Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)
The Complete Piano Music
Three Studies Op.4 (1901-1909) [6:13]
Three Pieces Op.16 (1909-1915) [11:46]
Two Impressions Op.19 (1914/1919) [7:14]
Four Country Pieces Op.27 (1923) [8:21]
Suite: Where the Rainbow Ends (1911) [13:26]
David Owen Norris (piano)
rec. The Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton University, Southampton, England, 14-15 February and 31 August 2004
complete track-list at end of reviews
EM RECORDS EMR CD002 [47:00]
This is the second disc released under the imprimatur of the English Music Festival. Pianist David Owen Norris has been a stalwart of the Festival since its inception in 2006 and his evident commitment to the cause of English music in general and Roger Quilter in this instance is clearly displayed. One little curio; the disc was recorded two years before the first festival and as far as I am aware this is its first release – since the recording venue was the university where Norris is professor of Musical Performance perhaps this was a pet project squirreled away awaiting a sympathetic distributor.
Any reputation that Quilter does enjoy tends to be based almost solely on his songs. Only the suite from Where the Rainbow Ends here claims to be a world premiere recording but certainly it is invaluable for the bulk - if not the ‘complete’ as the disc is titled - of Quilter’s piano works to be gathered in one place and so well performed. Norris contributes an excellent essay to the liner titled “playing Quilter” which deals with the specific sound-world and technical aspect of the composer’s work. Certainly one is immediately struck by the craft that has been lavished on these small pieces – it brings to mind a phrase I read once elsewhere: miniature not trivial. Once you accept that the scale and emotional remit of these works is deliberately small there is enormous pleasure to be had in them. The music breaks down into two simple types – collections of impressionistic or absolute music written for the piano and movements transcribed from incidental or orchestral music. Both types are characterised by a charming easy lyricism and no little skill in writing adeptly for the keyboard. The earliest work is the Three Studies Op.4 written between 1901-1909. The half-dozen or so years before World War I seem to have been some of Quilter’s most productive since the Three Pieces Op.16, the first of the Two Impressions Op.19 and the original version of the incidental music for Where the Rainbow Ends all date from this time too. The latest music here – the Four Country Pieces Op.27 although post-war, breathes the same innocent air and can be heard in its orchestral garb on the Marco Polo disc (8.223444) devoted to Quilter. A couple of general thoughts start to nag away. The liner cover is a reproduction of a lovely painting of an Edwardian picnic by Wilfrid de Glehn featuring a reclining Quilter in the foreground surrounded by books. This surely encapsulates the upper-middle class idyll of Edwardian society. Combine that with the escapist innocence of the incidental music for children’s plays and you cannot help feeling that Quilter was emotionally locked into an earlier and presumably happier age. Not that there is anything wrong with that except that it rather defines and limits the range of his music. The longest single work recorded here is possibly the finest too – Summer Evening is No.2 in the set of Three Pieces Op.16. This is a delightful tone-poem with a hazy sunset and lingering birdsong evoked to perfection. Here it is possible to detect the clearest influences on Quilter’s keyboard writing which is not that of the English pastoralists or folksong one might expect but instead Debussy and Grieg - the trolls in Grieg’s Lyric Pieces sound like first cousins to Quilter’s Goblins. By some distance this is also the piece with the deepest felt emotion. Elsewhere, as in Rosamund or Moonlight on the Lake Quilter can write with a real melodic gift and considerable tonal beauty but this aspect of the work reveals a profounder sensibility. Indeed as a set the Op.16 pieces are probably the strongest group – Norris included it in a recital for the English Music Festival in 2009 together with the early Op.4 works. Lanterns from the Op.19 Two Impressions is full of interest too – dedicated to Percy Grainger it has an energy and flamboyance that is very compelling. Much as I enjoyed this disc I could not rid myself ultimately of the sense that for all the craft and skill on display other English composers of the time wrote for the piano more challengingly and on a far broader emotional canvas.
The pluses are a lovingly produced disc with good engineering supporting Norris’s superbly executed, passionate and insightful advocacy. His chosen instrument – a Bösendorfer – sounds magnificent and suits the music ideally. Two linked issues I do have – playing time is positively mean running to just 47 minutes. No doubt the defence is that this is “the complete piano music” and you cannot play more than there is. But even a cursory trawl through the published catalogue shows that it is not. Norris, as mentioned, plays a suite from the incidental music to Where the Rainbow Ends. Dr Valerie Langfield in her liner alludes to the fact that this music was published in various guises. My piano copy published by Elkin in 1912 titled “Music from the Fairy Play” includes six movements not included here. Obviously Quilter reworked the material for the recorded suite since Rosamund and Will-o’ the Wisp are identical - except for a tiny final coda in the former. Norris’s Goblin Forest incorporates material in the complete incidental music called The Dragon Forest. In Moonlight on the Lake Norris uses Grainger’s performing edition. This is a gorgeous movement but again I feel the ‘spare’ room on the disc could usefully have allowed the original and the Grainger version to sit side by side. As it currently stands the movement is audibly more lush than the appealingly chaste simplicity of the other music around it – fascinating to hear but ultimately not authentic Quilter. Nothing in the incidental music score says whether this is arranged by the composer or not but the fact that it is identical to the suite would imply that it was. Some of the movements are clearly occasional, indeed simple, but I’m sure a pianist of Norris’s stature could have mined beauties from them. Collectors will be familiar with some of the ‘missing’ movements since they appeared in the orchestral version of the suite on Marco Polo’s British Light Music Series (not the finest disc in that set by any means) or the finer by far EMI/Hickox version that has variously appeared as A Quilter Compendium or originally as part of a 1989 English Miniatures disc (EMI Classics CDC 7 49933 2). Add to this ‘missing’ material from other incidental music available in piano transcriptions (A Slumber Song and St. George are excerpted on the back of the piano score of Rainbow Ends) as are – apparently – the Op.11 English Dances and it becomes clear that this is in no way the complete piano music. I have not heard the other available recording from Clipper Erickson which can still be downloaded from Amazon and elsewhere. He chose to record only the original piano works as part of a Quilter/Cyril Scott recital. Norris’s choice to record some but not all of the incidental music-sourced material seems inconsistent especially given its inherent beauty. Perhaps I am wrong to be frustrated by something that is ultimately no more than a promotional title but I wonder if this disc would have been better served by recreating in part at least the 2009 concert programme Norris gave which featured this music. Certainly I would have enjoyed hearing it juxtaposed against Bax and Lambert Sonatas or perhaps more tellingly the Moeran miniature that was featured. By no means trivial, my own particular jury is still debating how much more than simply charming this music is.
And a second review of this disc … this time by Rob Barnett
The Spirit of England – the rubric of EM Records – is a capaciously catholic and accommodating church. That much is apparent from the off in this collection of evocative piano music from a figure usually bracketed in a rather miscellaneous fashion with Scott and Grainger. That grouping reflects their joint studying years with Iwan Knorr in Frankfurt.
The music here is suave, lovingly polished and weighted, surefooted and not short on sentiment. Unsurprisingly the early Three Studies content themselves – and us - with a variety of manners predominantly Brahms but a dusting of Rachmaninov. They are all very enjoyable but the Molto Allegro amabile is a real lissom delight. Dance in the Twilight – a title also beloved of Bax - is rather salony in a heart-warming way but is followed by a Delian-nuanced Summer Evening and a bluff and genial At a Country Fair. The latter shares the same lively country optimism as Lanterns, Goblins and Pipe & Tabor. The hum of In a Gondola recalls the harmonic world of the instrumental start of RVW’s setting of Bredon Hill yet lovingly accedes to the magnetic pull of Grez-sur-Loing. Forest Lullaby shares a similar mien. Shepherd Song and Rosamund touch on Warlock’s most direct pastoral idylls such as the piano line in the song My Own Country. The four movement suite from the incidental music to Where the Rainbow Ends includes a touching, even Grainger-lachrymose, Rosamund, a swirling sanguine Will-o’-the Wisp that might have been written for a piano-roll, a rather Viennese-accented Goblin Forest, the placid salon-weighted magic of Moonlight on the Lake and a final sprightly yet unrushed Fairy Revels.
Everything presented here is done with élan in every aspect. The performances are accomplished and impart a depth of passion. The piano sounds well whether loud or quiet. The extensive English-only essay is by Dr Valerie Langfield – the authority on Quilter. Dr Langfield’s definitive book on the life and music is published by Boydell & Brewer and reviewed here. Her website is well worth visiting as a complement to the fleetingly brief delight of this music.
EM Records is a facet of the Em Marshall-Luck’s English Music Festival and already has a more than promising catalogue. This is soon to expand with Holst’s music for The Coming of Christ. The other entries involve two English violin/viola sonata discs one of which we have reviewed here. The other also presents recording premieres: the original version of the Holbrooke Second Violin Sonata (the revised version is on Naxos) and the epic Bantock Viola Sonata.
There are other and more celebrated facets to Quilter’s music but this one should not be overlooked. This disc is a distinctive and always intensely pleasing presence among compendiums of English piano music of the last century.
Suave, lovingly polished and weighted, surefooted and not short on sentiment.
Three Studies Op.4 (1. Molto Allegro con moto [2.37]; 2. Molto Allegro amabile [1.10]; 3. Vivace misterioso [2.26])
Three Pieces Op.16 (4. Dance in the Twilight [2.26]; 5. Summer Evening [5.07]; 6.. At a Country Fair [4.13])
Two Impressions Op.19 (7. In a Gondola [4.38]; 8. Lanterns [2.36])
Four Country Pieces Op.27 (9. Shepherd Song [2:47]; 10. Goblins [1:35]; 11. Forest Lullaby [2:22]; 12. Pipe and Tabor [1:37])
Suite from Where the Rainbow Ends (13. Rosamund & Will-o' the Wisp [3.59]; 14. Goblin Forest [4.02]; 15. Moonlight on the Lake [2.20]; 16. Fairy Revels [3.05])