James FRISKIN (1886-1967)
Piano Quintet in C minor (1907) [36:36]
Phantasie for string quartet [11:55]
Elegy for viola and piano (1912) [9:46]
Phantasy for piano quintet (1910) [18:28]
The Rasumovsky Quartet (Frances Mason (violin); Hilary Sturt (violin); Christopher Wellington (viola); Ian Pressland (cello)) Catherine Dubois (piano)
rec. 17-19 April 2009 Champs Hill concert hall, West Sussex, England
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford was professor of composition and orchestra between 1883-1923 at the Royal College of Music and taught two generations of pupils. The best known of Stanford’s pupils are Vaughan Williams and Holst followed by Bridge, Ireland, Howells, Moeran, Bliss, Haydn Wood, Gurney and Stokowski. Beyond this esteemed group are those whose music is heard far less such as Goossens, MacCunn, Coleridge Taylor, Dyson, Benjamin and Jacob. James Friskin is to be found in the largest Stanford group of all –the one that consists of composers whose music is virtually never heard.
I have been waiting for some years to hear a composition by Friskin. He is probably better known as the husband of viola player/composer Rebecca Clarke who was another Stanford pupil. The couple married in 1944 in the USA when James had been established for many years as a teacher at the Juilliard School, New York. Glasgow-born Friskin was only 14 when he was awarded a piano scholarship to the RCM. After five years of study with Edward Dannreuther the young Scot won another scholarship this time to study composition with Stanford. At the RCM Friskin made the acquaintance of a large number of contemporary students including Vaughan Williams and Butterworth as well as Rebecca Clarke. Long after Friskin had left the RCM Stanford kept a photo of his young pupil in his room - surely an indication that he held the young composer in high regard. Friskin made the giant leap to leave Britain and became a founding teacher at what is now the Juilliard School. All the works on this disc are a product of Friskin’s time at the RCM while part of Stanford’s circle of influence.
The first work is the Piano Quintet in C minor composed in 1907 when the young composer was in his early years as a Stanford pupil. In the first movement Allegro risoluto a passionate stream of music noticeably quickens and slows. The light-hearted and uplifting Scherzo is suffused with appealing lyricism. The slow movement is tender and affecting with the strings soon joined by a significant piano part. At times one senses a nostalgic feel. The finale which is similar in mood to the first movement includes that repeating fluctuating tempo.
This Nimbus disc introduces us to two of Friskin’s ‘Phantasie’ scores. Some explanation may prove useful. Between 1905 and 1919 the amateur musician and wealthy businessman London-born Walter Willson Cobbett (1847-1937) was the stimulus behind a renaissance in British chamber music. He launched a series of chamber music competitions for the composition of a ‘Phantasy’. This reflected Cobbett’s aim to re-create the sixteenth and seventeenth century English genre of the ‘Fantasia’ or ‘Fancy’. A large number of works came about as a result of these ‘competitions. In addition Cobbett commissioned a number of phantasies in various chamber music combinations and also donated prizes at the RCM. Basically the Phantasy was designed as a single movement consisting of a number of varying sections, with each instrument having equal weight. Each work was not to last for more than twelve minutes.
The first Cobbett Competition was in 1905 for the composition of a Phantasy String Quartet. Won by another RCM pupil William Hurlstone with Bridge as runner up, Friskin was awarded third prize for his Phantasy in D major for String Quartet. I wonder if this is the second score contained on this Nimbus release although the booklet notes give the date for Friskin’s Phantasy for Piano Quintet as circa 1909 with no key indicated. There was another Cobbett Competition in 1915 for a Phantasy String Quartet but Friskin is not listed as being amongst the three prize-winners. I notice that in the 1907 Cobbett Competition for Phantasy Piano Trio Friskin was awarded second prize for his Phantasy in E Minor published by Novello. It was a runner-up to Frank Bridge’s Phantasy in C Minor. Friskin’s Phantasy for Piano Quintet is refined and expressive. It’s predominantly genial, romantically yearning and high-spirited. In the slow central section I like the way each instrument takes turns with the romantic melody.
Completed in 1912 the Elegy for viola and piano here takes just under ten minutes to perform. This warm and amorous music feels like a love letter to Rebecca Clarke. For a short time in the central section the writing takes on a more intense mood.
Friskin’s Phantasy in F Minor for Piano Quintet composed in 1910 was a Cobbett commission and published by Stainer and Bell. In the same year Cobbett commissioned Bridge’s successful Phantasy in F-sharp Minor for Piano Quartet. In fact Cobbett commissioned eleven new Phantasy chamber works in differing forms. The best known and probably the finest is Vaughan Williams’ impressive Phantasy String Quintet with two violas. Friskin’s Phantasy for Piano Quintet is a yearningly romantic score. There’s some impressive writing especially for the piano in the Allegro appassionato section. I also admired the short expressive Presto which has a strong squally feel that provides a satisfying contrast to the prevailing tender mood. Throughout there is much splendid string writing from Friskin yet I enjoyed the brilliant piano part, one minute scampering along with energetic abandon, the next displaying delightful affection. The Coda is dramatic and carries the stamp of authority.
One senses that the Rasumovsky Quartet is enthusiastic and committed in this repertoire yet the playing is not as consistently unified as one might wish. The major problem is the viola playing which feels heavy with intonation issues. Not surprisingly this is especially noticeable in the Elegy for viola and piano. On the other hand the piano part is exceptionally well played with the performer displaying a natural musicianship. The sound quality from the Champs Hill concert hall, West Sussex is of a good standard and the booklet notes are informative.
Sadly I have reservations about this disc although I admire the appeal of the Friskin scores.
Michael Cookson
Sadly I have reservations about this disc although I admire the appeal of the Friskin scores.