Algernon ASHTON (1859-1937)
Music for Cello and Piano - Volume 1
Arioso Op.43 (publ. 1889) [7:23]
Sonata No.1 in F major Op.6 (publ. 1880) [22:39]
Phantasiestücke Op.12 (publ. 1883) [12:32]
Sonata No.2 in G major Op.75 (1885) [25:41]
Evva Mizerska (cello); Emma Abbate (piano)
rec. Challow Park Studios, Oxfordshire, England, 6-8 December 2011
Here’s a disc I really wanted to like a lot. Algernon Ashton’s life story reads like a musical ‘boy’s own’ adventure. Born the youngest of twelve children, father dies, family moves to Germany, befriended by Clara Schumann, attends soirées together with Moscheles, Rubinstein, Dvorák and Brahms, studies in Leipzig with Reinecke and is a major prize-winner, studies some more with Raff, appointed piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music at 25 just for starters. As well as teaching composes massively; 174 opus numbers including 24 string quartets and 24 piano sonatas both in all the keys. Add at least five symphonies, two concertos, a cantata and songs oh, and a stream of writing to newspapers which resulted in two published anthologies of his writings of over 1100 letters and you get some sense of a man for whom the word ‘productive’ probably means dashing off fifty bars and a letter to the editor before breakfast.
So why is it only now, and thanks yet again to those wonderful resurrectionists at Toccata Classics (acknowledging too a disc of Sonatas on Dutton) that we have a chance to assess his lasting worth. The answer is twofold; sadly most of his manuscript works seem to have been destroyed along with the family house during the Blitz and that which was published – as evidenced here – for all its fluency and competence does not demand or command attention. That said, the positives with this disc are several. As one has grown to expect the production of this Toccata Classics disc is first rate. Excellent musical and technical values backed up by a liner of superb interest written by the ever insightful and dependable Malcolm MacDonald. I have not encountered the playing of either cellist Evva Mizerska or pianist Emma Abbate before. They are an established duo and play with great technical address and skill – indeed I cannot imagine a more convincing case being made for this music. The recording is rather close – but the playing can bear such scrutiny and indeed the transfer of the disc has been made at a high level, not that there are any problems caused by that - simply I was aware of the need to turn my system two or three notches down from my usual listening volume. That being said, the sound is rich and full with Ashton’s complex writing registering clearly and with maximum impact.
Which leaves the music itself; “one of the best kept secrets in British music” states the CD cover of these first recordings. I would beg to differ. If ever there was a case where fluency becomes a curse it must surely be here. The mental image I kept getting was of a tap being turned on or off. Drop into any of the movements here and the emotional temperature is pretty much the same defined by the ‘type’ of movement – 1st movement serious and worked out, 2nd – songlike and lyrical, 3rd – more light-hearted [MacDonald is certainly right – the closing movements are without exception the best]. There seems to be little or no emotional arc within movements let alone works - its Romanticism by the yard. Not once did I feel any real emotional depth or an imperative artistic need to create. Well-crafted, workmanlike and not without appeal but no lost masterpieces. That the second sonata is a considerable improvement on the first there is little doubt with the distribution of musical material and its development far more convincingly handled and shared between the players. This work also contains the most memorable melodies on the disc – I was rather taken by the stand-alone Arioso that opens the CD but that rather outstays its welcome and becomes the victim of its own note-spinning-too-thick-textured-by-half tendency. For those who are curious; this score – together with several others by Ashton - can be viewed on the wonderful IMSLP website – I rather like the tempo marking; Larghetto generoso.
I am the first to applaud this and other labels’ efforts on behalf of forgotten composers. Make no mistake, Ashton writes eminently serviceable music which is perfectly good within its own conservative remit. The problem is he is no more than that. Not every forgotten composer can be unjustly forgotten. In the spirit of fairness I would recommend reading Rutland Boughton’s highly enthusiastic critique of Ashton’s music which can be found elsewhere on this site – here are two quotes; The more modern music I study - German, English, French, Italian, Russian the more assured do I feel that in Algernon Ashton we possess the greatest living composer”
and [referring to the Op.90 Piano Quartet also available to view on IMSLP] What music this Finale is! How the giant rejoices in his strength! This is the music of elemental humanity, exulting in the open, naked to the sun, to the rains and to the snows; shouting, aloud to the heavens, glorifying itself and renewing its glory, - and thus the glory of its first great cause!” Erm, yes – I think Boughton likes it more than me.

Admirers of these artists or indeed those with a compulsive fascination for cello repertoire need not hesitate – this disc serves those parties very well. There seem to be a total of four sonatas so I imagine Volume 2 will complete the set. For the rest, one feels Ashton should be left snoozing away eternity in the great gentleman’s club in the sky contemplating his next epistle to the Heavenly Times.
Nick Barnard
Not every forgotten composer can be unjustly forgotten.
See articles by Harold Truscott and Rutland Boughton; also list of works.