Benjamin DALE (1885 Ė 1943) Piano Sonata in D minor (1902/1905) [47:48]
William HURLSTONE (1876 Ė 1906) Piano Sonata in F minor (1894) [31:34]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. 5-6 January 2006, CBSO Centre, Birmingham. DDD
SOMM SOMMCD 097 [79:30]

There was a time, and perhaps it hasnít really passed, when Daleís Piano Sonata was only spoken of; one never heard it. Much the same applies to his late orchestral work, The Flowing Tide, which was broadcast in 2002. Itís obvious why the work has seldom been heard in my lifetime Ė itís far too long for most pianists to be interested in it, and itís written by a minor English composer, some would say. I can remember Peter Jacobs played it in the Wigmore Hall in the early 1980s Ė with a preview the night before at the British Music Information Centre Ė but thatís the only time itís come my way in performance.

Itís a very assured work, and it comes as a shock to discover that it was written during Daleís student days. Dedicated to his friend York Bowen, it was Bowen who gave the first performance of the work, and after it won the annual Mark Hambourg Composition prize, the great man playing only the Variations at the Queenís Hall, it was taken up by Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer Benno Moiseiwitsch, and others, as well as having two piano rolls made. Later Moura Lympany and Frank Merrick played the work, but it eventually fell out of the repertoire.

So much for the history of the piece, What about the music itself? In his excellent booklet notes, Jeremy Dibble writes that the work is ďconceived on an epic scaleĒ, and heís not wrong. There are two movements, a large-scale, heroic, Allegro deciso playing for 13 and a half minutes and a Slow Movement, Scherzo and Finale, which is a continuous set of eight variations on an original theme Ė the theme and first four variations comprise the slow movement, variations 5, 6 and 7 constitute the scherzo and the 8th variation is an extended finale playing for about 11Ĺ minutes. Itís certainly conceived on an epic scale but, sad to say, itís not an epic work. Thereís much to enjoy and admire in the piece, big climaxes, good tunes, virtuoso writing and so on, but itís far too long for its material. The second section is more successful than the first: it hangs together better and is more intelligently constructed. What is interesting is that there is a lot of Victorian salon fancies, Rachmaninov, and the Music Hall cheekiness of Lord Berners, but as Berners hadnít started writing at this time, and much of Rachmaninov hadnít been heard in this country, itís obvious that Dale was simply writing in the vernacular of his time. Thereís also more than a passing nod to Chopin. The work is filled with purple passages, and Dale certainly over-eggs the pudding. But yet, itís compelling and well worth hearing. Whether or not you return to it with any regularity is another matter.

Hurlstoneís Sonata is also a student work, but itís a more manageable piece, even though it plays for three quarters of the duration of the Dale, and Hurlstone must have been a fine pianist at 18 to be able to play this work. Itís got some Schumann and Brahms in it but the voice is more individual than that of Dale.

Mark Bebbington obviously believes in these works and plays them for all they are worth, taking the difficult writing easily in his stride. Neither is a major piece, but they add to our knowledge of both composers Ė which, in the case of Dale, is almost nothing. This is an important document and is a must for everyone interested in English music, not to mention fabulous pianism. Good recording and excellent notes go to make this a very appealing disk.

Bob Briggs

see also review by John France

Fabulous pianism.