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 (Colin Twigg, Catherine Schofield (violins); Michael Schofield (viola); Lucy Wilding (cello))
rec. 22-23 February 2012, Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales
EM RECORDS EMR CD005 [69:26]
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 indeed.
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.
  Gary Higginson
This disc is a must.