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Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Visions
Berceuse (1911) [4:20]
Poems (1912) [15:06]
Lotus Land, op.47, no.1 (1905) [5:00]
Water-Wagtail, op.71, no.3 (1910, rev.1915) [2:37]
Sphinx, op.63 (1908) [4:44]
Intermezzo, op.67, no.3 (1910) [2:36]
Summerland, op.54 (1907) [7:00]
Two Pierrot Pieces, op.35 (1904) [6:22]
Columbine, op.47, no.2 (1905) [4:27]
Three Little Waltzes, op.58 (1906) [5:22]
‘Morning song of the jungle’ from Impressions from the Jungle Book (1912) [2:30]
Over the Prairie, no.2 ‘allegretto’ (1911) [3:22]
Nino Gvetadze (piano)
rec. 2019, Muziekgebouw Frits Philips, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72819 [63:38]

Readers will not require a detailed biography of Cyril Scott (1879-1970). However, a few pointers may be of interest. In the last years of the nineteenth century, Scott studied in Germany under Iwan Knorr. He was one of the ‘Frankfurt Group’ which also included Roger Quilter, Henry Balfour Gardiner, Percy Grainger and Norman O'Neill. Although Cyril Scott is remembered typically for his short piano pieces and to a much lesser extent his songs, his musical achievement covered a wide range of genres. These include operas, symphonies, concerti and orchestral music. Often regarded as the ‘English Debussy’, he has written music that is sensitive, makes use of impressionist harmonies and devices, as well as presenting intensely poetic ideas in music. Yet, this is not the full story. Scott did not shy away from progressive techniques and explored the use of shifting metres and time signatures, unorthodox chordal progressions and capricious modulations. Beside his musical composition, he was an enthusiastic author writing about ‘alternative’ medicine, adult education and occult philosophy.

In the first years of the 21st century, the Canadian pianist Leslie De’Ath issued a definitive collection of five CDs (nine discs) on the Dutton Epoch label, which covered the ‘Complete Piano Music’ of Cyril Scott. Clearly any subsequent recital of Scott’s piano music will be judged against this magnum opus. The present soloist Nino Gvetadze is never found wanting.

The present CD opens with the lovely cradle song ‘Berceuse’. This is a dreamy piece that would certainly lull the senses of a child of any age. I did not really know the five Poems written in 1912. I guess that I have heard them before but have never really listened. That was my loss. Leslie De’Ath states that some critics think that this is Scott’s ‘most accomplished mature piano cycle.’ They are certainly skilful and original in effect. It is unusual in that each piece (in the score) is prefaced by a poem written by the composer. The titles of these are: ‘Poppies’, ‘The Garden of Soul-Sympathy’, ‘Bells’, ‘The Twilight of the Year’ and ‘Paradise Birds’. Each number offers music that is largely ‘non tonal’ and somewhat free rhythmically. A contemporary reviewer noted that the ‘constant changing time signatures and numerous accidentals were perplexing to the eye.’ Eaglefield Hull in his study of the composer thinks that ‘it is an interesting occupation to decide whether the poetry or the music achieves the mood with the greater delicacy and the surer touch.’ I enjoyed these pieces, probably helped by being able to follow them with the score. I tend to plump for being more impressed by the music than the verse: the words are just a little too sugary and pre-Raphaelite for my taste.

For many listeners Cyril Scott’s reputation as a composer of piano music rests with the exotic ‘Lotus Land’, op.47, no.1 composed in 1905. If any piece conjures up the then-popular orientalism, it is this one. The listener should look out for the cool pentatonic figurations (black notes on the piano and their transpositions), the gentle drone-like accompaniment, the ravishing arabesques and the glittering glissandi. This languid music is intoxicating in its effect. A perfect piece of impressionism written by a lad from Birkenhead!

‘Water Wagtail’ is almost as popular as ‘Lotus Land’. It mimics musically the bird’s dipping motion. This is a scrumptious, ‘spontaneous’ little piece that never ceases to amaze and delight.

‘Sphinx’ (1908) is another example of music appealing to the period’s obsession with the Middle and Far East. This time, it is Egypt. Here Scott balances some ‘mystical’ chords, an even more mystical incantation and a climax that seems to come from nowhere. The piece ends in introspective mood. It is really a picture post card from Giza, Cairo. I wonder what Cyril Scott would have thought if he had known that, in 2020, there was a Pizza Hut not 100 yards from the Sphinx?

The ‘Intermezzo’ is the third of Scott’s Four Pieces for piano published in 1910. This introduces a gorgeous melody accompanied by arpeggiated chords on the left hand. It reminds the listener of Chopin. This is straightforward music, but perfectly stated.

To the esoteric mind, Summerland is a place where the soul goes to reflect on its past life and to plan for eternity. Scott’s short suite includes ‘Playtime’, ‘Song from the East’, ‘Evening Idyll’ and ‘Fairy Folk’. It is hard to know whether this is a little work for younger pianists or if its philosophical underpinning requires a more mature hand. The two most pleasing numbers are the first two. This music owes much to Edward MacDowell and Edvard Grieg.

Three pieces on this CD refer to the traditions of the Italian commedia dell’arte and French pantomime. The Two Pierrot Pieces contrast a chromatically lugubrious and maudlin Pierrot in the opening ‘Lento’ with a musically light-hearted portrayal of him in a happy and cheerful mood. They are two remarkable little pieces that share something of the ‘sad sentimental vulgarity of the music-hall’. ‘Columbine’ is a charming portrait of Pierrot’s lover. It is full of fascination, ‘feigned’ etiquette and gentle flirtation.

The Three Little Waltzes could be written off as ‘mere’ salon music. But for me there is something touching about these short pieces. Composed when Scott was studying at Frankfurt, they are ‘backward glances’ at half-remembered nights at the dance. They could be derided as being over-sentimental, especially the second number. To me, they are well-written, honest to goodness pieces.

For most people these days Jungle Book is epitomised by the wonderful Walt Disney animated film released in 1967. In 2016, Disney remade the film. I have seen the former several times, but not the latter: I am not an enthusiast of film ‘remakes.’ What is often forgotten is the original text underlying Mowgli’s journey of discovery. Rudyard Kipling is an author that often troubles ‘woke’ bibliophiles, but his Jungle Book (along with much of his fiction) is well worth reading today. George Orwell, not a great fan of Kipling, made a definitive statement about the author: ‘every enlightened person has despised him...nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten, and Kipling is in some sense still there.’ When Cyril Scott composed his Impressions from the Jungle Book, Kipling was highly regarded: there was little doubt that he was an important and innovative author. Scott’s Impressions, of which there are five, may be regarded as being na´ve. Certainly, there is a cinematographic ‘realism’ about some of them, such as the ‘Dance of the Elephants’ and the sinuous ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and the Snake’. The extract presented here, ‘Morning song of the jungle’ is not programmatic or descriptive: it is quite simply a mood picture. It could evoke early morning in the depths of the jungles of India or the River Thames on a misty morning at Isleworth. Quite lovely.
 
The final work is the second piece from the short suite Over the Prairie. The track listing does not mention this fact. This music is evocative of the ‘uncanny eeriness’ of the wide-open space. Although I appreciated Gvetadze’s account of this lovely piece, I do think that it is played here just a wee bit too slowly. Certainly, Leslie De’Ath performs this at what I would regard the correct tempo, ‘allegretto’. Finally, could the opening ‘andante’ of this delicious Suite not have been ‘squeezed in’?

The liner notes consist of four parts. Firstly, Nino Gvetadze presents a short appreciation of Cyril Scott, and explains how she came to enjoy his music. This is followed by a superb introductory essay by the late Desmond Scott, written in 2005. There is the usual resume of the performer. A bonus here are the texts of the ‘verses’ printed in the score of the Poems (1912) noted above. The only issue I have with the booklet is that there is no discussion or analysis of the works included on this disc. No dates for each work are given. I had to refer to several books, CD inserts and other literature to gain this information. Not every listener will have access to this material.

I am enthused by this new CD of Cyril Scott’s piano music. It serves as a splendid introduction to his large catalogue of piano music. Georgian pianist Nino Gvetadze gives a memorable and perfectly executed account of these diverse pieces. In her website she writes that her teacher ‘entrusted me to play Lotus Land by Cyril Scott, the piece that took me under its spell from the very first bars.’ It is clear from this CD that his faith was not misplaced. This album gives an encouraging and inspiring ‘glimpse into the atmospheric, rich, beautiful, tender, sometimes wayward and meditative world of Cyril Scott.
 
John France




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