Listeners fall into three groups. Firstly there are those who candidly admit to having never heard of Cyril Scott. Secondly, there are a fair few who know his Lotus Land
- and possibly one or two other piano pieces. And then, lastly, there are the Scott enthusiasts - people who have heard all his music currently available and constantly look out for the next CD release featuring his music. I confess to falling into this last category.
I first heard Scott's Piano Concerto No. 1 on an old Lyrita record: I have been hooked ever since. In fact, along with Frank Bridge and York Bowen he is one of that select band from whom I have never heard a work that I positively dislike.
For all the three groups above, the best place to start with this new Chandos CD is to read the major essay by the redoubtable Lewis Foreman. The first part of this seven page 'introduction' provides an excellent and sympathetic overview of the composer's life, times and music. The remainder is devoted to an in-depth study of each work. Then, I would advise beginning with the long forgotten Cornish Boat Song
. And after this, it is on to the Internet ...
Scott is not noted for his enthusiasm for folk-song: in fact he was largely influenced by Germanic and French forms and musical styles. However, there are a few works that could be regarded as folk-inspired. These include the Two Passacaglias on Irish Themes
and the Pastoral
for cello and piano. The tune used in the Cornish Boat Song
has not been identified: it is presumed to be a confection. However, it is a lovely short work for piano trio that has a kind of shifting Delius-like harmony that is a million miles away from any song sung by a fisherman from Kernow! The other folk-inspired piece is accessed via the internet - the address is given in the text of the programme notes. This was omitted from the CD due to reasons of space. It is a lively and totally convincing, if a little contrived, Little Folk Dance
The next piece to explore is the Piano Trio No. 2. This is the most approachable major work on this CD – both from its short length and the largely romantic nature of its musical language. The Trio is written in two sections, although there is a pseudo-slow movement around the halfway mark. On listening to this piece various influences crept into mind. I guess that Ravel was one such allusion and most definitely John Ireland. Yet this is not a pastiche: it is very much Scott’s own blend of ‘extended’ tonality balanced by attractive, lyrical writing. It is music that is at one and the same time enigmatic and engaging: there is a fine balance of light and shade, intensity and a spirit of ‘amabile
’ - which is one of playing instructions.
The work was ostensibly composed in 1951, but the programme notes suggest that it could have been written any time over the previous decade.
The major work on this CD, at least from the point of view of duration and vision, is the Piano Trio No. 1. It is a piece that is in most ways far removed from the sound-world of the other works on this disc. The Trio is conceived in the ‘traditional’ four movement form and lasts over half an hour.
It was composed in 1920. However Lewis Foreman states that there was an earlier Trio written when Scott was studying with Iwan Knorr in Frankfurt. The biographical background to the present work is a holiday with the Harrison family in Tremezzo in Italy. Here the composer made a number of musical friends including the Harrison sisters, May and Beatrice. Scott was to give the premiere performance of this Trio with them both at the Wigmore Hall in April 1920.
Although I do like this work, and am aware of much good and felicitous writing, I feel that the Trio does not quite add up. I have listened to it straight through some three times, and although I do enjoy it and am glad that it has been given a well-deserved recording, I cannot bring myself to say that it is totally convincing.
The Times reviewer picked up on this in 1920 when he wrote that in spite of plenty of ‘melodic ideas and a feeling for harmonic expressiveness’ he felt that the music never quite came to life. However, his suggestion that this is because Scott eschewed counterpoint is probably misconceived. He felt that the harmonic basis of this work was like a row of poplars in the French landscape, standing side by side and stretching into infinity. He considered the slow movement’s use of ‘fourths and tri-tones’ outstayed its welcome.
The writer in the Manchester Guardian insisted that ‘the work begun well, and contains moments of rare beauty, [but] it descends at times perilously near mawkish sentimentality and meretricious sensationalism.’ I agree with the first part of the judgement, but not the second!
I was really impressed by the Clarinet Trio. This work, which dates from 1955, is very different to the First Piano Trio, yet it is equally attractive, if slightly less approachable. The work is cast in three movements – moderato, an intermezzo and a rondo capriccioso. The first movement is the longest and is made up of a number of contrasting sections. Two of these have the charming directions to be played ‘a trifle lingeringly’ and ‘somewhat lingeringly.’ From the opening ‘upward’ scale from the clarinet, through the sometimes discordant, sometimes romantic piano-dominated middle section to the conclusion, this is challenging music. One of the key features of this movement is the fact that the clarinet and the cello have largely different musical material unless they are playing in unison. The second movement is truly lovely. It is a meditation that is both intense and autumnal. This is Cyril Scott at his lyrical best. The last movement is a fine rondo that is in complete contrast to the profundity of the first. This is a thoroughly enjoyable conclusion to an important work. It is very hard to credit that the musical establishment had largely given up on Scott at this time: he was deemed to be stuck in the past and incapable of offering a musical voice for ‘contemporary’ listeners. How wrong can critics be!
Four years earlier, Scott had written a single movement Clarinet Quintet. According to the sleeve-notes it appears to have been inspired by the clarinetist Gervase de Peyer, who gave the first performance in October of that year.
Whatever the form of this single movement work actually is, the music seems to unfold through a wide variety of tempi and moods. The depth and drama of the opening string music is contrasted with a more ‘pastoral’ mood which leads back into intensity. Lewis Foreman points out that this is a ‘conversational’ work where the composer brings a good understanding of instrumental writing to exploit ‘the maximum range of colour’. Although the Quintet is seemingly a ‘working-out’ of a group of diverse episodes, there is a certain tripartite structure to the work, with the de facto
‘slow movement’ occurring some two-thirds of the way through the piece. The Quintet ends with a sense of triumph and optimism. I think this a great and often quite moving work – one that combines strength with depth of feeling and variety of mood. Furthermore, it is a very long way in thought and sound to the Rainbow Trout
, Lotus Land
and Cherry Ripe
This is an extremely important addition to the corpus of Cyril Scott’s recorded music. For one thing, four out of the five works are premiere recordings. Secondly, the playing by the Gould Piano Trio and the clarinet soloist Robert Plane is both convincing and sympathetic. Scott’s music covers a wide range of styles and musical language – and each works needs a different approach. This awareness of the composer’s ‘periods’ has been well attended to.
I noted the excellent programme notes by Lewis Foreman above, but want to reiterate their importance to the listener. And finally there is the cover design of Perch Rock Lighthouse at the entry to the River Mersey: it is an inspiring choice, especially as Cyril Meir Scott was born in Birkenhead on the banks of that great river.