Hamilton HARTY(1879 – 1941)
Piano Quintet in F, Op.12 (1904) [32:43]
String Quartet No. 2 in a minor, Op.5 (1902) [26:24]
String Quartet No. 1 in F, Op.1 (1900) [23:45]
Goldner String Quartet (Dene Olding, Dimity Hall (violin); Irina Morozova (viola); Julian Smiles (cello)); Piers Lane (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 23–25 June 2011. DDD.
2 CDs for the price of one
HYPERION CDA67927 [59:10 + 23:45]
Hamilton Harty’s music was one of the first beneficiaries from the business model evolved by [then] smaller record companies to focus their release schedules on repertoire neglected by the big international labels. Hence – this is from memory! – amongst the very first discs Chandos recorded were in Ulster of Harty’s orchestral works. They proved to be stunning in every respect – artistically and technically and, as the saying goes, the rest is history. The only flaw in this model is the importance of primacy. So, with the exception of a couple of discs from Naxos – with their model of recording just about everything ever written! – record companies have pretty much ignored Harty’s instantly appealing and attractive music ever since. All of which makes this issue from Hyperion especially welcome. As so often with Hyperion this is an exemplary release in their best tradition with excellent playing supported by a truthful engineering and high production values promoting unfamiliar music of real worth and interest. One assumes this was originally intended as a single disc release but once the playing time crept up towards the eighty three minute mark Hyperion took the pragmatic and correct choice to release this as a ‘two-for-one’ double-disc set.
What is it about British composers and playing the viola! Everyone from Frank Bridge to Eric Coates seem to have been fine exponents but high up that list are two who ultimately made their names primarily as conductors; Hamilton Harty and Eugene Goossens. Sadly, Harty did not live long enough to leave us a recorded legacy of sufficient technical quality or quantity to be able to fully assess his lasting worth but his reputation is as an interpreter of the highest standing. As a composer the regret is that his catalogue of works tails right away once his conducting career blossomed. The late and exceptionally beautiful Children of Lir shows what might have developed had time permitted. In that regard Eugene Goossens does have to be regarded as the more significant composer with a wider range of music written in a more complex style. However, the three early – indeed almost student – works recorded here reveal Harty to be a consummate craftsman from a young age and one who understands the instruments he is writing for from the inside. More over he is blessed with the ability to write a good tune and produce music of easy appeal. My only query with the Hyperion presentation is their decision to present the much in reverse chronological order. Although written over a brief four year span there is a clear progression in technical competence and range of expression from the Op.1 F major quartet of 1900 to the big bravura Piano Quintet of 1904. Pairing the quartets on the first disc and allowing the Quintet to stand alone on the second would have made better sense to my mind. All three works were written for – and won prizes in – competitions. No doubt for a young composer both the exposure gained and money won was of particular use. The two quartets were written for the Dublin Feis Ceoil of 1900 & 1902 respectively so elements of ‘Irishness’ are not altogether surprising.
The Piano Quintet was written for a competition organised by the great patron of the Arts Ada Lewis-Hill. Harty’s composition was placed first from over forty entrants gaining him the first prize of 50 guineas – which equates to over £15,000 at today’s values according to www.measuringworth.com . Interestingly Harty seems to be straining at the ‘chamber’ music form much more here than in the quartets. Everything from the scale of the work and its musical material to the handling of the instruments implies more of a symphonic utterance. Pianist Piers Lane is well-known to British collectors and this is his fifth collaboration with his fellow Australians The Goldner String Quartet for Hyperion. Drama is the defining word for much of the quintet. It’s a big bold and Romantic work with very much a capital R. Dvorak seems to provide the emotional model and indeed the melodic contours most often. By no means is this a revolutionary work and indeed by that yardstick it verges on the reactionary. If you consider that even within the relatively regressive British musical scene the piano quintets of both Bridge and Bax are far more questing and less than a decade away in the case of the Bridge in its final form you realise the Harty is breaking no moulds. The central pair of movements are more individual – the scherzo has an amiable Salon Intermezzo spirit which is a wise move after the storm and stress of the opening Allegro. The Goldners play very well throughout and Lane’s technical brilliance is a given. I have two passing thoughts; in the Quintet especially Harty employs a lot of doubling of lines in an attempt to give the musical a more orchestral impact but it does make intonation the very devil. The Goldners do as well as any quartet could and the failing is Harty’s relative inexperience but there are the occasional tuning ‘wobbles’. Also, I do feel that the strings could enjoy playing more often in a truly quiet fashion. The opening of the third movement Lento is a passage of beautiful repose and one I would have liked repeated more often elsewhere. The climax of the same movement reaches a climax of heroic rhetoric but I did have just a smidgeon of a feeling that the gestures were grandiose but ultimately somewhat generic. But you have to keep reminding yourself that this is an early work and by that touchstone if no other this is as impressive as it is enjoyable. The balance between the piano and the quartet is very well achieved by the production team especially given how thick and heavy the writing is for much of the time and if you want an idea of just how well the work is played the dramatic final pages are a prime example – bravura writing dispatched with aplomb by all.
The fact that Harty chose to set the piano in juxtaposition to the quartet as a conscious choice becomes clear as soon as one hears the earlier 2nd Quartet. From the very first bars the way he works out his material makes it clear that there will be more contrapuntal writing within the ensemble with the problematic doublings of melodic lines far less in evidence. The engineering balance brings the quartet a step closer in the sound picture – again I wonder if the use of the quieter, more floated dynamics would have been beneficial [1st movement 2nd subject is case in point]. The extra ‘working out’ makes the for greater interest across the parts but at the expense of the sheer dramatic impact of the quintet. The second movement scherzo has a rum-ti-tum amiability reminiscent of Edward German and the slow movement with its wide-arching theme aspires towards an Elgarian nobility. The Goldners are very good at building the intensity of this latter movement and its mood suits the style of their playing especially well. The finale is the section of the quartet which is most overtly Irish with a lilting ballad feel – it’s a little bit twee but very attractive all the same.
If the shade of Dvorak is the benevolent influence on the two works on the first disc then its Mendelssohn whose influence is most keenly felt in the Op.1 F major Quartet. The second movement scherzo – and an unexpected scherzo episode in the third movement Andante Pastorale are a quirkily fascinating fusion of Mendelssohnian fairy music with a distinctly Irish twist. Again the sheer confidence and the fluency of the writing cannot fail to impress. The regret if regret there be is that these works were not followed by any others of a more strikingly individual character. Harty’s Irish Symphony also won a prize at the 1904 Dublin festival and in that unashamedly pictorial work he was happy to wear his Irish heart on his sleeve to the benefit of the music’s spirit and spontaneity. Perhaps he felt the ideal of the abstract string quartet required something more formal. In doing so I feel some of his musical personality has been suppressed in the name of Art.
As so often in the past one is indebted to Hyperion for their promotion of the rare and obscure and once again their instinct has been proved true with music of easy if not lingering appeal. The quality of the performance is matched by the engineering and production which is in turn match by the disc’s presentation. In this case the liner is provided by Harty scholar Professor Jeremy Dibble who is the author of the forthcoming first full length study of Harty’s life and works; Hamilton Harty; His Life and Musical World. His note is full of insight and interest and makes one look forward to reading the full-length work. With this release an important gap in the repertoire of this composer has been filled – a disc guaranteed to please admirers of the genre in general and Harty in particular.
A disc guaranteed to please admirers of chamber music and of Harty in particular.
see also review by Brian Wilson