Benjamin DALE (1885-1943)
Piano Sonata in D minor (1902-05) [42:08]
Prunella (1923) [2:44]
Night Fancies (1909) [9:01]
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Miniature Suite in C major Op.14 (1904) [11:22]
Danny Driver (piano)
rec. July (Dale) and December (Bowen) 2010, Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA67827 [65:17]

In a finely judged programmatic coup, Benjamin Dale’s big-boned Piano Sonata of 1902-05 is coupled with a work by its dedicatee, York Bowen — the Miniature Suite, written at almost exactly the same time as the Sonata. The two men were fast friends, having met at the Royal Academy of Music. Nor was Bowen the work’s only advocate, as over the years Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer and Benno Moiseiwitsch performed it, as did, from a later generation, Moura Lympany.

This is the third commercial recording of the sonata, to my knowledge. The first was Peter Jacobs’s pioneering Continuum disc [CCD1044], which was recorded in December 1991 and issued the following year. Much more recently Mark Bebbington released his version on Somm [SOMMCD097]. Jacobs’s disc had the same three Dale pieces as Danny Driver performs; Bebbington took another route, coupling the sonata with William Hurlstone’s Sonata in F minor.

Dale’s Sonata is a striking example of confidence unusual in British composers writing for the piano at the time, not least in its 42 or so minute length. All three pianists under discussion however have their own very definite views on the matter. Jacobs is more ‘deciso’ (as marked) than either of his colleagues; harder and more centred of tone, more determined, whereas Driver opens in a much more pliant and almost confidential manner, and Bebbington mines the full romantic and expressive potential of the music. Both he and Driver therefore take time to get going; Jacobs is straight on with the musical argument, a more straightforward pragmatism augmented by his more clinical recording. This leads to a more metrical approach all-round from him. All three deal with the Straussian dance motifs in the first movement, and with the rich chording, and the sometimes lush harmonic writing, as well as the passionate restatement of the opening theme.

Dale’s schema in the work is an opening Allegro deciso followed by a slow movement, scherzo and finale. The same layout applies to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio. In his drier acoustic Jacobs strikes a fine balance between the more macabre elements of the second movement variations and their more glowing extroversion. Driver uses less rubato than Jacobs; Bebbington is the most overtly romantic performer of the three. All manage the Beethoven-to-Romance trajectory of the Andante section [track 10] very adeptly. In the finale it’s Driver who, true to his name, drives through the most coruscatingly. He shaves a minute off Jacobs’ timing for this movement alone and is more incisive than Bebbington too.

We are fortunate to have three such different, and differently impressive, recordings from which to choose. Both Jacobs and Driver, as noted, play Prunella (1923) and Night Fancies (1909). The former is a charming genre piece; true to form Driver gets through it more athletically. Night Fancies evokes Westminster chimes. Driver here is the more impressionistic in his performance, Jacobs, again, the more direct, the less ‘cloudy’ in his pedalling and phrasing. It’s a lovely piece, well worth getting to know.

Bowen’s Miniature Suite offers a pendant to the Dale feast. It’s all light-heart and froth, from the spirited high-jinks of the Humoresque to the virtuosic power-play of the Scherzo finale via a delightful but not-too-serious Nocturne.

There are no qualms about performance or recording. Add this to your British Piano Collection without reservation.

Jonathan Woolf

Add this to your British Piano Collection without reservation.