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Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935)
Complete Music for Solo Piano - Volume 1
Six Compositions, op.20 (1879) [22:57]
Trois Morceaux, op.15 (1877) [17:10]
Jottings – 6 Cheerful Little Pieces (1916) Books 1 and 2 (1916) [13:53]
English Air with Variations, op.81 (1915) [12:26]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 2016/17, Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan

This is the first volume of a three-part survey of the entire corpus of piano music written by the Scottish composer and academic Sir Alexander Mackenzie. It presents four attractive and interesting works, which are entertaining, always enjoyable, and well-crafted.

Biographical details of the composer are widely available in reference books and websites. Modesty nearly, but not quite, prevents me from providing this link to a short introduction that I wrote last year. For the purpose of this review, three things need to be recalled: first, Alexander Mackenzie, along with Parry and Stanford is often seen as one of the pillars of the English Musical Renaissance, which began in the late 1800s; secondly, despite his Scottish birth, he does not often indulge in out and out ‘tartanry’. There are naturally several exceptions to this, including the Pibroch Suite for violin and orchestra and the Scottish Piano Concerto and there are the Burns Rhapsodies for orchestra, but even here his use of Scotticisms is typically subtle rather than overt. Finally, there is nothing avant-garde here; the great Romantic composers of Wagner, Liszt and Schumann often infuse this music. In his piano works, Chopin is sometimes a model and every so often the listener will hear an echo (or is it anticipation?) of Edward Elgar. Mackenzie is typically a European composer rather than a Scottish, or even British, national one.

Christopher Howell, in the liner notes, explains that the opening Six Compositions, op.20 (1879) were dedicated to a certain Miss May Ross Gillespie, who, he imagines, was an accomplished amateur pianist. That said, these pieces are no cinch to play, despite being in the much derided ‘salon music’ genre. The opening ‘Hymnus’ has nothing fusty about it; it is a little song of praise that is wholly uplifting. The ‘Ritornello’ does, as the title suggests, and repeats the refrain in a pleasingly coquettish manner. The ‘Reminiscence’ is an example of Mackenzie’s understated use of a Celtic idiom. This is the most thoughtful movement in this these Compositions. The ‘Chasse aux Papillons Étude’ is a musically interesting little study that is hardly for beginners. I loved the ‘Reverie’ which looks forward to the composer’s ever popular Benedictus, originally written for violin and piano and subsequently orchestrated. The final ‘Dance’ is a vibrant little rondo. In one of the episodes Mackenzie has introduced a sly nod to his heritage: a few Scotch snaps and just the hint of a bagpipe drone. This is an altogether captivating set of pieces which gets this survey of Mackenzie’s piano music off to a great start.

If any work on this CD deserves a place in the repertoire of pianists, it is the ‘Trois Morceaux’ op.15 composed in 1878. Chopin is the obvious influence over the first two numbers. The ‘Valse Sérieuse’ balances typically melancholy opening and closing sections with something a little more acerbic in the middle ‘eight’. This is followed by the heartbreakingly beautiful ‘Nocturne’ which is my favourite number on this CD. The ‘soaring’ theme is partnered with an almost unremitting triplet accompaniment. The cognoscenti would state that this music is wholly derivative and they would be correct. But who cares? Mackenzie has created a perfect nocturnal mood that inspires and moves the listener. It is a little bit of heaven. If Classic FM gave it a chance it could become a national favourite. Eulogising over!

Robert Schumann is the inspiration for the ‘Ballade’. There is no indication as to what the underlying ‘story’ may have been. This three-part work opens with a typically Schumannesque ‘moto perpetuo’ written in a rapid 6/8-time signature. The middle section is in complete contrast. Here Mackenzie seems once again to recall his Scottish background. For a moment, we are conscious of the hills of heather and the tales of the Highlands. Then the ‘toccata’ returns to complete what is clearly a ballad of both joy and sadness.

Jottings (in two books) were composed for the educational market in 1916. Howell explains that they were dedicated to ‘his [Mackenzie’s] friend Samuel Aitken’, who had been ‘a vigorous if sometimes abrasive secretary to the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in the later 1890s’. The titles of these six Jottings owe much to the prevailing pastoralism: ‘On the Village Green’, ‘Gossiping’, ‘Drums and Trumpets’, ‘Humours,’ ‘A Game in the Garden’ and the final ‘“Heave Ho!” - Sea Song’. My favourite number is this modal finale. As with a lot of ‘teaching pieces’, Mackenzie is not in the least patronising towards the tyro. He seems to have put as much care into these delightful miniatures as in his major works. They are fun and present portraits of a world no longer relevant to ‘the wiser youngsters of today.’ (Robert Louis Stevenson). I hope that one day the score of this little collection is made available for the less-young pianist like myself - I would enjoy playing them.

The most substantial essay on this disc is the English Air with Variations, op.81. This was composed in 1915. The theme has not been identified; it is possible that the composer has made a ‘pastiche’ that ticks all the boxes for an ‘English Air’. This is a major set of variations, that explores a wide range of pianistic formulae. The most remarkable is the fourth. Here Mackenzie has created a passage of ‘pungent dissonances’ that seem quite out of character for a high-Victorian composer. Yet somehow, they feel right at this point in the work’s progress. Listeners will note the almost Elgarian sonorities of the penultimate ‘lento.’ The finale is massive and musically complex. This is an incredibly enjoyable and satisfying set of variations for piano that has seldom been excelled by any British composer in any age. It deserves a secure niche in the repertoire of all pianists who love the music of our country.

The liner notes are always extremely important in any CD exploring music that has been largely unheard for several generations. Christopher Howell has provided a model example. There are some succinct biographical details which present the personality of the composer as well as some interesting details about his personal circumstances and his wide-ranging music achievement. The introduction to the piano works is essential reading which allows the listener to develop a paradigm for understanding this music. Finally, there are short but concise discussions about each work. This is extremely useful, as there is virtually nothing else in critical literature that features this information. I concede that there may well be several contemporary reviews hiding away in archives, but as of now, there is no essay or dissertation entitled The Piano Music of Alexander Mackenzie. Finally, there are the usual notes about the performer. My only (minor) concern is that the cover is just a wee bit drab.

It should be noted that Murray McLachan recorded a small selection of Mackenzie’s piano music on The Scottish Romantics (DivineArt DDA 25003). It was reviewed here and here.

I was impressed by the sound quality of this CD which emphasises the excellent tone of the piano. Howell has given all four works (and their several parts) an ideal recital. Certainly, following the sheet music (where possible) revealed an accurate and committed account.

I look forward to reviewing the remaining two volumes in this series of Mackenzie’s piano music. Based on this present CD, I imagine that the ‘journey of exploration’ of this little-known repertoire will be equally enjoyable and satisfactory.

John France

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