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Ronald CENTER (1913-1963)
Instrumental and Chamber Music - Volume 1: Music for Solo Piano
Piano Sonata [12.29]
Six Bagatelles [15.18]
Andante [2.06]
Sarabande [1.56]
Air [1.59]
Pantomime [4.27]
Larghetto [2.42]
Sonatine [9.04]
Hommage [3.11]
Impromptu [3.55]
Three Etudes [1.40]
Three Movements [6.58]
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 26-27 April 2013, Potton Hall, Suffolk

The detailed and fascinating booklet essay is by James Reid Baxter. He has had a long standing association with the music of Ronald Center and goes into much fascinating detail about the man and his music, its reception and its success or lack of. It makes sad reading in many ways. Thank heavens for a record company like Toccata Classics. This disc is labelled as Volume One and instrumental pieces are promised in Volume Two. 

Center was born in Aberdeen and lived practically all of his life in Scotland. He worked in Aberdeen also; it’s a fine city, the granite city, but awkward to get at. Center was a modest man with little music in print. What hope did he have of making a more national, let alone international, impact. Yet some bright spark did call him “The Scottish Bartók”. The notes suggest, quite wisely I feel, the “Scottish Prokofiev” and that certainly applies to the third of the Three Movements but no, I don’t really like that either. His music can be spiky and dissonant certainly but it is also exceedingly personal and it can be quite sensual as in the Impromptu. In fact the elusive Hommage is dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy whom Center greatly loved indeed it has a touch of ‘Feux d’artifice’ about it towards the end. Incidentally what a superb pianist Center clearly was. He played all of his pieces to his wife but just occasionally to others. His accomplishment can be judged by the technical demands made by much of the music, even the seemingly innocuous pieces.
I have come to think that the real composer here is not in the more ‘thorny’ moments like the finale of the four movement Sonata, or in the brilliant Three Etudes or in the outer movements of the Sonatine but in the slower music. It’s as if the composer was deep-down desperately sad and let-down by a feeling that his work would never be recognized and that his life as a striving composer would never be brought to a successful fruition. In fact he died relatively young and possibly discouraged. Listen to the nostalgic Larghetto, with its yearning for the sun of the south, the middle movement of the Sonata, the third of the Bagatelles and the middle movement of the Sonatine - so tragically lonely - and the wistful Sarabande. These pieces often rise to an overwhelmingly painful climax at their central point. They then suddenly die back, as if nothing ever had happened, to the opening ideas as if forcing themselves into a calmer mind-set. The finalchord can often be reconciliatory, possibly even a tierce de Picardie

The back of the disc describes Center’s music as “well-crafted”. Sometimes this is an aphorism for dull or predictable. Center is rarely that, although some occasional passages can be. There is much here to attract the attention and maintain emotional and musical interest.
The major works are the Sonata and the Six Bagatelles and these were recorded by an earlier protagonist for Center, Murray McLachlan who, in 1990, produced a disc for Olympia (OCD264) entitled ‘Piano Music from Scotland’. That disc also includes Center’s Children at Play from a Suite for solo piano. Apparently the Sonata has been recorded four times, which is odd in many ways but I can at least compare Guild with McLachlan. Both are convincing, with the latter just a little quicker and brighter in the outer movements of the Sonata but a little more cautious and delicate in the Bagatelles. Olympia’s recording is not quite so spacious, although I love the way McLachlan ruminatively delivers Bagatelle No. 1. If you can find that Olympia disc it’s worth having as it also contains works by Ronald Stevenson - another ‘fan’ of Ronald Center who has played his music - and by the enigmatic Francis George Scott.
It is apparently very difficult to date Center’s pieces and little can be said other than “possibly a late work/early work”. If I had to pick just one piece from this collection it would be the Six Bagatelles. All sensations, as it were, are covered and both emotionally and musically the pieces, which are succinct and without any waste of notes or ideas, are utterly fulfilling. They can also be exciting as can be heard in movement 6, marked Vivo, or witty as in movement 4 marked Energico et ritmico and also disturbing as in movement 3 marked Mesto. They are ‘only’ Bagatelles in length yet pack a great deal into their short space.
This is a well recorded disc with a bloom but a natural sound. The Scottish pianist Christopher Guild is a fine advocate for this music. He is a young man who will clearly go places. I only hope that he will continue to play and promote Ronald Center’s music.
Gary Higginson