As a fellow Glaswegian, I feel that I ought to know more about
James Friskin. Apart from the fact that he was born in the same
city as myself, wrote a number of works for Cobbett’s chamber
music competitions and was married (eventually) to the composer
Rebecca Clarke, I know very little.
Some additional biographical information may be of interest
to potential listeners. James Friskin was born in Glasgow on
3 March 1886. At the early age of fourteen, he won a scholarship
to the Royal College of Music to study piano with Edward Dannreuther
and composition with Stanford. He taught at the Royal Normal
School for the Blind between 1909 and the outbreak of the Great
War. In 1914 he was invited by Frank Damrosch to become a ‘founding
teacher’ at the Institute of Musical Art in New York. This was
the forerunner of the Juilliard School of Music. He furthered
his career as a pianist, specialising in Bach: he gave the first
performance of the Goldberg Variations in the United States.
Friskin published two important books – The Principles of
Piano Practice (1921) and Music for the Piano: a Handbook
of Concert and Teaching Material from 1580 to 1952 (1954).
There was also a critical edition of Bach’s music. In his seventies,
he made a number of recordings of Bach’s music that has been
released on CD in recent years. From
a compositional point of view, the corpus is relatively small:
most of the surviving works for piano, singers and chamber groups.
There are also a Piano concerto and a Concert Overture for orchestra.
James Friskin died in New York on 16 March 1967.
Stylistically, Friskin’s chamber works fit into the general
sweep of Western classical music. I was often reminded of Schubert
whilst reviewing this CD. Certainly, there is not a general
reliance on ‘pastoral musings’ or ‘heuchter-cheuchter’ Scottisms
– in spite of the Scottish character of the main tunes in the
‘scherzo’ and ‘adagio’ of the C minor Quintet.
One of the great-unsung heroes of British chamber music is Walter
Wilson Cobbett (1847-1937). Fortunately, he is now becoming
more appreciated as many of the works inspired by his competitions
and commissions are finding their way into the recording studios.
Friskin’s achievement in these competitions was excellent. In
1905 he was a runner-up with his Phantasie for String Quartet.
However, in 1907 he gained second prize with the Phantasie Trio,
which is available on CD
BMS 418. Frank Bridge won first prize and John Ireland came
third. Interestingly, Cobbett himself in his massive Cyclopaedic
Survey of Chamber Music places Friskin third! In
1910, Cobbett commissioned a number of works from leading British
composers. This included B Walton O’Donnell’s Cello Sonata and
Bridge’s Piano Quartet. Friskin produced his Piano Quintet which
is heard on this present recording.
The opening work on this CD is the almost ‘symphonic’ Quintet
in C minor (1907). This massive work, lasting for more than
half an hour has four movements. Thomas Dunhill (and not Cobbett
as the notes suggest) described the Quintet as ‘one of the most
brilliant Opus Ones in existence’. The liner-notes point out
that it was composed after just two years study with Stanford.
This sweeping, romantic work exploits the full range of possibilities
offered by this chamber grouping. This is indeed, big music.
The principal subject of the first movement acts as a kind of
motto theme that runs through the entire work. Ideas follow
each other in a profusion of melody that eventually leads to
the first movement’s quiet ending. As noted above, the ‘scherzo’
makes use of a Scottish popular song (I confess to not knowing
which one); according to the liner-notes, this passage scandalised
Stanford. Yet it is a strong movement that is full of energy
and interest. The following adagio also has a Scottish flavour
to it without descending to the mawkish or trite. In fact, this
truly gorgeous music paints a picture of Scotland in the listener’s
mind seldom achieved by any composer of Scottish or any other
nationality. The final movement is a treasure. It is prefaced
by a slow introduction before opening out into an expansive
movement. I guess it is here that I am most conscious of Schubert’s
E flat major Trio. There is much excitement with contrasting
reflective episodes to keep the listener’s attention from the
first bar to the last. The optimistic concluding coda is hugely
The Phantas(y)[ie] for String Quartet was composed in 1905 and
not 1909 as the liner-notes suggest. It was an entry for the
Cobbett competition of that year (See Musical News
July 1906 p.19). The genre was one specially devised by Cobbett,
designed to revive the Elizabethan Fancy, which was deemed a
composition of relatively free construction, and lasting between
12 and 20 minutes. It is a form taken up by many composers in
the first three decades of the twentieth century. Examples are
extant from the pens of composers as diverse as Britten, Holbrooke,
Vaughan Williams and Arnold Bax. Less obvious names include
H Waldo Warner, Susan Spain-Dunk and Haydn Wood.
It work opens with a ‘jaunty’ theme, which declares ‘youthful
high spirits’. This Presto section is full of humour and wit
and reveals superb craftsmanship at every turn. The main theme
of the ‘adagio’ has been described as ‘frankly and freely obvious’
however this does not detract from the quality of the music.
There is a will o’ the wisp central section that is full of
trills and shakes before the rather charming tune returns played
on the viola. The final section is march-like which features
strong syncopation and a well marked rhythm. The ‘trio’ of this
march surely recalls the music from the adagio. The work closes
with a long coda. Of all the pieces on this CD this is the one
that attracted me most. A well-crafted, musically interesting
work that is at times moving and always enjoyable.
The beautiful Elegy for viola and piano (1912) is well-wrought.
Christopher Wellington writing in the liner-notes suggests that
he has ‘a strong impression that this piece embodies (Friskin’s)
feeling for the beautiful Rebecca (Clarke)’. This seems a reasonable
guess when one considers that her instrument was the viola and
his was the piano. However, the elegy is actually a little more
profound than love’s young dream. There is passion; there is
violence and a number of tentative explorations that never resolve.
If this work had been written a few years later, it could have
been seen as a kind of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, without sinking
into abject depression or despair. This Elegy is meditative,
reflective and ultimately beautiful: it ought to be in the repertoire
of all violists. As for the playing, I am not convinced that
it is being heard at its best. Something seems a wee bit amiss
with the balance between piano and soloist: the tone of the
viola tends to lack the sheer romantic quality required.
The final work on this CD is the above-mentioned commission
(not mentioned in the notes) – the Phantasy (1910) for Piano
Quintet. It opens with a mournful passage for solo viola, which
is interrupted by a sharp chord, before being joined by the
other strings. Soon the mood changes and the entire ensemble
launches into the impassioned and occasionally aggressive ‘allegro’.
The mood then changes once again for the lively ‘presto’. Yet,
the heart of this work is the central ‘poco adagio’ which is
at times heart-rendingly beautiful. The inverted arch form of
this piece then progresses to an ‘allegro con fuoco’. This big
passionate music occasionally reverts to a quieter, more tranquil
mood. However the intensity returns before leading to a gloriously
expansive and finally optimistic coda.
Christopher Wellington is correct in noting that ‘although this
‘Phantasy’ is only half the length of his C minor Piano Quintet,
Friskin has filled it with incident and contrast.’ It never
sags or causes loss of interest. It is a work that will surely
move the listener, as the composer marks out his musical journey.
There is a good analysis of each of these pieces placing them
in the liner-notes. The playing by the Rasumovsky just does
not seem to ‘gel’ in my mind although there is a genuine sympathy
with the music. Whether they are ultimately the best advocates
for this unjustly neglected repertoire I am not too sure. Nonetheless,
I was particularly impressed by the pianist Catherine Dubois’s
As with so many composers, much of Friskin’s music would appear
to be in manuscript – assuming that it is still extant. This
no doubt will put off artists resurrecting his music. However,
based on the music presented on this CD, I am convinced that
the search for other ‘lost’ works will be well worth the effort.
James Friskin is no ‘forgotten genius’: his essays are never
going to usurp the chamber works of Frank Bridge and John Ireland.
However, he is a worthy and often inspired voice that demands
to be heard as a part of the re-evaluation of the so-called
English (British) Musical Renaissance.
see also review
by Michael Cookson