Much as the release on CD of the entire Lyrita back catalogue was a cause for rejoicing amongst collectors, in many ways the recent tranche of wholly new recordings is even better news. In the very best traditions of the label, these discs continue to promote little-known British music in performances and recordings of the very highest order.
Excluding this new release, Franz Reizenstein has a patchy presence in the catalogue. There is one current disc dedicated to three sonatas (violin, viola and piano No. 1) featuring pianist Kolja Lessing, and three Continuum discs (CCD1007, CCD1024, CCD1040) that are not readily available. To this can be added Lyrita's mono recording
of the composer in his own music and Dutton's CD including the Second Piano Concerto played by Sangiorgio (CDLX 7282). Otherwise, Reizenstein jostles for attention in mixed recitals - albeit of high quality - or features as an arranger of the Concerto Popolare for the Hoffnung Concerts
. So at one single sweep, this triple disc set - plus the download-only appendix - adds nearly four hours of Reizenstein's music to that previously known. There is duplication with Philip Martin's Continuum piano recital (CCD10007: Sonata 2, Legend and Lambeth Walk Variations) and the previously mentioned Sonatas disc on EDA (EDA Edition Abseits EDA20) but the importance of this release is that it gives us a 'critical mass' of Reizenstein's output in one - possibly his most important and characteristic - genre allowing the listener to learn to hear the individual voice that is the composer.
Helping with this process is Lyrita's near-ideal presentation. The 16 page - English only - booklet is filled with information about the composer as well as helpful notes about the music. The discs present the music in chronological order from the early Suite Op.6 that was Reizenstein's first published work written when he was 25 through to the Second Sonata of 1964 dating from just four years before his death. Martin Jones proves to be an excellent and dedicated guide too. Over the years Jones has been something of a Nimbus house pianist with cycles of piano works by Korngold
and Szymanowski (Nimbus NI1750). Although these Lyrita releases are made under the umbrella of Nimbus as mother company I have to say the recording is in the best traditions of Lyrita rather than the occasionally cavernous sound afforded some early Nimbus discs. Philip Martin's disc is not supplanted - he was a Reizenstein pupil - but the scale of the new set and the range of music it gives us means that even where copies can still be found the Lyrita is the one to choose.
Reizenstein remains a little-known composer. A pupil of Hindemith he was forced to come to London as a refugee in 1934 where he continued his studies with Vaughan Williams. It seems that he absorbed elements of both of those big musical personalities but the fascination is that there emerged a quite separate and unique composing voice even though the influences of both teachers are audibly and technically for all to notice. By some distance the 1944 Piano Sonata No.1 is the most substantial work on disc 1. Whereas in other works there is an abstract purity of music thought, although unspecified the Sonata has a more overtly neo-Romantic style. Indeed the heaving primal upsurge of its opening is reminiscent of the early Bax sonatas rather than Hindemith-inspired classicism. This is well balanced musically and emotionally by the serenely lyrical central molto adagio
and the closing Moderato quasi grave
which Paul Conway in the liner essay astutely likens to the Hindemith of Nobilissima Visione.
What can be heard as typical is Reizenstein's fluid use of tonality. He avoids excessive chromaticism and clearly tonality occupies a gravitational pull over all his writing. That said, there is little use of key centres in a traditional manner even though the sonata does ultimately return to its tonal centre of B. Also apparent from even the earlier works is the sheer craft and care with which these works have been fashioned. There is a sense that every note and chord has been pared back to its essential function - although a fine concert pianist in his own right, Reizenstein does not 'waste' music for effect or simple display.
Martin Jones is particularly successful at finding the balance between the Romantic/subjective and Classical/objective elements in the music. Also, given the amount of contrapuntal writing he is especially good at teasing out the numerous musical threads in which these works abound. There is a telling fact given in the liner; during his lifetime Reizenstein's music was performed 132 times in Britain. Of those, the composer played in 125. Clearly he had an interest in playing his own work but that statistic should not imply that any of this music in any way requires 'special pleading'.
The main work on the second disc - and in many ways the key work to the entire box is the set of Twelve Preludes and Fugues Op.32
from 1955. At first glance Bach would seem an obvious and logical influence - and rightly so. In fact, this work is dedicated to his teacher Paul Hindemith 'with sincerest admiration' and the key sequence is based on the 'Series I' evolved by Hindemith in his book The Craft of Musical Composition
. This orders the twelve notes of the chromatic scale in their relationship to the starting note of C. Hence the second Prelude and Fugue is in G - the most 'important' key centre - the dominant after the tonic of C. Running to over an hour this is a mighty work and one with few direct comparisons in British piano literature. Conway's essay is again exemplary at guiding the listener through each movement. The brilliance lies in Reizenstein's fusion of a Bachian aesthetic with his own very personal twentieth century idiom. Certainly, Bach would have no trouble recognising the form and concept of these works even if the harmonic language might cause some perplexity. Reizenstein links the preludes and fugues thematically with seven of the twelve running from prelude to fugue without a break. There is remarkable richness in the quality of invention as well as the handling of the material. Also, do not imagine that this is a dry academic exercise either. Conway points to the fleet-footed wit of the 4th Prelude and Fugue in A as well as the near impressionistic 11th prelude as examples of the work's range. For sure this is absolute music of the highest order but that does not preclude the pleasure taken in its creation. No real surprise then that the concluding fugue is in five voices - a compositional tour de force
that Bach himself would admire.
Just in case the listener has found this work too austere, the disc's filler rather neatly dispels the notion that Reizenstein lacked humour. This is his genuinely witty Variations on 'The Lambeth Walk'.
Personally I find very few pieces of classical music that strive to be funny actually to be so. Too often the 'joke' relies on the listener getting the reference/style/theme being lampooned so it risks becoming complacently exclusive. Reizenstein's skill is not
to strain at being funny. Instead, in an affectionate and remarkably skilful way he weaves the well-known tune that is the 'Lambeth Walk' into famous composer's well-known works. So Tristan vies with Mastersingers while still being recognisably from Lambeth. One little curio - Reizenstein actually transcribes the original song incorrectly - the descending phrase "Doin' the Lambeth walk" should repeat one note and not be scalic as written here. Ultimately, these variations work in their own right as music - so the humour does not pall. Indeed, the Chopin variation based on the Nocturne Op.9 No.2 is a touchingly beautiful miniature in its own right.
The third disc includes another set of miniatures - the Zodiac suite as well as the impressive Second Piano Sonata. The progression - indeed distillation - of the musical language from the First Sonata is marked. Reizenstein uses a B-A-C-H motif as the germinal material in the opening movement but is able to absorb it into his vocabulary so wholly that the listener soon forgets its origin. The central movement has a searching fluency that also contain echoes of Bach. Reizenstein dedicated this to Christopher Hassall - the often dismissed librettist for both Ivor Novello and Walton's Troilus and Cressida
- who had written librettos for Reizenstein. Again, I find it fascinating the way he writes wholly personal music that succeeds in being both powerfully felt yet rigorously constructed. The closing Lento-Vivace
breathes much the same air as the start of the earlier sonata with a rugged opening developing into a powerful and dynamic pianistic display. The sense of Reizenstein being inspired by and building on the music of the past but recreating it in wholly twentieth century terms is striking. Philip Martin gave the first concert performance of this work and includes both it and the Lambeth Walk Variations
on his Continuum disc. Given his links to the works and their composer it is no surprise that Martin's disc gives little if anything in skill and stature to the new set, supplanted simply in terms of scope and content.
The Zodiac Suite
, although not written explicitly as such, seems to fulfil more of a pedagogic role. Each miniature takes a star sign as a starting point and focuses on one musical characteristic that Reizenstein assigns it although quite why - for example - Scorpio
should be a fughetta or Gemini
a Scherzino I do not know. These were published in three books of four pieces and the complexity and technical demands increase as the cycle progresses. Another facet of Reizenstein's talent is revealed both here and in the Five Modern Pieces for Piano
written for the Associated Board, the organisation who oversee instrumental grade exams. This is the ability to write simple not simplistic music. It cannot be overstated how rewarding it is for young or less technically adept players to be given music that is within their technical compass but is 'proper' music. Again his beloved fugal form is represented, and although all brief - the longest movement last just over two minutes - they are packed with interest and challenges for the developing player. I particularly liked the closing Toccatina
as well as the aforementioned Little Fugue in 3 parts
The set closes with a demonstration of another facet of Reizenstein's art - his arrangements for piano duet of the two sets of Malcolm Arnold's English Dances
. Here Martin Jones is joined by Adrian Farmer who also acts as the set's producer and engineer. It is always good for a performer to know that they are in the hands of a competent fellow musician as well as technician. That being said I have to admit to being slightly disappointed by the dance transcriptions. I find the performances uniformly rather heavy-handed in execution and a fraction leaden in the tempi chosen. Also, the phrasing of some of Arnold's most meltingly appealing tunes is too square for my taste. The interplay between the players is good but without the near superhuman co-ordination the best piano duettists can achieve. Add to that that no matter how fine the transcriptions are, the loss of Arnold's orchestrational brilliance is a major one. Whereas the other music on the disc is of real importance the dances are of no more than passing interest.
This is not quite where this collection ends although the dances do close the third and final disc. A note on page 13 of the booklet guides the reader to a link on the Wyastone website which in turn gives Amazon and iTunes links for a download-only appendix to this set. This is of music Reizenstein wrote specifically for children although not under the auspices of the Associated Board. The 'album' runs to just over twenty minutes and is offered at £4.99 on iTunes and £6.49 on Amazon. The version I was supplied with is sampled at a fairly low variable bit rate around 210 kps but sounds very good - the textures and dynamics not straining the audio limitations of the format. Of particular pleasure are the Seven Children's Piano Pieces
which were published as part of the 'Five by Ten' series. This was an imaginative collection where ten contemporary British composers provided pieces across five volumes of increasing complexity. The roster of composers is very impressive and the quality of their compositions equally high. In many ways the artful skill and care with which all these pieces are written is the truest measure of Reizenstein's understated genius. Apparently, Lyrita might consider releasing this as a 'CD single' - a format I must admit I would prefer to download only. I cannot imagine anyone who has invested in the full set - priced as three for the price of two full price discs - would not want the appendix as well.
The engineering and production of the disc is first rate - the piano is ideally caught in the generous but not overly reverberant Wyastone acoustic. The microphones do occasionally catch Jones vocalising but to no disturbing degree. As previously mentioned, Paul Conway's extensive and informative liner essay and analysis of the works is exemplary.
Individually these are very fine performances technically and musically but when one considers the sheer volume and complexity of this - by definition - unfamiliar music, the appreciation of Jones' achievement increases. Probably the greatest compliment that can be paid this release is that it is one of which Lyrita's founder, Richard Itter would be proud.
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