An Englishman in Italy: British Piano Music inspired by Italy
Francis BACHE (1833-1858) Souvenirs d'Italie, op.19 [40:23]
William WALLACE (1814-1865) La Gondola - Souvenir de Venise (Nocturne) [4:08]; Ange sì Pur - Romance de "La Favorite", transcribed [4:33]; Fantasia de Salon sur Motifs de Lucrezia Borgia [4:42]
Sydney SMITH (1839-1859) I Pifferari - Musette Moderne, op.183 [3:14]; Siesta - Reverie, op.180 [5:52]; Sérénade Vénitienne, op.201 [7:11]; Danse Napolitaine - Morceau de Concert, op.33 [3:48]
William WOLSTENHOLME (1865-1931) Venice [2:52]
Arthur SOMERVELL (1863-1937) Tarantella in A minor [1:16]
Maude WHITE (1855-1937) From the Ionian Sea - Four Sketches [11:04]
Edward GERMAN (1862-1936) Tarantella [2:49]
Harry FARJEON (1878-1948) Three Venetian Idylls, op.20 [10:59]; Barcarolle [4:25]; *Two Italian Sketches [4:51]
Frank MERRICK (1886-1981) Tarantella, op.5 [4:05]
Ernest Markham LEE (1874-1956) Nights in Venice [10:21]
Eaton FANING (1850-1927) Sorrento - Danza in modo di Tarantella [4:02]
Henry GEEHL (1881-1961) The Bay of Naples - Italian Suite [11:01]
Ronald SWAFFIELD (1889-1962) Rapallo [3:22]
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970) Tarantula [1:45]
Christopher Howell (piano) with Ermanno de Stefani (piano II)
rec. Studio ‘L’Eremo’ Lessona, Italy April- July 2011 and 14 January 2012. DDD
SHEVA COLLECTION SH056 [76:43 + 70:04]
The significance of this set is way beyond what a brief perusal of the track-listings would suggest. I imagine that to most non-specialist listeners the names of the composers will be just that: names. A few enthusiasts of British music may well have come across the relatively recent Hyperion disc of Francis Edward Bache’s fine Piano Concerto or the English Piano Trio’s reading of the same composer’s eponymous work. Organists will have heard of William Wolstenholme. Nearly everyone will know Edward German, even if it is only the fact that he wrote an opera called Merrie England. Other names may have been glimpsed in piles of music on sale in second-hand music shops. However, it is the generally unknown quantities of most of the composers and virtually all of the musical works presented that makes this a special - and exciting - recording.
All recitalists are aware of their market. Some may be able to play exactly what they want to play. Generally, they will have to choose repertoire that is likely to appeal to the widest possible range of concertgoers. This means that most programmes of music are made up of the so-called ‘greats’. I guess few recitals will pass muster unless there is a smattering of Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov and Debussy. Naturally, there will be many concerts featuring the sonatas of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. However, these are often very limited in their explorations. Certain ‘popular’ works are heard with wearying regularity. Evenings devoted to Bach, Haydn and Schumann tend to be largely predictable in their repertoire. Sometimes there are surveys of uncharted territory but these are often balanced by ‘warhorses’. Yet, when pianists turn to British music for their recitals the range of repertoire is even more limited. One may include the John Ireland and Frank Bridge Sonatas and that is about it. Rarely are there miniatures, tone pictures or suites heard from these composers or from their less-well-known compatriots. What is extremely unusual is to have an extensive recital of British piano music garnered from the breadth of English piano music repertoire, including composers who are largely forgotten – or were never really known in the first place. This CD sets out to remedy this omission.
In the early nineteenth century, travel became a more realistic proposition for tourists to explore the sights and sounds of Europe and even further afield. This coincided with a revived appreciation of ‘the picturesque value of the former classical world’. There were large numbers of artists, writers, historians and the downright curious who chose to make their way to Italy and to Greece. The reader may think of Lord Byron, Robert Browning, J.M.W. Turner, John Henry Newman and John Ruskin. In later years novelists such as E.M. Forester, D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley were ‘intrigued by the clash of civilisations that tended to accompany the British tourist as he (or she) roamed the Italian cities and countryside’. Naturally, this freedom was only available to certain groups of people. Most folk still did not travel further than Hampstead Heath or Heaton Park for their unwaged holidays.
Christopher Howell believes that it would have been good to find a musical counterpart to these Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian tourists. Alas there is no evidence that this is the case. For example, there is no equivalent of Franz Liszt’s magisterial Années de Pèlerinage. However, we do know that Elgar visited Italy, Parry the South of France and Arthur Sullivan travelled extensively in Europe. Yet, amongst the pages of forgotten and yellowing scores, there are many works that have taken Italy as their inspiration. Whether the composer ever actually visited the country or got no further than a café-bar in Soho is largely irrelevant. It is the impression on the listener that is the most important factor. For this recording Christopher Howell has explored a huge range of music to find this collection of ‘genre pieces.’
The major work on this double-CD set is Francis Edward Bache’s impressive cycle of music entitled Souvenirs d’Italie. This is the nearest that any composer on these CDs has come to emulating the Liszt master-work referred to above – at least in concept if not quite in technical and emotional achievement. This collection of eight pieces is worthy of both composer and pianist. The various numbers are certainly ‘conservative’ in their musical language – looking towards Mendelssohn and John Field. Liszt and Chopin are also present in these pages. The other influences that Howell notes - Steibelt, Dussek and Woelfl - may suggest that Bache is writing pastiche. Yet this would be a wrong assumption. This is a successful collection of pieces that is wholly self-consistent. It is a work that I would like to spend more time listening to and studying. Finally, I do hope that Christopher Howell may one day choose to record Bache’s ‘companion’ piece to this suite – the evocatively titled Souvenirs de Torquay.
The composer William Vincent Wallace is in this compilation by default. He was born in Waterford, Ireland in 1814 and died in Château de Bagen, Sauveterre de Comminges, near Barbazon, Haute Garonne, France. For much of his life he travelled the world giving recitals composing music and generally having adventures. He latterly became (?) an American citizen. Wallace is probably best known for his opera Maritana (1845). Two of the three works presented here are transcriptions of operatic numbers. The first is based on Gaetano Donizetti’ aria ‘Ange si pur’ from La Favourite. The second is the exciting Fantasia de Salon sur Motifs de Lucrezia Borgia by the same composer. Both works pass the ‘Liszt’ test, as Howell has called it: if you did not know the source of the music, you would hardly guess the source from which it was derived. Each is a worthy piece of music even when divorced from its context. The first piece by Wallace is the La Gondola: Souvenir de Venise (Nocturne) with the inevitable ‘water’ lapping at the sides of this ever so stereotypical mode of transport. However it is a well-wrought piece.
Edward Sydney Smith (1839-1889) is known, where at all, for his huge contribution to so-called salon music in the mid-1800s. I first came across his invariably difficult music in the Star Folio Series of Piano Music. I could not play these pieces then and am still beaten by them today. His music is highly technical, if clichéd, using a variety of pianistic devices that owe much to Liszt and Chopin. The four works presented here are typical of his art. They are all musically effective and largely enjoyable. It is a pity that so little of his music is available on CD. Perhaps the most impressive is the short Morceau de Concert-Danse Napolitaine. However, I did especially enjoy the romantic Siesta-Reverie.
The first CD closes with a very short piano duet by William Wolstenholme (1865-1931): the ‘lilting’ and wistful waltz ‘Venice’ is a pure delight.
Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) has been revived to a certain extent in recent years. His Violin Concerto was an important discovery from a few years ago. Hyperion recently released his excellent Piano Concerto in A minor and the concerted Normandy Variations. The Symphony Thalassa has recently been released on Cameo Classics (CC9034CD). The present work is a tiny Tarantella, which is such a typically Italian dance. It has a largely classical rather than a romantic or ‘modern’ mood.
Maude Valerie White (1863-1937) is the only English-woman in Italy presented here. Her four sketches From the Ionian Sea is a fascinating discovery. The first two pieces, a Pastorale and a ‘Canzone di Taormina’ are [possibly] based on Sicilian folk-tunes, whilst the Tarantella is original. The final piece, ‘Land of the Almond Blossom’ is dedicated to HRH The Prince of Wales – who was later Edward VIII. It is a lovely romantic little number. The entire set of sketches is well-crafted and is a pleasure to hear.
Edward German’s ‘Tarantella’ is a fine example of this genre. It is quite romantic and definitely Italian in its sound-world. In fact Christopher Howell has suggested that ‘the introduction provides an uncanny presage of young Italians revving up their motorbikes while waiting on the traffic lights to change.’
Relatively little is known about composer and pianist Frank Merrick (1886-1981). However, based on his thrilling ‘Tarantella’ - yet another example of this infectious dance - I believe that he deserves further exploration. (See Editor’s note below).
Ernest Markham Lee is one of those composers, who like Alec Rowley, Felix Swinstead and Thomas Dunhill, the aspiring pianist used to come across in their ‘grades.’ Even today, it is not surprising to find their music on sale in second-hand bookshops. Lee’s music often had picturesque titles that did not always live up to their name. The present offering of Nights in Venice is a comely work that is certainly not ‘virtuosic’ yet neither is it trite. The opening ‘Southern Skies – Nocturne’ is for me the highlight of this Suite. ‘Carnival’ balances the dichotomy between the gay and the sinister aspects of this great Venetian festival. The finale, ‘On the Lagoon’ is Oh so very short. This is beautiful music. On a serious note, Markham Lee’s son had been killed in action in Italy during the Great War – so there may well be hidden depths behind the seeming light music mood of much of this music.
Many years ago I bought a second-hand copy of Eaton Faning’s fine Sorrento - Danza in modo di Tarantella. Alas, when I got it home and tried to play it I found two problems. It was too difficult and most of the pages were missing. I booked the loss of ‘five bob’ down to experience. Therefore it is good to meet up with this piece all these years later. Howell notes minor allusions to Elgar’s Overture: In the South and Richard Strauss’s Aus Italien. It is a good call. Lookout for the attractive whole tone scales and rich chromaticism. Finally I was right back then – this piece is no cinch.
Henry Geehl is better known to enthusiasts of brass band music. He is known to have scored Holst’s A Moorside Suite for that genre. A whiff of ‘scandal’ exists in so far as Geehl claimed that he arranged Edward Elgar’s Severn Suite for the same medium. However, this has been disputed: a complete brass band score in Elgar’s hand has been discovered. Anyhow, there is no dispute that Geehl wrote a deal for piano including this ravishing The Bay of Naples Suite. To be fair it is light music rather than a Ravelian impressionistic picture of the region. However, the four pieces are enjoyable. My personal favourite is the opening ‘Moonlight on the Bay of Naples.’ The ‘Canzonetta’ is also attractive and the ‘Serenade d’amour’ is melodic and serves its purpose as the romantic slow movement. The final ‘Tambour Dance’ is fun to listen to. I must get hold of the music – it might just be in my gift to play this.
I think that Rapallo is the first piece of music by Ronald Swaffield (1889-1962) that I have heard. I have listed the pieces published by him on my ‘blog’. Unlike the Geehl, this work is impressionistic. It ‘describes’ the Ligurian seas-side resort in a most picturesque and romantic number. Alongside Ravel, Howell notes Warlock and Moeran as possible influences on the harmonic structure of this work. It was composed in 1937.
The last tarantella is actually called ‘Tarantula’ and is provided by Cyril Scott. It is a masterpiece of virtuosic piano sound. It certainly presents mental images of the ‘beastie’ for which the dance was meant to have originally been a cure or protection against.
I am delighted that Christopher Howell has chosen to record some pieces by Harry Farjeon. This composer joins that huge rank of the ‘unjustly forgotten’. Farjeon’s contribution to piano music is two-fold. Firstly, he wrote a considerable amount of picturesquely-titled pieces that capture the imagination. Many of these are within the ability of the so-called ‘gifted amateur’. However, he is never condescending to lesser mortals. Every one of his works that I have heard or played through is genuinely musical and is technically competent - irrespective of its difficulty. Secondly, Farjeon has contributed a number of major works including an (apparently) splendid piano concerto and a fine Piano Sonata. He is a composer that surely deserves at the very least one retrospective CD. The two works - five numbers - that are heard on this CD adequately prove my point above.
Having recently been to Venice, I warmed to Farjeon’s impressionistic studies of life in the Lagoon – Three Venetian Idylls, Op.20. The first piece is a reflective ‘Nocturne’ – which is simply gorgeous. No Venetian musical picture would be complete without the ‘barcarolle’ with its watery sound. Once again Farjeon hits the mark: this is so Italian that you could lick the ice-cream off the music. The final ‘Valse Fugitive’ is introverted, however, it is beautiful. In fact there is a sense of the ‘nocturne’ about all these pieces. One of my favourites on this CD.
The pianist gives us another taste of Harry’s - did he know the Bar, I wonder - view of the Barcarolle. This time he presents a sophisticated, almost ‘cocktail bar’ style of music. I love every bar of this dishy, romantic piece.
The last two pieces on this release are also by Farjeon – the Two Italian Sketches for piano duet. These are perhaps the most enigmatic pieces in this recital. The first is ‘On the Water’ – it could almost be describing the progress of one of the unique funeral gondolas occasionally seen in Venice. The second piece is the brittle ‘On the Road’. It is possibly a nod towards the great Italian composer Alfredo Casella.
This new double-CD from Sheva is essential listening for all enthusiasts of English piano music. It goes further than this. These discs present a number of undoubted ‘minor masterpieces’. If they had been composed by a ‘continental’ composer with a French or a German name they may have retained a place in the repertoire.
There is always a danger when approaching repertoire that is unknown or is unjustifiably deemed unworthy, to ‘ham up’ the performance. Some performers may adopt a condescending approach to interpretation. They could over-sentimentalise or over-state some of the obvious musical clichés that some of these works display. I think of the ‘English’ Liszt, Sydney Smith. However, Christopher Howell, who is assisted by Emanno De Stefani in the piano duets, takes all these pieces seriously.
This set is excellent value at £15 and can be purchased through MusicWeb International. There is a grand total of 146 minutes of music presented. The quality of the sound is excellent. The liner notes by Howell are essential reading: I suggest that the listener peruse each note before approaching these pieces.
I have two aspirations for English (British) piano music. The first is that recitalists begin to take up the ‘masterworks’. These include the ‘big’ sonatas by Frank Bridge, John Ireland, Cyril Scott, Benjamin Dale, Arthur Bliss, Leo Livens and Harry Farjeon. One can point to the sterling work in this direction by Mark Bebbington, Peter Jacobs, Eric Parkin and Ashley Wass. However there is a restricted availability of English piano pieces presented at recitals as opposed to CDs. Secondly, I wish that every pianist would include at least one piece by a relatively unknown composer in every recital that they play. Even if this piece is deemed to be a ‘teaching’ piece it may still be worthy. For example, I can battle through a fair few pieces by Harry Farjeon, Ernest Markham Lee and Edward German. However it would be lovely to hear ‘definitive’ performances of these works. So amongst the Rachmaninoff, the Chopin and the Brahms an occasional number by Sydney Smith, Cyril Scott, Henry Geehl, Alec Rowley and Thomas Dunhill should surely be heard.
Meanwhile Christopher Howell has made a sterling effort at introducing a ‘lost’ repertoire to the interested musical public. It is a worthy cause. Let us hope that he is not merely a voice crying in the wilderness.
I hope that Sheva will explore many more pieces by these and other forgotten British composers. Christopher Howell knows that he can always ask me for a thousand and one suggestions – although I think that he may well have a fair few numbers up his sleeve.
A special - and exciting – recording project.
Frank Merrick (a draft entry with acknowledgement to Grove V)
MERRICK, Frank [Clifton, Bristol, 30.4.1886 - 1981]
Pianist and teacher. His parents were musically inclined. His father (1854 - 1941) was also a D. Mus, Dublin, and had the same Christian name. His mother was Irish. Both parents were his first music teachers. In 1898 they passed the young Merrick into the hands of the famous Theodor Leschetizky (1830 - 1915) at Vienna with whom Merrick stayed until 1901 working with Leschetizky's assistant, Malwine Brée. Returned for further tuition with Leschetizky in 1905. M. Mus. Bristol. FRCM. FTCL. Merrick's first concert was given at Clifton, Bristol in November 1895 in aid of Barnardo's Homes. He made his first London concert appearance in March 1903 at the Bechstein Hall. He also toured as accompanist with Clara Butt. Toured Australia in 1907. In 1911 he married the composer, pianist and teacher Hope Squire, a pupil of Dohnanyi. Later re-married. Professor at the Royal Manchester College of Music from 1910 to 1929. During the First World War he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector at Wormwood Scrubs. He used his time in prison to teach himself Esperanto. In 1929 he moved to the staff of the RCM remaining there until 1956 when he was employed at Trinity College of Music. On 15.10.1933 Merrick gave the first performance of John Foulds' Dynamic Triptych for piano and orchestra with the Reid Orchestra conducted by Sir Donald Tovey. On 4.8.1933 he gave the first broadcast performance of the Dynamic Triptych with the BBC Orchestra under Sir Dan Godfrey. He was amongst the first pianists to broadcast for the BBC from Savoy Hill. The Prize which Merrick won for his two movement completion of the Schubert Unfinished Symphony recognised the straightforward and simple treatment of the task undertaken and of Merrick's love and respect for Schubert. Grove comments also on the successful imitation of Schubert's style and idiom. He edited a students’ edition of Chopin's works. He also prepared accompaniments in contemporary style to sonatas for violin and figured bass by Veracini, in D minor and E minor, and by Purcell in G minor. His tastes in music he performed was wide although he specialised in modern music including Prokofiev, Ireland and Bax. Bax dedicated his Paean to Merrick. He studied and gave concert performances with his first wife of many rarely heard works for two pianos. Merrick gave the first performances in this country of Prokofiev's Piano Sonatas 2 to 7. Later he recorded the 3rd and 4th Sonatas for the Frank Merrick Society. John Field was another composer whose works he championed. His interest in Field dated from 1937 when Beecham's secretary asked Merrick to investigate the Field concertos. Merrick recorded Field's Sonata in C minor and a Nocturne in the late 1930s. In the late 1960s he recorded all the Field Piano Concertos, Nocturnes and other works for Rare Recorded Editions. His completion of the Schubert Unfinished was recorded once by RPO/Stanford Robinson on 78 and also on LP for the Frank Merrick Society. The various records he made late in life only intermittently reflect the depth and brilliance of his technique and artistic insight. The best of these were issued by the Merrick Record Association between 1961 and 1965. He also made a notable series of records for the Concert Artists label of the Bax Violin Sonatas with Henry Holst. He made records of his two piano concertos with semi-professional orchestras for Rare Recorded Editions (SRRE 156 conductor Oliver Broome and anonymous orchestra and SRRE 128 Beckenham Orchestra and John Foster) and of his Bonny Bluebell Variations. He recorded a selection of his songs to English and Esperanto texts with the soprano Stella Wright on Rare Recorded Editions. With Michael Round he recorded initially for Cabaletta, Bax's music for two pianos and Vaughan Williams’ The Running Set. Merrick was also a teacher and counted Rawsthorne amongst his piano pupils. Published a book, Practising The Piano. He was a vegetarian and a total abstainer from alcohol. CBE 1979. Lived at 5, Horbury Crescent, London.
Choral: Chorus of Echoes for unaccompanied chorus (from Shelley's Prometheus Unbound);
Orchestra: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat (1901); Piano Concerto No. 2 in E minor; Symphony in D minor (1912); Celtic Suite for small orchestra (1920, Blackburn 1923 / Bournemouth Dec 1923); Scherzo and Finale for Schubert's Unfinished Symphony (1923?, the winner in the British division of the Columbia Graphophone Schubert Centenary Competition); Overture; A Dream Pageant for strings; Overture for military band;
Chamber: Trio in F sharp minor for piano, violin and cello;
Piano: Piano Sonata; An Ocean Lullaby; Variations on a Somerset Folk-Song, The Bonny Bluebell; Rhapsody in C minor; Paraphrase (in the Bach style) on a Somerset Folk-Song, Hares on the Mountains; (the last four items listed under this heading were included in a programme which gained a Diploma of Honour at the International Rubinstein Competition, Petrograd in August 1910);
Song: various, including The Four Seasons; The Well; The Black rider; Lullaby; Snow; A Summer Night; and October. Some of the songs set Esperanto texts.