EM Records are achieving things that lovers of British music
have only dreamt of. The English Music Festival, itself an absolute
joy and now an essential part of the musical year has spawned
all sorts of branches not least a gradual build-up of CDs. One,
for example, is of the complete piano music of Roger Quilter
(CD002). I mention Quilter because he was one of the Frankfurt
group or “gang” who studied in Germany in the 1890s. In fact
of all of these composers including Balfour Gardiner, Grainger
and Cyril Scott, Norman O’Neill is the one who has been most
overlooked. This disc offers us a rare glimpse of a small portion
of his output.
He worked as Music Director of the Haymarket Theatre for several
years so not surprisingly he put together many scores of orchestral
incidental music. On the evidence of his chamber music we have
a sensitive, craftsman-like composer who quite clearly grew
from the Brahms inspirations of his early works into a more
developed personality. It would be interesting to know what
happened in the years following the First World War. Perhaps
that is to come on a future disc.
One should really start the disc with the last work on the CD:
the 1st Piano Trio which consists of a Theme and
Variations on the popular song ‘Sweet Polly Oliver’.
In truth I wasn’t especially looking forward to this piece;
after all, themes and variations by minor Victorian composers
can be, lets say, a little naff. However I can quite see how
it was that O’Neill’s wife, whom he met whilst studying in Frankfurt
and who played in its first performances, quite fell in love
with the piece and indeed the man.
There are seven variations and Lucy Wilding in her notes makes
out a good case that each one follows the story of each of the
verses. The opening theme is set in eighteenth century style
and then grows into something more typical of its period. It
has an innocent charm and is beautifully crafted with an imposing
Allegro con fuoco for the fury of the captain at discovering
a female in his ranks. However, there was a time when tracks
might be indexed and surely this piece especially cries out
for such a treatment.
I utterly agree with Michael Schofield with his notes on the
C major String Quartet that it can be heard as a Fantasy
Quartet - a form so popular in the early decades of the 20th
century. Its modal melodic writing, especially in the first
two movements, invites a sort of intimacy and yet the chromatic
inflections add a more contemporary piquancy. I even hear Fauré
in some passages. Actually O’Neill is trying something quite
risky here as I know from my own experience of piecing together
movements written at differing times. A so-called Scherzo is
dated 1909 which forms movement three - it works out perfectly
well however as a finale - and an opening Allegro is preceded
by a slow introduction and an ensuing Adagio, which Schofield
thinks could well be teenage works. If they are then they are
extremely competent and mature for such a young man.
The largest work recorded here is the Piano Quintet in E
minor. It falls into four movements. Music can so often
create for us memories of nostalgia, romance or pain. With some
works we can’t throw these off. When we come to pieces like
these we have no such luggage and this work comes over as like
no other by an Englishman of the time. Michael Schofield alludes
to a Russian atmosphere and it would be quite legitimate also
to talk of German influences but to me it is thoroughly ‘English’
with even a touch of folksy modality. It is also quite passionate
as in its opening movement as well as being chromatic and modal.
The second movement is a Scherzo, rather balletic and mercurial
and again slightly modal. Here I will acknowledge that Glazunov
could be an influence. After this joyous interlude there follows
a Romance, which opens as if a parlour piece of an earlier generation.
The title is apt as it was O’Neill’s wife Adine who played in
the work’s first performance. The way the strings entwine around
the piano’s long, lyrical line is especially suggestive. The
finale again has a touch of Fauré at the start. Ideas from the
opening movement re-emerge subtly before we launch into a sometimes-turbulent
E minor Allegro con brio. The second subject is indeed
Brahmsian but the end is triumphantly personal and triumphant
I especially enjoyed the compactness and the restrained and
pastoral atmosphere of the Piano Trio in One movement.
Falling into five sections, the writing is generous and romantic
with an early Allegro con fuoco following from a warm,
slow introduction. Later there is the swiftness of a Scherzo
and a final Allegro that Colin Twigg describes as ‘upbeat’.
Talking of which, it is especially pleasing that Em Marshall-Luck
herself and three others were invited to contribute analytical
notes to the booklet. Pianist Michael Dussek, who does such
sterling and quiet work promoting British Music, tells us briefly
about O’Neill’s piano writing and there is a personal tribute
from Katherine Jessel, the composer’s grand-daughter.
The performances are superb, the recording vivid and beautifully
balanced. The presentation is ideal and if in any way you like
English music then this disc is a must. Even if you don’t this
disc is a must. In fact you have little choice: buy it, please.
see also review
by Michael Cookson