Norman O’NEILL (1875-1934) Chamber Works for Strings and Piano
String Quartet in C major (c.1893-1909) [18:48]
Piano Trio in One Movement, Op. 32 (1909) [8:53]
Piano Quintet in E minor (1904) [28:38]
Theme and Variations for Piano Trio on the popular song Polly Oliver, Op. 1 (1895) [13:07]
Michael Dussek (piano); The Bridge Quartet
rec. 22-23 February 2012, Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales
EM RECORDS EMR CD005 [69:26]
 
If Norman O’Neill is remembered for anything today it is as a member of the so-called Frankfurt Gang. During O’Neill’s formative years many music academies in Europe were highly regarded. Cyril Scott, Percy Grainger, Norman O’Neill and Balfour Gardiner arrived in Frankfurt to study at the Hochschule. Collectively this group became known as the Frankfurt Gang. O’Neill was to study there from 1893 to 1897.
 
Born in 1875 in London, O’Neill at first studied with Sir Arthur Somervell who was a former composition pupil of Stanford. Appointed as music director at the Haymarket O’Neill spent the majority of his life working in the theatre and was a prolific composer of incidental music to plays. Today he is largely forgotten. Although I was aware of the scores for Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird (1909) and Barrie’s Mary Rose (1920) before hearing this disc I hadn’t heard any of O’Neill’s music. These four chamber pieces appear here in world premičre recordings.
 
It is not possible to exactly date the String Quartet in C major. We are informed in Michael Schofield’s booklet notes that in the Royal College of Music catalogue reference was found to a manuscript entitled ‘String Quartet by Norman O’Neill’. It appears to be an amalgam of three movements composed at different times. The only movement that was dated is the Scherzo from 1909. It is suggested that the other two were from a period much earlier than the Scherzo - before the Frankfurt period. The work’s undemanding writing is the essence of the so-called ‘English pastoral school’. It’s evocative of picturesque villages and rural landscapes and spins in a number of English folk-like melodies. I found the opening movement uplifting and highly appealing. There is a gentle almost heart-rending feel to the Poco Adagio and the folk-like lyrical finale is especially interesting for its choice of contrasting tempi.
 
O’Neill completed his Piano Trio in One Movement, Op. 32 in 1909 and dedicated it to Arthur Somervell. It seems to have been performed in Paris at the Salle Erard in 1910 with O’Neill’s wife Adine Ruckert at the piano. I would be surprised if it was not strongly influenced by the then popular Cobbett single movement Phantasy format. Like the String Quartet in C major there is nothing here that is dark or disturbing. It’s highly appealing and slightly pastoral in mood with distinct folk voices.
 
It seems that the Kreiss Quartet with O’Neill’s wife Adine as pianist introduced the Piano Quintet in E minor in 1904 at a London recital. In this four movement score O’Neill leaves the pastoral behind. I can certainly hear in its pages influential composers such as Brahms and Tchaikovsky. The opening feels urbane and highly confident. Emotionally charged content is subjected to contrasting moods yet nothing is pent-up, angry, unpredictable or disagreeable. The warm, summery and generally welcoming Scherzando contains episodes of a breezy and almost squally character. The genial and benign Romance just has to be music depicting a loving relationship. The welcoming and appealing Finale has an underlying percussive feel.
 
The final item is the Opus 1 Theme and Variations for Piano Trio on the popular songPolly Oliver’. He composed this single movement piece in 1895, the final year of his study in Frankfurt. Pretty Polly Oliver was a popular seventeenth century song. In it a love-struck maid decides to enlist as a soldier and follow her lover to the battlefield. For some reason the writing reminded me of a children’s nursery rhyme. It is possible to perceive a programme that follows the text of Pretty Polly Oliver yet the undemanding music is highly agreeable on its own.
 
The engineers have done a marvellous job providing realistic sound quality and an impressive balance between piano and strings. The scrupulously prepared Bridge Quartet and pianist Michael Dussek are completely at home with O’Neill’s demands. I found their ensemble and highly agreeable string tone very pleasing. With an abundance of vitality and character the players serve as marvellous advocates for these rare and appealing chamber scores.
 
Michael Cookson
 
Rare and appealing English chamber scores.