscape and a family situation to which many aspire but few attain.
John France


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