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Harold TRUSCOTT (1914-1992)
Piano Music - Volume 1
Piano Sonata No. 7 in C major (1956) [12.26]
Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme (1967) [17.23]
Suite in G major (1966) [11.44]
Sonata No. 5 in B minor In Memoriam Nikolai Medtner (1951-55) [33.29]
Ian Hobson (piano)
rec. 4-6 August 2014, Foellinger Great Hall of the Krannert Centre for Performing Arts, Urbana, Illinois, U.S.A.
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0252 [75.02]

Ian Hobson has taken it upon himself to investigate Harold Truscott in depth - a much-neglected figure in British music. The generously filled CD was made just a few days before the actual centenary of the composer’s birth an event otherwise totally overlooked by the musical establishment. However Hobson is not the first. Back in 1983-4 Peter Jacobs recorded some LPs of Truscott’s piano sonatas for Altarus (sonatas 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15) all with superb annotation including musical quotations. Add to this complement a BMS cassette (no longer available) of Jacobs playing sonatas 6 and 17 and a CD of a selection of Harold Truscott's chamber music (Marco Polo 8.223727).

Even so most of us knew Truscott as a fine writer on music especially promoting composers who were neglected (Algernon Ashton; Franz Schmidt; Rubbra, Havergal Brian) and by writing liner-notes for companies like Lyrita (Rubbra; Hurlstone). Reading the expert notes supplied by Guy Rickards for this new disc I have discovered even more about Truscott the man and especially the background to the two big sonatas which bookend the CD. Rickards has also written a major article on Truscott for this website a number of years ago, which I commend to you.

In terms of length the Sonata No. 7 is not actually big, but in strength and depth it is a massive canvas. It's appropriate that it should open the bowling in this series as it is not only the composer's most performed work, tallying now six outings, but the one of which he seems to have been most proud. Couched in one movement its coruscating textures relentlessly exercise the full extent of the pianist’s ability. The writing at times reminded me of Ronald Stevenson and Alkan - whom Truscott much admired and wrote about. Its opening ideas, four brief ones which form an exposition are cleverly developed in sonata form. The composer felt, quite rightly, that the power of this movement could not be succeeded by anything else. So a torso it remains, but a mesmerising one.

On listening to the Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme I could see why Truscott had been an admirer of another, often overlooked figure, Edmund Rubbra. The theme is a quite deliberate attempt at line drawing of useful intervallic relations. These are worked through both thoroughly and imaginatively and the well contrasted twenty variations are capped by a towering and lengthy fugue. Rubbra wrote several works ending in such a way, for example in the Third and Seventh symphonies and a few piano pieces. It’s extraordinary that this is its first performance as it is a piece which has an earnest and craggy beauty which transcends the date of composition.

I first came across the Suite in G major when it was given in its original orchestral garb on Marco Polo (8.223674) recorded, ironically, in the year after Truscott’s death by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. The orchestral piece had had a peremptory run-through by a youth orchestra and was then shelved much to the composer’s ‘great sadness’. The piano version is a rescue attempt and it comes across as a powerful work in which the orchestral textures and colours are exhaustively developed especially in the massive finale. The opening Tempo alla Marcia is a peremptory prelude to the ensuing, quite complex, fugue; a Sarabande comes third. The overall impression is one of knowing that the music is diatonic and familiar and yet also an unsettling feeling of being taken into realms of such originality that one can’t be quite sure if the music has value or distinction. This is a very odd emotion indeed.

It's true that the vast Piano Sonata No. 5 was written in memory of Medtner who had died in 1951 and whom Truscott clearly much admired. However this is the music of a composer who is more in the line of Beethoven than in the more subtle aspects of Debussy and Ravel or the Russian school. I’m not really impressed by it. Throughout much of the piece the composer seems to blast his way through in the hope that if he shouts loud enough someone will pay him attention. Perhaps Ian Hobson could have brought out what few delicate moments there are more obviously but the consistently thick almost overwhelming textures does not wear well. The recording, which is somewhat studio-bound and airless, does not help. Havergal Brian, a friend and admirer of Truscott, liked the sonata and there are stylistic similarities between them especially in the Moderato con anima first movement and in the Moderato con moto e pesante finale. Transitions between ideas are often quite abrupt - a Brian characteristic. This is identified with some suggested changes by Brian in a letter to Truscott which quoted in the liner-notes. The chord writing can be massively unrelenting. The passacaglia Adagio uses a ten-note, mainly falling figure. To my ears this simple crotchet pattern falls into 10/8 not 11/8 which the booklet states. The trio of the second movement falls into a clear but stodgy 5/8. These uneven time signatures do help to add some sort of variety. This is not a work I shall return to but the rest of the CD has much to attract and interest.

The performances are, as far as one can tell, passionate and also immaculate. The recordings however are nothing to write home about. They have an immediacy but as I commented above this is not always helpful. Toccata promises us that this is Volume 1. There are some 22 Truscott piano sonatas plus various miscellaneous works. Does that mean that we might be able to hear all of them? How many volumes will that be? Watch this space.

Gary Higginson



 

 




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