Thomas PITFIELD (1903-1999)
Violin Sonata No. 1 (1939) [16:00]
Three Miniatures for soprano and violin [4:03]
Eight Songs for soprano and piano [14:15]
Three Nautical Sketches for recorder and piano (1983) [4:17]
Rondo alla Tarantella for recorder and piano (1985) [3:36]
Prelude, Minuet and Reel for solo piano (1931) [6:50]
Novelette in F for piano [1953) [3:25]
Studies on an English Dance Tune for piano (1976) [5:24]
Polka for oboe and piano (1947) [2:34]
Oboe Sonata in A minor (1948) [10:04]
Tracey Chadwell (soprano); John McCabe (piano); Dennis Simons (violin); Richard Simpson (oboe); Janet Simpson (piano); Keith Swallow (piano); John Turner (recorder)
rec. Royal Insurance Concert Hall, Royal Northern College of Music, 6 April 1993
originally released 1993 HERITAGE HTGCD210 [69:43]
This is not the first disc of music by the Lancastrian composer Thomas Pitfield but one can hardly say that they are thick on the ground. Perhaps you have the Naxos disc (8.557291: review ~ review) of his two Piano Concertos and other pieces. This disc recorded originally in 1993 has some of the regular performer-supporters of 20th century British music and it’s a joy to find them together. The much lamented Tracey Chadwell (1959-1996) John McCabe (1939-2015) who passed away only last year, Keith Swallow and John Turner, happily both still with us.
Pitfield was really a miniaturist, 'no harm in that' I hear you cry, consequently there are nine sets of works here stretching across almost fifty years of a composing life. Although in his second book 'A Song after Supper’ he describes himself as ‘a rather obscure person’ in the world of musical culture, especially in the north of England it is certainly far from the truth. Yes, he was an author of distinction. In addition, if you leaf through his two beautiful books, you soon realise that he was an even better visual artist.
He illustrated a publication of his own songs, which Forsyths brought out on the occasion of the composer’s 85th birthday, eleven are recorded here. The Three Miniaturesfor soprano and violin are settings of Masefield and the other eight with piano, are by a miscellaneous group of poets including the composer himself (The Child hears rain at night) and his friend Daniel Jones (Naiad). They date from as early as 1938 (Cuckoo and the Chestnut Time) and up to the mid 1980s (Naiad). The language is folk music, or should I say, is modally melodic in inspiration with what is, for me, the highlight setting of Sands of Dee (words by Charles Kingsley) being the most exploratory. Two have a role for the recorder. No texts are printed in the slim booklet but Tracey Chadwell’s diction is largely very clear and all is well balanced.
Pitfield’s music is often marked by a strong, rhythmic vitality and a freshness of melody as in the first of his piano works: the Prelude, Minuet and Reel played so idiomatically by John McCabe to whom the Studies on a English Dance Tune is dedicated and who first performed this appropriately virtuoso set of variants on ‘Jenny Pluck Pears’. The last one is especially rhythmically exciting. The earlier Novellete in F is typically and elegantly melodic. It had been written for Stephen Wearing who had first played Pitfield’s First Piano Concerto.
John Turner, who contributes along with the late Michael Kennedy the useful booklet notes, plays the Three NauticalSketches. These quote at least five well-known melodies including, in the second movement, the famous ‘Tom Bowling’ that undergoes some interesting modulations and developments. This is really fun and captures the imagination during its all too brief existence. Another of the recorder works the Rondo alla Tedesca which uses both treble and sopranino recorders was once the finale of Pitfield's Recorder concerto written for John Turner in 1985. Similarly the funny little Polka for oboe and piano was originally a dance variation which formed part of an aborted Sinfonietta requested by Sir John Barbirolli.
Dennis Simons whose warm and pleasing tone quality has already featured in two of the songs plays Pitfield’s Violin Sonata No 1. This is a four-movement work with a modal melody in the second movement that is worth killing for. The finale Pitfield entitled Cyclic Variations. It has a ‘fanfary’ theme, which is subjected to four variations but with ideas from the three previous movements superimposed but in reverse order. This is proof positive of Pitfield’s technical skill, which easily goes unrecognised.
The CD ends with another oboe work, the two movement Oboe Sonata performed originally by Leon Goossens. Like the Violin Sonata we get a set of variations, which in this case helps to create a sense of slow movement. There's a scherzo and finale in movement 2. The theme is especially attractive, quite melancholy and very English. The work ends in a blaze of vitality and virtuosity: a fine and unusually formed sonata.
I should imagine that the composer was thrilled with his performer friends. It's difficult to imagine more sensitive renditions of these pieces although it would be good to have the opportunity. This is English music at its most modest, subtle and sensitive, easily underrated and overlooked. For anyone with an exploratory outlook it’s well worth investigating.