John FIELD (1782-1837)
Concertos, Sonatas & Nocturnes
Benjamin Frith (piano)
Northern Sinfonia/David Haslam
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Andrew Mogrelia
NAXOS 8.506033 [6 CDs: 372:48]
This box collates Benjamin Frith’s single discs of John Field’s seven concertos (plus the ‘Irish’ concerto, a re-working of the opening movement of the Concerto No 2), his four sonatas and his complete nocturnes which Naxos issued between 1997 and 2002, although the compilation featuring the Concerto No 7, the ‘Irish’ Concerto and the fourth sonata only emerged in 2016, with the latter two works recorded as recently as 2013 and 2014. The original discs were in general critically lauded; contemporary MWI reviews of three of the six can be read here, here and here.
I have long been an admirer of Benjamin Frith and consider him to be among the most under-rated of British pianists. As a measure of his versatility, I hold his account of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen with Peter Hill in very high esteem and I enjoyed his recent account of another work with Irish connections, Stanford’s Piano Concerto No 2 on the Champs Hill label. He first made his name on CD in the late 1990s with pretty well received accounts of Schumann and Mendelssohn for Naxos, as well as these Field recordings.
A lot is made of Field’s ‘Irishness’. Too much, in my view. He was born in Dublin, made a debut there as a nine-year-old prodigy and promptly moved to England with his parents a year later. His father arranged lessons with Clementi in London, and he composed his Piano Concerto No 1 at the age of 17. In 1802 He travelled with his teacher to Paris and thereafter to St Petersburg, where he settled, married and basically remained for the rest of his days. The cover of the box has a dramatic photograph of a ruined castle on the Irish coast. There are pictures of Irish locations on two of the six individual discs. Field was essentially Irish by birth, but no more. These connections have been reinforced over the years, however, as Frith’s major competitors in this repertoire have proved to be Míċeál O'Rourke (on Chandos) and John O'Conor (discs of sonatas, nocturnes and a couple of concertos on Telarc, as well as a complete concerto cycle on Onyx). Yet there is scarcely a trace of Irishness in any of this music, notwithstanding the existence of the ‘Irish’ concerto here (in fact this is a re-working of the opening movement of the Concerto No 2, which is expanded to incorporate a nocturne); in any case its subtitle is something of a mystery.
Elegance is the watchword in Frith’s readings of the concertos. He projects delicacy and sensitivity throughout, and even when a bit more rough-and-tumble assertiveness is required, as in the opening movement of the peculiar Concerto No 5, Frith is somewhat restrained, especially compared to O’Conor. This work’s subtitle L'incendie par l'orage (The Fire by the Storm) is thought to be a reference to the defeat of Napoleon in 1812 and employs some percussion effects which many listeners will find most unusual given the date of its composition. It’s possibly the pick of the seven, not just for this gimmickry but also for the winning melodic invention of its outer movements, but to my ears alas, the concertos as a set, for all their surface charm and pianistic poise, fatally lack distinctiveness and identity. No 2 is probably the best known and receives a dynamic performance from Frith and Haslam – as well as an excellent recording. But I find the ’sameness’ of structure and material in these concertos a real barrier to my appreciation of them, if truth be told. If the youthful Concerto No 1 seems derivative, it at least projects a sense of momentum and at twenty minutes in total it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. It is the exception in the cycle, as in my view the other six all feature overlong, frankly rambling first movements which may seem superficially attractive but overdevelop rather unmemorable melodic material. This is especially true in Nos 2 and 4; not for nothing did John O’Conor make a number of judicious cuts in his recordings of the concertos.
At the other extreme, when a decent tune or episode does come along, such as the in the G minor Siciliano slow movement of the Concerto No 4, no sooner has it registered than Field moves on, seemingly at a loss in terms of what to do with it. Frith is committed and more convinced by the music than I am; technically I feel he is superior to O’Rourke and he is certainly the equal of O’Conor. I have to admit that it is an abiding frustration that I have repeatedly failed to find my way with these works – I feel it is the sort of repertoire I should ‘get’; yet it really doesn’t speak to me in the same way that say, Dussek does, to name one of Field’s contemporaries. David Haslam’s accompaniments with the Northern Sinfonia are consistently well turned and unfailingly sympathetic, but to my ears Field’s orchestration is faded-pastel dull. Nor is this the fault of the recording; in all seven of the concertos the piano sound rather bucks the trend of Naxos recordings of this vintage: it sounds pretty natural and is well integrated with the orchestra into the overall sound picture.
If the last six of the concertos are overlong, this obviously isn’t an issue with Field’s most famous creations, the 18 Nocturnes. Again, alas, I don’t view these works with the reverent awe of many of my respected colleagues. They are pleasant, undemanding pieces; all bar three are in major keys which again contributes to a rather generalised mode of expression, and to be fair Frith makes the most convincing case among the versions I’ve heard to mine some distinctive essence from each of them. Among the most interesting are the tenth piece, an E minor miniature of disarming poignancy, and, ironically, given my comments about Field’s ‘rambling’, the dramatic fourteenth Nocturne in C, which heads off in some unexpectedly rewarding directions and for once justifies its nine minutes, though by one’s common understanding of the term this is perhaps less of a ‘nocturne’ and more of a ‘fantasia’. (The same could be said of the seventeenth nocturne, although I find that piece much less inspiring). O’Conor recorded these works for Telarc over two discs with the sonatas; they boast superb sound but I feel Frith offers a more differentiated series of interpretations. The more recently recorded account by Elizabeth Joy Roe for Decca also enjoys de-luxe sonics although I found her readings a little ‘forced’ - my colleague Bert Bailey clearly disagreed in his review. One thing that critics seem to find consensus in terms of Field’s nocturnes is that they are best appreciated in groups of three or four at a time –playing all eighteen at one sitting is likely to be counterproductive.
The pieces in this set which did provide me with unalloyed pleasure, perhaps surprisingly, are Field’s four sonatas, the first three of which actually constitute his Opus 1. These are fresh, teenage inspirations, and completely unaffected by the pressures of expectation or experience. They are perfectly balanced two movement works, and there is a bounce and swing in Frith’s accounts which project palpable vernal radiance. The C minor third sonata is an especial delight, its structure unexpectedly sophisticated for one so young. The fourth sonata emerged more than a decade later and is in the unusual key of B major; its concluding Rondo is quietly captivating – it also boasts the most natural piano sound in the entire set – having been recorded in 2013 at Champs Hill.
I am well aware that John Field has an army of fans, and my personal feelings about his music are quite possibly a reflection of my own failings. As I mentioned, I have repeatedly tried to give this composer a go, and I can certainly report that I have been more consistently convinced by Benjamin Frith in this repertoire than by those competitors I have mentioned in this review. This six-disc set appears to be retailing for about £28, and contains all of Field’s music that one is ever likely to need or know, in performances which are always sincere and committed, and in perfectly decent sound. Those who do admire this composer, and who may not have encountered Frith before, need not hesitate.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, H27 (1799/1814) [20:49]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in A flat major, H31 (1816) [35:01]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major, H32 (1816) [31:02]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in E flat major, H28 (1814) [33:26]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in C major, L'incendie par l'orage, H39 (1817) [26:45]
Piano Concerto No. 6 in C major, H49 (1819) [30:38]
Piano Concerto No. 7 in C minor, H58 (1822-32) [31:54]
‘Irish’ Concerto (arr. by Hans Priegnitz of Allegro moderato from Piano Concerto No 2) (1816/1961) [22:40]
Piano Sonata No. 1 in E-Flat Major, Op. 1 No. 1, H8A (1801) [10:31]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 1 No. 2, H8A (1801) [11:19]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in C minor Op. 1 No. 3, H8A (1801) [14:32]
Piano Sonata No. 4 in B Major, H17A (1813) [11:34]
18 Nocturnes (1812-1836) [92:37]
rec. January 1996, June 1996 and January 1997, Jubilee Theatre, St. Nicholas Hospital, Newcastle, UK (Piano Concertos 1-7); August 2014, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland (Irish Concerto); August 1995 and April 1996, St Martin's Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire, UK (Piano Sonatas 1-3 and Nocturnes); June 2013, The Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK (Piano Sonata No 4)