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Benjamin DALE (1885-1943)
Sonata in D minor (1905) [47:48]
William HURLSTONE (1876-1906)
Sonata in F minor (1895) [31:34]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 5-6 January 2006. DDD
SOMM SOMMCD 097 [79:30]

Experience Classicsonline

I have long known that William Hurlstone wrote a Piano Sonata: Katherine Hurlstone mentioned it in her book about her brother, but like many such pieces I imagined that it had disappeared into oblivion. However, four or five years ago, I heard Mark Bebbington play this Sonata at a recital at St. John’s Smith Square. I was bowled over and looked forward to the day when it would be recorded. The other works played at that recital were the present massive Sonata by Benjamin Dale and the well-known masterpiece by Frank Bridge.

Hurlstone has been reasonably well served by the recording industry. Many years ago Lyrita issued the Piano Concerto and the Swedish Variations (SRCS 100/SRCD 2286). A number of years later they surprised many people with the Variations on an Original Theme, Variations on a Hungarian Air and The Magic Mirror Suite (SRCD 208). A number of chamber pieces have also been released, including the Four Characteristic Pieces for clarinet and piano, the sonatas for bassoon and for violin. However it was the Piano Sonata that was my desideratum. And what a great work it turned out to be. If this had been written by a German or a Russian it would be in the repertoire of every pianist in the land. Yet, Mark Bebbington has claimed it for his own and has made himself a powerful advocate of this great romantic work.

William Hurlstone’s Sonata was composed in 1895, when the composer was 19 years old. It is written in the traditional three movements: fast-slow-fast. However, the present recording has the short ‘bridge’ andante between the second and third movements as a separate track

A story that Katherine Hurlstone relates is worth repeating. She writes that ‘Sir Charles Stanford always said that he [Hurlstone] was his best pupil.’ Hurlstone ‘had submitted to the professor a piano sonata, and Sir Charles was so pleased with the work that he called Pauer –the well known pianist, who happened to be at the Royal College of Music at the time, that he might hear it and pass his opinion on its merits. Pauer liked the sonata but thought that it was too much on one key - a view which Stanford did not share. Hurlstone was dismissed to the common room whilst the two professors discussed his efforts in private. Now the threshold of the common room is never crossed by a professor, but on this occasion, Stanford managed to put his head round the door whispering defiantly “Stick to your key, my boy – stick to your key.”

Lisa Hardy has noticed in her book The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 that Hurlstone makes use of cyclic themes, insofar as elements of the first two movements appear in the final allegro vivace. Interestingly she points out that Hurlstone’s Piano Sonata is a ‘showy piece, containing frequent changes of metre, cross-rhythms, extended fast sections in octaves and frequent modulations. It would seem the Pauer was listening to a different piece of music!

It would be easy to write this sonata off as a parody, but this would be unfair. Hurlstone has managed successfully and seamlessly to fuse a variety of styles and moods, including an absorption of Schumann and Brahms. The heart of the work is the very beautiful ‘andante ma non troppo’ with its ‘Chopinesque poetry’ and ‘rapid decorative chromatic scales’.

Finally, it would be helpful if an edition of this Sonata could be published for study purposes. I accept that it is unlikely to be engraved or copied onto Sibelius, but a facsimile of the holograph would be a great asset to English music studies.

In 1992 Peter Jacobs issued a recording of the Benjamin Dale Sonata in D minor on the Continuum label (CCD 1044). It was coupled with Prunella and Night Fancies. This was a great enterprise which introduced British music enthusiasts to one of the greatest and longest examples of the form in the literature.

The Benjamin Dale Sonata is of epic proportions with only those by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji being longer. [Sorabji’s Sonata No.3 is some 83 minutes long!] As Frederic Corder pointed out in the Musical Times, what ‘publisher in his senses would dream of undertaking as a business proposition the production of a Sonata, let alone one of over sixty pages in length and of extreme difficulty, by a totally unknown writer?’ Yet the work was published as a part of the Avison Edition, printed by Breitkopf and Härtel, through the auspices of the Society of British Composers. It was subsequently published by Cary and Co, which later became part of Novello.

The genesis of Dale’s Sonata is interesting. The work was begun in 1902 whilst the composer was studying at the Royal Academy of Music. It was probably written under the tutelage of Frederick Corder. However the Sonata was given to the world in instalments, with the first movement being heard at the Royal Academy of Music on 22 February 1905 by its dedicatee, York Bowen. Jeremy Dibble notes that the work was first played in its entirety on 14 November 1905.

After this, Dale decided to submit the Sonata for a competition. Quoting Arthur Hervey from The Musical Times (1 June 1919): ‘In 1906 the pianist Mark Hambourg offered three prizes of twenty, ten and five guineas each for pianoforte works of a serious character by British composers ... No fewer than sixty compositions were received, and the first prize was awarded to Mr. Benjamin Dale for his ... sonata.’ As a matter of interest the second prize went to Percy Pitt and his Fantasia Appassionato and Miss Emmeline Brook with a Scherzo.

However it was a disaster for Dale. Hambourg gave a truncated performance – only the variations were played and the pianist interpreted these in a cavalier way. The composer was furious and refused to join Hambourg on the stage and even returned the prize money. Jeremy Dibble, in his excellent liner-notes, reports that the work did have a subsequent success, being played by York Bowen, John Tobin, Moura Lympany and Frank Merrick. It was highly regarded by Cyril Scott and Joseph Holbrooke. However, in spite of two pianola rolls of the work, it disappeared from view until the Jacobs recording in 1992.

Dale’s Piano Sonata is usually regarded as an extremely eclectic work. It requires a considerable effort by the listener although its undoubted romantic credentials make it a work that never repels or causes the listener to switch off. The technical challenges of this work are huge. I have studied the score and am amazed at just how involved and complex some of this piano writing is. The form of the work is rather unusual. It is in four movements, or is it only two? The opening ‘allegro deciso’ is fairly standard with some really gorgeous pianism. However the subsequent slow movement, scherzo and finale are all part of a grand set of theme and variations. (Slow Movement: Theme and Variations 1-4, Scherzo: variations 5-7 and the Finale is the long last variation.) Yet the balance and integrity of the work is never in doubt: however it must be a difficult task for the pianist to make the work cohere and to give attention to the constantly changing dynamics and moods.

What does the work actually sound like? Well, Lisa Hardy notes that it is in the tradition of Liszt and his Sonata in B minor. Jeremy Dibble suggests that Dale was “receptive to Brahms and Wagner as well as the Russians such as Rachmaninov and Glazunov. Strauss has also been suggested as an influence. However, I do want to insist that this Sonata is not a pastiche or a set of variations in the style of a composer X, Y and Z. Benjamin Dale has managed to absorb these influences and produce a credible, demanding and ultimately successful tour de force. And let us not forget that he was only 18 or 19 when this work was penned.

I enjoyed this music: it is stunningly played by Mark Bebbington who brings insight and inspiration to this truly gorgeous music – be it the intense dramatic passages or those places where Dale is indulging in ‘heart’s-ease.’ This is truly wonderful and demands our respect and our admiration. It will always reveal something new to us and will never disappoint. It is truly a work of genius. I love every single bar!

I guess that many readers of this review will have their list of ‘priorities’ amongst the many unrecorded piano sonatas. However, I will stick my neck out and mention a few that I hope will attract Mark Bebbington’s attention. Top of my list would be the impressive, if a little immature work, by Leo Livens. The Sonata by Harry Farjeon is certainly worthy of the occasional outing even if it does not appear to be on a par with the present two works. Many people associate Alec Rowley with pedagogical music; however his two piano sonatas are not ‘teaching’ music and deserve revival. And lastly it would be good to have a recording of the unknown quantities of Benjamin Burrows, Lawrence Collingwood and Richard Hall.

Finally, as a matter of interest, Benjamin Dale composed a major orchestral tone poem called The Flowing Tide: it is a work that surely demands to be released on CD.

Meanwhile listeners can enjoy two of the greatest twentieth century British piano sonatas that are stunningly played by Mark Bebbington and are beautifully recorded by Somm. And lastly, listeners should not forget Peter Jacobs’ pioneering recording of the Dale Sonata. I would not want to make a decision between these two recordings and ultimately believe that all enthusiasts of the British Piano Sonata will demand both.

John France



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