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Sir Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935)
Complete Music for Solo Piano - Volume Three
Scenes in the Scottish Highlands, op.23 (1880) [20:34]
Variations in E minor (1861 or earlier) [06:03]
Nocturne in A (1861 or earlier) [05:44]
Morris Dance (1899) [03:42]
Six Song Transcriptions by Giuseppe Buonamici (later than 1885) [19:12]
Varying Moods, op.88 (1921) [15:22]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 2017, Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan, Italy

This third and final disc in Christopher Howell’s exploration of Alexander Mackenzie’s complete piano music reprises the protocols of the previous two releases. Early works are juxtaposed with late ones and no attempt is made at a strictly chronological survey. This allows for creative programming decisions to be made, as here, where Scenes in the Scottish Highlands, previously recorded by Ronald Brautigam, takes its place alongside Varying Moods, a quartet of diverse mood pieces composed four decades later. In between come some decidedly youthful effusions, the product of Mackenzie’s teenage years.

Scenes in the Scottish Highlands is a three-movement topographical suite that surveys the hillside, the loch and the heather. This work has been praised and there are distinctive and engaging features, but I have tried and failed to find On the Hillside much beyond confident and genial and suffused with Scottish aura and military calls. Its blandishments are, for me, opposed by a repetitious and four-square nature. The central movement however brings out Mackenzie’s gift for lyric warmth, always highly developed, which is increasingly couched in a vocalised form that admits folk-like influence. It’s surely the high point of the work, given the fresh, charming but very slight finale that treads the heather.

The Variations in E minor was composed in 1861 or even earlier. It’s the work of a very accomplished boy, with a strong introduction, and a theme along the lines of bonny laddie meets bloom on the rye. It’s a compact affair, only six minutes long, and each variation has been wisely tracked by Sheva. Display is reserved for the ‘brillante’ finale. From the same period comes the John Field-like Nocturne in A. Christopher Howell is drily amusing when writing of this piece; his sternness is not entirely misplaced either. Is there a wee ghost of Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms about one or two phrases, or maybe it’s coincidence. In any case it’s a nice example of some showy-offy technical writing. A much later Morris Dance, from 1899, is a piece of generic fluff.

Very different and one of Mackenzie’s most inventive and forward-looking pieces is Varying Moods, dedicated to Myra Hess. It was also his final set of piano pieces. Its opening Revery is full of ingratiating charm, and has a real complement of harmonic interest, albeit it could to advantage have been compressed. The dappled firefly quality that irradiates the Ariel study is, as Howell writes, a close cousin of Frank Bridge’s Dew Fairy. The piece that gifts its name to the title of the set is a fluent and engaging waltz whilst the finale is Grotesque Dance, which takes Mackenzie into the post-war world of rhythmic hijinks though not quite, it’s true, cubist abstraction.
Though he was now 74 Mackenzie had over a dozen more years to live. Who knows in what direction a late flowering pianistic enthusiasm might have taken him but on the basis of this last work, he would have admitted contemporary currents into his writing with wit and assurance.

As before, Howell’s booklet notes divide into biography, common to all three volumes, and notes on the music. Here he is as elegant and perceptive as he is a performer. He is a wise and true guide to a variable but valuable portfolio of works, ones that reflect the needs and utilities of the day as well as the freedoms of the musical imagination.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: John France

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