Armstrong GIBBS (1889–1960)
Complete Works for violin and Piano
Three Pieces (1923) [8:09]
Lyric Sonata Op.63 (1928) [18:48]
Phantasy Op.5 (1915) [8:08]
Sonata No.1 in E (1918) [17:58]
Almayne (1932) [5:27]
Suite Op.101 (1942) [13:40]
Robert Atchison (violin)
Olga Dudnik (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk England 10-11 April 2010
GUILD GMCD 7353 [72:10]
Say the name Armstrong Gibbs - he didn’t like his given first name Cecil - to most even well-informed music-lovers and the only piece you are likely to have mentioned is the slow waltz Dusk. Fair enough, it is a meltingly beautiful piece lifted from a high quality orchestral suite Fancy Dress but this really is just a small part of the picture even within the context of the suite which remains all but unknown. As with many composers burdened with the success of a single work this tells a fraction of the whole story. Recent years have seen gaps in the Gibbs’ recorded oeuvre steadily filled in but the field of his chamber music has remained under-represented. Hence the appearance of this disc containing the complete works for violin and piano is all the more welcome. Particularly when the performers here have a proven track record of commitment to the Armstrong Gibbs cause – they are two-thirds of the London Piano Trio whose recording of the complete trios was well received on this site recently. Violinist Robert Atchison has also been appointed the artistic director of the Armstrong Gibbs Festival in the composer’s home village of Danbury, Essex. So it is probably fair to think that these players know as much as any currently performing about this music.
I have to admit to having rather a soft spot for Armstrong Gibbs’ music although in all honesty I’m not sure I would ever say he is one of the great lost masters of the English Musical Renaissance – there is little of the revelation of the recent Arnell symphonies although much pleasure is to be had. Gibbs’ Third Symphony The Westmorland written in direct response to the tragic loss of his son killed in action during the War contains for me his deepest and most compelling music. Yet much of the rest is marked by real craft and no little melodic gift. These are much in evidence on this disc rising on occasion to moments of considerable musical power and conviction. And conviction is a word that certainly applies to the performances too. Atchison plays with passion and technical security although as recorded the sound he makes is not as purely sweet and lyrical as some players. Pianist Olga Dudnik is fully equal to her role which – excepting the Sonatas – is more of an accompanying rather than equal musical partner. The engineering is good without being as good as some of the Potton Hall recordings I have heard from other sources – personally I would have preferred a fraction more air around the instruments and more weight from the piano. But that is a question of taste not that the recording here lacks anything as such.
The music presented here falls quite neatly into the central third of Gibbs’ life between 1915 and 1942. The disc opens with the Three Pieces from 1923. Robert Atchison supplies a brief but enthusiastic liner-note and is more taken with these simple pieces than I. They belong to that large body or works whose provenance hovers between the salon, the tea room and the music lesson. Their simple picturesque character is reflected in the titles; Gossamer, March Wind and The Silent Pool. In performance I am sure Atchison is absolutely right to choose a style free from any kind of mannered or arch phrasing or musical point-making. However, Gibbs lacks the extraordinary gift of an Elgar to write miniatures which somehow breathe the same air as the greater works. No doubt grateful to play and certainly well crafted they remain very minor examples of their creator’s art. Of the three works the final The Silent Pool is the most distinctive with an appealingly languorous lilt which the players capture with apt simplicity.
Atchison believes the Lyric Sonata Op.63 from 1928 to be the equal of the Walton or Elgar Sonatas. I am not sure that it stands that degree of elevated comparison but for sure it is a delightful and immediately rewarding piece. Singing lyricism is the key. The first movement gradually unfurls to a climax of considerable power before breaking into a more urgent passage. But this mood passes quickly and the singing nature of the movement prevails. In all of the bigger works recorded here the closest resemblance is that of Moeran. It is music that edges towards the chromaticism of Bax without quite the emotional range or turbulent landscape. Conversely, I am sure many listeners will find the simplicity here something of a relief in comparison to Baxian convolutions. The finale in particular has the pounding offbeat dancing feel of a Moeran-style celtic jig. In almost all of these works Gibbs avoids the use of much double-stopping which serves to emphasise the linear style of his writing.
The Phantasy Op.5 which is programmed here to separate the two sonatas is another confident concentrated work. Written in 1915 I assume the title was chosen to reflect the popularity of the ‘several movements in one’ format promoted by the Cobbett Chamber Music prize. Curiously this is the work here that sounds most Elgarian. I say curiously because the phantasy form was one towards which Elgar was never drawn. But Gibbs’ writing – again essentially linear and lyrical has an urgency that recalls the older composer. To the ear alone is sounds basically monothematic but without the development/alteration of the basic material which the term phantasy would strictly imply. Aside from the sonatas this is the boldest most muscular music on this disc. Which brings me to the Sonata in E. Great credit to the performers for unearthing this rare and impressive work. Never published, the manuscript was tracked down to the USA and performing editions were created for this recording - as they were also for the Phantasy, Suite and Almayne. A particular part of the fascination is that this work was written while Gibbs was under the tutelage of Vaughan Williams and the manuscript shows the teacher’s markings and positive comments. But this is far from being a student work and at no point does it become a sycophantic homage to the senior musician. Indeed, it is the work I enjoyed most on the whole disc. The very opening with the piano providing an open chorded ostinato has instant appeal – strangely pre-echoing the very opening of Elgar’s Symphony No.3. The lyrical second subject is on more familiar Gibbsian territory. Gibbs is never a composer who is going to storm the citadels of harmonic modernity. Atchison feels the first movement in particular shows the influence of RVW but I would have to disagree. Aside from the almost modal opening and an occasional folk-song inflection I would say there is nothing of Vaughan Williams here at all. One little mystery, if the work was written in 1918 as the liner states how could it have been under Vaughan Williams’ tutelage since he was still on active service in France and Salonika? Perhaps his help came prior to the 1921 first performance. The central slow movement – Andante molto espressivo – is another fine example of Gibbs’ gift for writing disarmingly simple nature evocations. Again there is an occasional celtic twist to the melodic outline that reminds me of Moeran with some of the keyboard counterpoint sounding like John Ireland in pastoral mood. The emotional range of this movement is not great but in a curious way its deliberate modesty adds to its appeal. Again the performance benefits from a similarly sincere and unmannered approach. The spritely finale is bright eyed and good natured, indeed the whole work seems totally immune to what one assumes must have been a dark prevailing national mood as the Great War lumbered to its close. Perhaps this last movement, the shortest of the three seems too brief and insubstantial to balance the rest of the work and the rhetoric of the very ending; strong piano chords against scalic violin work seems somewhat tacked on and abrupt. But without a doubt this is a work that deserves to be heard and I hope that with the creation of a performing edition it will now be published so that other violinists can add it to their repertoire.
The Almayne which follows again makes virtues of the simple and lyrical. Collectors might well know this through the string orchestra version played by the Guildhall Strings on Hyperion. This works shows as well as any the pure craftsmanship that Gibbs has. He takes a 17th Century English air and subjects it to a series of simple but beautiful variations. Utterly lacking in display or any kind of attention seeking you can’t imagine this appearing in many concert programmes or indeed anywhere except on the lists of the Associated Board. But that would be our loss as this superbly poised performance shows. Indeed this single short piece encapsulates all the virtues of composer, performers and production in a delightful five minutes. A Classic FM work if ever there was.
The form of the baroque dance suite seems to have appealed to composers again and again from Parry to Grieg. Gibbs’ foray into the form follows the accepted pattern; here we have five movements using ‘old’ dance names as titles with the central Slow Tune providing the emotional heart of the work. More melancholy than some of his other slow movements it has to be said that stylistically and harmonically it seems rather at odds with the lighter faux-baroqueries of the outer movements. The work as a whole was written during Gibbs’ wartime sojourn in the Lake District but the year before the personal upheaval of the death of his son so the mood is still relatively sunny. The fourth movement Carol is one final example of this peculiarly English penchant for gently wistful nostalgia. Gibbs is one of the finest exponents of this but there are many other English composers – Alec Rowley and Robin Milford are just two masters of this deceptively simple style – who have yet to be fully explored let alone appreciated. The final Coranto is energetically enjoyable and brings the disc to a happy close even if it lacks the personality of much of the other music presented here.
So a treasure trove for those who enjoy the lyrical English pastoral tradition. A well-filled disc produced with real care and love by all those involved – right down to a beautiful watercolour of Danbury - Gibbs’ long-time home and final resting-place - on the cover. As mentioned above there is much other English music for violin and piano out there waiting to be rediscovered and reassessed. On the strength of this disc the duo of Robert Atchison and Olga Dudnik would prove to be insightful and reliable guides – more please.
So a treasure trove for those who enjoy the lyrical English pastoral tradition.