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Helen HOPEKIRK (1856–1945)
Iona Memories (1902-7) [17:27]
Romance in A minor (1885) [3:30]
Serenade in F sharp major (1891) [3:54]
Five Scottish Folk Songs (1919) [6:33]
Sundown (1905) [2:50]
Serenata Suite - No. 1 maestoso (1918) [3:16]
Suite for Piano (1917) [6:26]
Waltz in F sharp major (c. 1915-20) [4:18]
Two Compositions for Piano – No. 1 Shadows (1924) [3:04]
Robin Good-Fellow (1922) [2:12]
Two Tone-Pictures (1929-30) [4:34]
Gary Steigerwalt (piano)
rec. 2016, McCulloch Auditorium, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts

A quick glance at Toccata Classics’ catalogue shows the immense range of music that they have recorded, and here to supplement it we have a CD of piano music by a ‘forgotten’ Scotswoman, who had a very successful career as an international pianist as well as a composer. I had never heard of her, and yet her career was one of note, and her compositions presented here range from a Romance composed when she was 29 to Two Tone Pictures, based on Hebridean folk song composed some 45 years later.

Her teachers included Carl Reinecke at The Leipzig Conservatoire, and so given that institution’s reputation for conservatism one might expect her compositions to be similarly limited. That is not really the case though. Following her studies with Reinecke and successful British and American tours, she was open minded enough to want to study piano again, this time under Liszt, but he died before she could do so. Instead she ‘settled’ for Theodore Leschetizky, one of the most famous piano teachers ever, who included such giants as Schnabel, Brailowsky and Moiseiwitsch in his list of students.

She married in 1882, and her husband, a successful business man gave up most of his management duties at his company in order to manage her concert career, and then to financially support her when she wanted to devote more time to composition. She spent many years in America after she was appointed to head the piano department at The New England Conservatory.

And so to the music: there is nothing here that has the immense power and emotional scale of Rachmaninov nor the imaginative detail of Ravel, but there doesn’t have to be given the titles of the pieces; no solo sonata, and no concerto (she composed one – it is lost, alas).

We get an indication of the way her style evolved over the years; from the standard European/Brahmsian virtuoso style of the Serenade to the third of the cycle Iona Memories – a rather memorable piece entitled In The Ruins in which we can hear that she had been studying the music of Debussy as does the rather attractive Shadows of 1924.

In 1905 she composed a short piano piece Sundown, inspired by a poem by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903). It became popular, so much so that she orchestrated it, and it was played many times by the Boston Pops Orchestra.

The title Iona Memories gives us an idea that she was influenced by her Scottish heritage, and indeed she was; between 1901 and 1907 she toured Iona and Oban collecting the folk music, and the results of that research coupled with further reading resulted in a spate of folk-inspired character pieces created in the last 25 years of her life. The Two Tone Pictures of 1929-30 are re-interpretations for piano of a Highland form of singing called port-a-beul (mouth music) in which some or all of the lyrics are meaningless syllables. The second of these, The Seal Woman’s Sea-Joy, has words that are meaningless, but the traditional melody is memorable.

I have really enjoyed listening to this CD, obviously because of the music but also because the performances and recording are so fine, and are accompanied by an encyclopaedic booklet written by the pianist Gary Steigerwalt and his wife, Dana Muller. They are devoted to researching and performing Hopekirk’s music – Muller has prepared a performing version of the Concertstuck for Piano and Orchestra as part of a doctoral dissertation on the composer - and doubtless the immense detail presented to us in the booklet derives from this devotion.

Jim Westhead



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