Toccata Classics continues to do a truly sterling job in making available music from composers who have lapsed into oblivion, for one reason or another. The art is knowing whether to let a sleeping dog lie, so to speak, or actively to promote a composer on the grounds that they really do have something original to say, and something that, for example, Schumann, Mendelssohn or Brahms hasn’t already couched in better terms.
As such Charles O’Brien (1882-1968) would seem to be the archetypical candidate for the Toccata Classics revival machine – a forgotten Scottish Romantic, who was a mainstay of musical life in Edinburgh, but whose attractive and lyrical writing has long since disappeared from view, not just there, but virtually everywhere else. True, and not unsurprisingly, O’Brien’s music owes much to the composers mentioned above but it also uniquely reflects his Scottish heritage, though in a subtle, rather than full-in-the-face manner. It is this balance that really makes it so attractive and fresh on the ear, even for those who might feel that they’ve already run the complete gamut, as far as Romantic piano music is concerned.
The opening four-movement Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 14
makes one immediately think of Grieg’s early essay in the same form and key which predates O’Brien’s by some forty-five years. While there are occasional reminiscences, both rhythmically and harmonically – Grieg’s great-grandfather, Alexander Greig (note the change of spelling) left his native Scotland after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and travelled widely. He eventually settled in Norway around 1770, where he established business interests in Bergen where Edvard Grieg was both born and eventually died.
O’Brien’s Sonata opens in the manner of a two-part invention, leaning stylistically on Mendelssohn, and feeling hesitant and anxious, rather than Grieg’s opening, which is forthright and assertive from the very first bar. The development features a stylistic trait which O’Brien made good use of, even if one of his teachers, Hamish MacCunn, perhaps the best-known Scottish composer of the day, disapproved – ‘splashy broken chords’. Here these prove especially effective in this rhetorical style of piano-writing. The ensuing Scherzo, in the tonic major is fleet-of-foot, while its Trio section is waltz-like in character, but it’s the ‘Lento cantabile’ slow movement that really tugs at the heartstrings. Cast as a beautiful and deeply affectionate reflection, this is full of emotion, but never simply mawkish for its own sake. The comprehensive sleeve-notes from John Purser, author of ‘Scotland’s Music’ (Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 2007) suggest that part of this is ‘very much in Scottish vein’. This seems a tad more wishful-thinking than something blatantly obvious to the listener, given that the only real ‘evidence’ here is a few Scotch snaps in the melody at one point. The Rondo Finale is certainly more than fit-for-purpose, more academic in conception. It rather predictably blossoms, albeit naturally, into a fugue. This, though, certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome, and eventually O’Brien’s trademark triumphant arpeggios and decorative gyrations bring the work to a resounding close.
The first of the Deux Valses, Op. 25
is entitled ‘L’Adieu’, and is a pleasant, lilting waltz, cast in an intimate salon style. Its partner-piece, ‘Souvenirs’ features a most attractive Trio, where we can almost see the happy couple blissfully whirling on the dance-floor. Although written some years earlier, these two relatively short diversions do bring to mind some of William Lloyd Webber’s compositions in a similar lighter vein.
If there hasn’t seemed a great deal of ‘Scottishness’ so far, then surely the first set of Scottish Scenes, Op. 17
, certainly redresses the balance. To this end, the first piece, ‘Moorland’ is very much a step in the right direction, with its pentatonic melodies – five-note gapped-scales such as D, E, G, A, B – and greater abundance of Scotch snaps, merged with some whole-tone harmonies, and imbued with effective piano writing. The ‘Lombard’ rhythm or ‘Scotch snap’ is a musical rhythm in which a short, accented note is followed by a longer one. This reverses the more usual reversed pattern. ‘Voices of the Glen’ opens with a typically folk-like strain, which becomes darker as it moves into the minor key. It builds to a climax, once more featuring O’Brien’s rippling arpeggios, and the occasional whole-tone scale, before the gentle opening reappears, to the accompaniment of some delicate right-hand filigree patterns. The closing section almost appears to nod in the direction of John Ireland’s early piano-writing. ’Harvest Home’ is a high-speed reel, definitely the most overtly Scottish offering on the CD so far. Its middle section makes good use of drones but O’Brien keeps his harmonic options open, so that the music never becomes predictable or banal. The opening reel returns in much the same way as the dance started and leads to an effective, though not overly theatrical ending.
The last two CD tracks continue in the same vein, this time with the Scottish Scenes, Op. 21
. A three-piece set once more, the opening ‘Tor and Tarn’, again has its fair share of ‘Scotticisms’, and particularly where, on this occasion, the composer contrasts the ‘Scotch snap’ rhythm with its long-short mirror-image. O’Brien adds further to the musical effect by repeating his melodic phrases in different keys, as well as substituting some cadential chords with subtly-altered chromatic alternatives. In thius he again extends the harmonic palette by using notes from less closely-related keys. These significantly enhance the possibilities where melodies are otherwise of typical pentatonic construction. He crafts an especially fine and eminently-impressive pianistic coda here, too, which enhances the overall effect even more.
The second of the set, ‘Mid the Bracken’, is more contemplative, and the opening few bars sound uncannily like the ‘Young Prince and the Young Princess’ theme from Scheherazade
, with a few melodic embellishments. Like most of the pieces in these two sets, the design is ternary (ABA). Here again there is significant harmonic expansion in the contrasting middle section with a gentle inclusion of an occasional whole-tone scale — perhaps just a hint of Debussy who was to die the following year. ‘Heather Braes’ rounds the set off, in much the same way as ‘Harvest Home’ did in the earlier Op. 17 group. There is much bravura-writing here, with O’Brien’s rippling arpeggios again to the fore. The contrasting middle-section suggests definite folk origins and is very much heightened by the occasional ‘altered’ scale-note, which seems to allude perhaps to the sound of a shepherd’s pipe heard on a remote hillside. An imposing chromatic build-up leads to a return of the opening theme, again with its bravura reprise which, after a gentler interlude, develops into a somewhat notable conclusion.
While ‘The award-winning concert-pianist Warren Mailley-Smith’ is an unfamiliar name to me, he does a good job here, sympathetic to the music itself, and with a technique that can do justice to its at times quite intricate and dazzling figurations. The difficulty is always in playing with complete abandon – something which a lot of this music cries out for – while ever mindful of the need for clinical accuracy, and something which is less of an issue on a live-CD recording. Whether Mailley-Smith was specifically chosen to pioneer the piano music of Charles O’Brien because of an affinity for and association with the composer’s music, or for some other reason, he certainly does a convincing job of the task in hand and, as ever, the instrument is well recorded.
As mentioned above, the subtle manner in which O’Brien skilfully integrates a genuine Scottish element, rather than simply trades on it, makes this yet another attractive disc from a company always seemingly willing to take a chance, in these still none-too-certain economic times.
If you’re already tempted by Volume One, then, like me, you’ll no doubt eagerly be waiting for Volume Two to appear. Most enjoyable, and uncomplicated listening.
Philip R Buttall