English Piano Music
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Preludes for Piano (1919-20) [17:08]
Nocturne in B (1909) [6:26]
Nocturne in A flat (1908) [6:01]
Revery (1909) [3:38]
To E.M.H. – a birthday present from Ivor (1918) [2:48]
A Picture (1909) [2:46]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Concert Allegro (1901-1906) [10:23]
Skizze (1903) [1:09]
In Smyrna (1905) [4:49]
Adieu (pub.1932) [2:40]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Three Pieces, Op.14 (Rhapsody, Jackanapes, Procession) (1909) [19:07]
Alan Gravill (piano) Jeremy Filsell (piano, Howells)
rec. July 1990 (Gurney, Elgar), 1994 (Howells)
DAL SEGNO DSPRCD059 [76:55]
I must admit that I was a little bit disappointed on receiving
this CD. I imagined that I was expecting a brand new recording
of these works. Yet a quick rummage in the CD cabinet soon revealed
the truth. This is effectively a re-release of the ‘old’ Gamut
disc (GAMCD516) from 1990. To be fair, there are three extra
works added to the track listing; more about them later.
A large portion of this CD is taken up with Ivor Gurney’s
remarkable ‘Preludes’ for piano. However, the ‘rewritten’ sleeve-notes
are a wee bit misleading. Tim Grocutt writes that ‘... nine
of the piano works featured here have been realised from Gurney’s
unpublished manuscripts ... it is likely that the only performances
of these works hitherto were given by Gurney and his friends.’
This statement appears on face value to ignore the fact that
in 2004 Mark Bebbington recorded 11 of the 14 Gurney pieces
presented on this present CD. One can only assume that these
‘revised’ sleeve-notes predate this time. Furthermore, Bebbington
has recorded the ‘2nd’ version of the Prelude in
D major: Alan Gravill has chosen not to do so. There is, then,
some confusion as to what musical ‘text’ has been used for this
performance. The Preludes are played in the same order as the
album published by Thames in 2003; however, Gravill’s realisation
predates these by 13 years. So are there two ‘realisations’
in existence? In all there are some 15 preludes cited in The
Ivor Gurney Society Catalogue of the composer’s music (published
in Volume 12, 2006). So there are still six to go - in various
states of editing.
I have always regarded these Preludes as nodding toward Scriabin
– not so much in their sound world, but more in the general
mood and feel. There is a certain ambiguity in these outwardly
straightforward pieces that seems to match the composer’s mental
health at the time of composition. This is not the forum to
discuss the pros and cons as to whether Ivor Gurney suffered
from shell-shock or was bi-polar. Nevertheless it is useful
to quote Michael Hurd – [These Preludes] exhibit many of the
stylistic characteristics ... that are integral to the uniqueness
of his vision – the rapid rate of harmonic change, the subtle
telescoping of phrases and the unexpected rhythmic dislocations,
all of which find parallels in what Edmund Blunden so aptly
described as the ‘gnarled’ style of his poetry.’
Although superficially these Preludes have an easily approachable
style, that often nods to Fauré, there is often something unsettling
about them. It is as if his mind never quite focused on their
musical integrity and consistency.
The earliest pieces by Gurney are the two Nocturnes dating from
1908-09. Michael Hurd has written that in these ‘we can see
the young composer learning his craft by way of the composers
he admires - Grieg, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann
...’ there is no way that these are major contributions to the
British musical scene: there is little to suggest the musical
style of the songs of the later Gurney. Yet they have an almost
naive attraction that is both satisfying and enjoyable.
The three minor works also date from before the Great War. These
are definitely ‘salon’ pieces with no pretension to being great
works of art. Yet even here we are conscious of Ivor Gurney’s
remarkable ability to paint the Gloucestershire landscape in
musical terms. Certainly the Revery could have been imagined
on Chosen Hill looking across the Severn Plain. It is a lovely
well-stated miniature that combines mood and beauty. To E.M.H
is a fine little number that rollicks along: there is nothing
reflective or introverted here. The liner-notes may have chosen
to explain that the initials stood for Emily M. Hunt who was
a musician and one of Gurney’s many female friends. A Picture
is once again ‘landscape oriented’ – although there are darker
hues here. Yet it is a beautiful evocation of some imagined
place in the ‘Western Playland’ (also the title of one of his
Housman cycles for male voice and ensemble). It would have been
useful if the dates of these pieces had been given in the liner-notes.
Edward Elgar is not well-known for his piano music. Nevertheless,
the four works presented here are miniature masterpieces in
their own right. The Adieu is possibly an early piece
that had to wait until 1932 before being published. Mendelssohn’s
sequence of Songs without Words is never far away although
occasionally there is an unmistakable Elgarian fingerprint –
especially in the middle section.
Skizze was composed in 1901 and owes more to Robert Schumann
than anyone else. It has been described as being elusive or
fugitive – it is one of those short pieces that cannot really
be tied down. It is over and done with before the listener can
decide what is happening and in which direction the piece is
In Smyrna was written after the composer had spent two
weeks cruising in the Mediterranean aboard H.M.S. Surprise.
The music was apparently worked out on the ship’s piano! For
the curious, the town of Smyrna is now called Izmir in Turkey.
The opening is evocative of the heat and shimmer of the hot
Southern climate, yet the second half of the work is typically
Elgarian. Perhaps he was missing the English countryside?
The major work by Elgar is the massive Concert Allegro which
was written for the pianist Fanny Davies in 1901 - and subsequently
revised. It is the only piano work that Elgar regarded as being
designed for use in the recital room as opposed to the salon.
Some of it leaves me absolutely cold, yet there are moments
of sheer delight that raise the spirit and ease the heart.
The three ‘new’ or additional works on this re-released CD are
from pen of Herbert Howells, who is also not usually
associated with solo piano pieces. This is in spite of the fact
that he wrote two worthy concertos for that instrument. The
Three Pieces were composed just prior to the Great War
and are to a certain extent quite unique in Howells catalogue.
Tim Grocutt rightly points out that compared to the highly romantic
chamber works being written by Howells at this time, this music
is bleak and sometimes desolate. What is more, these works are
not ‘salon’ pieces in any sense of the term. They are well-developed,
highly structured music that explores a wide range of emotion.
The first of the three works is the Rhapsody which is a romantic
work that exploits that darker side of lyricism. It is possible
to hear echoes of Rachmaninov and Arnold Bax. But this is not
music that wears its heart on its sleeve. It is not restful
and it makes the listener uneasy. Jackanapes is another
case in point: this is almost Stravinskian in its sound-world.
It is ostensibly a ‘scherzo, but as the sleeve-notes state,
it has a hysterical (not funny) edge to it. The middle ‘trio’
section is anything but a ‘joke’. The final piece, Procession
was the result of a dream that Howells had after reading Dostoevsky.
He dreamt that a large crowd approached him and overwhelmed
him. The bells from the steeples peal wildly before the crowd
disperses and the composer is left alone. Once again this is
an aggressive work that is a million miles away from any pastoral
imaginings that the listener may have constructed around the
composer’s reputation. These are exceptionally well played by
Jeremy Filsell. I understand that this work was originally released
on another Gamut CD (GAMCD541) which was later re-issued by
Guild on GMCD7119. Its companions there were: Howells’ Sonatina
and a selection of the piano works of Bernard Stevens: Fantasia
on 'Giles Farnaby's Dreame'. Sonata in one movement Op.25
and Aria. The main competition for the Howells piano
music is on Chandos: 70 minutes of Howells’ solo piano music
recorded by Margaret Fingerhut (CHAN9273, issued 1994).
I guess the main disappointment for me with this CD is the liner-notes.
They lack depth and are certainly a little out of date - see
note above about Mark Bebbington. As far as I can see there
are no details - apart from a brief mention - about the Nocturnes
and the other minor pieces. He disposes of the Preludes in less
than 200 words. Interestingly Dal Segno chose to provide ‘new’
liner-notes. The original text for the Gamut release by Michael
Hurd was excellent.
However, this is a welcome CD that will sit alongside the roughly
recording - that disc also includes the bulk of Howard Ferguson’s
works for piano. The three short pieces, Revery, A
Picture and To E.M.H. are not available elsewhere.
As to choosing between the several recordings of the works of
Gurney, Elgar and Howells it is more difficult to determine.
I would suggest that most enthusiasts of British music will
want to own all the versions of these piano pieces. Nevertheless
Alan Gravill and Jeremy Filsell play these works with commitment
and sensitivity. It is a great (re)addition to the catalogues.