Harold CRAXTON (1885-1971)
Caroline Goodwin (soprano)
James McOran Campbell (baritone)
Alison Moncrieff Kelly (violoncello)
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. Craxton Studios, London, June 2000
HAROLD CRAXTON TRUST HCRAX1 [64.31]
In a recent review of the 2015 Husum Piano Music Festival CD (DACOCD779) I praised Harold Craxton’s ‘Siciliano and Rigadon’ played by Jonathan Plowright. I wondered ‘how many recordings there are of Harold Craxton’s music?’ I imagined that there would have been ‘precious few.’ For one thing I felt that ‘Craxton is a name that is usually remembered in connection with the Associated Board (AB)’ and the hard toil of piano grades. So imagine my delight and surprise when Christopher Howell emailed me to explain that, way back in 2000, the Craxton Trust had issued a CD of the composer’s music: piano, cello and vocal. He had been instrumental in its performance and production. It had passed me by at the time: clearly I had not persisted in ‘Googling’ as I prepared my review of Husum 2015. In mitigation, I did check a couple of CD websites and found nothing: I found no review on The Gramophone. Neither did I discover that the present CD is, and has been, available from the Craxton Trust website. Further investigation disclosed a review by Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International from 2001. In addition, Howell has completed a major study of the composer for MusicWeb International: Forgotten Artists - An occasional series by Christopher Howell: 12. Harold Craxton (1885-1971). This explores the composer’s life, works and recorded legacy in considerable detail. So, some 16 years after its release I am reviewing the CD. And I am delighted to say that it has been well worth the (unintended and unrealised) wait. The repertoire may not be ‘revelatory’ but it is honest-to-goodness, always deeply musical, convincingly played and thoroughly enjoyable.
Harold Craxton is best recalled (where recalled at all) for his ‘teaching pieces’. There are also a number of pieces that could be deemed ‘concert works’ and plenty of ‘transcriptions.’ He was the assistant editor of the monumental three-volume Associated Board edition of Beethoven’s piano sonatas: the editor in chief was Donald Tovey. Craxton was interested in early music and published a number of transcriptions of this music. He was a concert pianist in his own right, as well as a teacher. His pupils included Denis Matthews, Peter Katin and Noel Mewton-Wood.
Readers will be glad that I do not intend to elaborate on all 22 tracks. However, a few comments on some of the pieces that particularly struck me may be of interest. The repertoire is divided into piano solos, songs and a few numbers for cello and piano. The text of the liner notes of this present CD appear on MusicWeb International, as well as a list of the Craxton’s works.
One of the problems that would appear to afflict Craxton’s transcriptions and realisations of early music is the boundary between the original and Craxton’s imagination and inventiveness. The opening piece and title track, ‘The Plaint of Love’, derived from ‘A Lute Book, c 1535’ is a deeply thoughtful work that seems to defy time. It could be 16th century or could belong to the 20th century English Musical Renaissance. Witness similar works as Herbert Howells Lambert’s Clavichord etc. The Two Pastoral Pieces, ‘Heather Bells’ and ‘Bird Song’ are poetic tunes that do not conform to historical placement. On the other hand, the ‘Tahitian Dance’ has a tinge (or is it twinge) of modernism about it: Bartok meets Africa or the South Seas. Craxton apparently used material from this dance in his ‘African Dance.’ My favourite piano piece on this CD is ‘A Shepherdess in Porcelain’ which was often used as a Grade exam pieces. Yet its simplicity and subtle beauty defies analysis. Howell includes the ‘Siciliano and Rigadon’, which, as I noted in my Husum 2015 review, was difficult to work out what was Craxton and what ‘Anon.’ I hold that ‘whatever the provenance,’ it is perfectly contrived piece that cannot be ever be out of date.
I enjoyed the songs. I had not realised that Craxton was such an accomplished composer of this genre. Particularly memorable are the Quilteresque setting of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ‘Requiem’ and more complex ‘Mavis’ (L.A. Lefevre). The pieces that feature the cello are all transcriptions. The ‘Almans’ by Richard Johnson, ‘A Maske’ by Giles Farnaby and the plaintive Sonata in B flat by Thomas Arne are all worthy, if a little uninspiring, pieces. They deserve to be given the occasional airing.
The performance is always sincere and showcases these straightforward pieces with integrity and enthusiasm. As noted above, the liner notes by Christopher Howell have been published online, and represent the most extensive essay on the composer produced so far, as well as being an ideal introduction to the present CD. The booklet also includes the texts of the songs. There are the usual mini-biographies of the performers, although these will now be a wee bit out of date.
I thoroughly enjoyed this CD, even if it came to me 15 years late. I hope that there may be more music from Craxton’s pen in the offing someday. There is certainly plenty of it. Meanwhile, I will keep my eyes open in the second-hand shops for any sheet music featuring his original piano pieces.
Previous review: Rob Barnett
The Plaint of Love (from a Lute Book, c. 1535) Freely transcribed by Craxton. Pianoforte (1935) [2:39]
Two Almans by Richard Johnson transcribed by Harold Craxton. Violoncello and pianoforte (1931) [5:07]
O mistress mine (Shakespeare). Baritone and pianoforte (1944) [1:42]
Meditation (Vita in ligno moritur) (from a Lute Book, c. 1530). Freely arranged by Harold Craxton. Pianoforte (1938) [3:30]
A Maske by Giles Farnaby transcribed by Harold Craxton. Violoncello and pianoforte (1931) [3:01]
It was a lover and his lass (Shakespeare) Soprano and pianoforte. (1944) Performing edition Christopher Howell [1:50]
Siciliano and Rigadon (c. 1735) Freely transcribed by Harold Craxton. Pianoforte (1935) [3:37]
Sonata in B flat by T. A. Arne transcribed by Harold Craxton. Violoncello and pianoforte (1931) [5:28]
A Requiem (R. L. Stevenson). Baritone and pianoforte (1914) [1:24]
Woodland Lullaby. Pianoforte (1917) [3:31]
Oh! To see the Cabin Smoke (P. J. O'Reilly). Soprano and pianoforte (1915) [3:31]
Two Mazurkas. Pianoforte (1937)
No.1 in F minor [1:13]
No.2 in D flat major [2:46]
Beloved, I am lonely (May Aldington). Baritone and pianoforte (1926) [2:39]
Mavis (Lefevre). Baritone and pianoforte (1914) [4:12]
A Shepherdess in Porcelain. Pianoforte (1917) [2:17]
Two Pastoral Preludes. Pianoforte (1931)
Heather Bells [1:20]
Bird Song ("I love my love and my love loves me") [2:30]
Hearts in Love (Edward Oxenford). Soprano and pianoforte (1915) [2:09]
The Snowdrop (Norman Gale). Soprano and pianoforte (1924) [1:13]
A Tahitian Dance (founded upon native rhythms) Pianoforte (1931) [3:32]
Bourrée Humoresque (founded on an 18th Century tune) Pianoforte (1938) [2:40]