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Sir George DYSON (1883-1964)
The Open Window - Complete music for piano
Concerto Leggiero arr. for two pianos (1949) [26:26]
The Open Window (1920) [10:13]
Primrose Mount (1928) [2:32]
Bach's Birthday (1929) [5:10]
Untitled Piano Piece (1890) [0:46]
Six Lyrics (1920) [10:47]
My Birthday (1924) [6:11]
Twelve Easy Pieces (1952) [7:08]
Prelude & Ballet (1925) [3:51]
Epigrams (pub. 1920) [12:54]
Three Wartime Epigrams [5:45]
Four Twilight Preludes (1920) [10:04]
Simon Callaghan (piano), Cliodna Shanahan (piano in Concerto Leggiero)
rec. The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d'Abernon, England 17-18 January 2020
SOMM SOMMCD0622 [56:03 + 45:55]

Another debt of gratitude to SOMM for adding one more piece to the great jigsaw puzzle of British 20th Century music. The complete piano music of George Dyson may seem a small if not minor piece of that puzzle but in its own right it is treasurable and enjoyable from first to last. The two discs here run to some 100 minutes of music although it should be noted that a quarter of that running time is taken up by the 2 piano version of the Concerto Leggiero. Of the remainder, roughly forty five minutes-worth has been recorded before - the bulk on a recital disc of Dyson chamber music from Dutton played by David Owen Norris. I have not heard the Norris disc for comparison.

The piano music by Dyson falls into two categories; firstly, pedagogic works ranging from the most straightforward of teaching pieces to more demanding but still achievable miniatures and secondly, still quite brief and direct works but ones that make greater technical and musical demands of the performer. The main performer here is the excellent Simon Callaghan who so impressed when introducing the listening public to the music of Roger Sacheverell Coke on SOMM and Hyperion, and the transcriptions of Delius orchestral works for 2 pianos again on SOMM amongst other recordings. In general terms these Dyson works are much "simpler" than either Coke or Delius but it has to be said that Callaghan pitches his performances here to perfection. Across the entire set, excepting the concerto movements, the longest single span of music is just 3:08 while the Five finger Study from the Twelve Easy Pieces comes in at just twenty six seconds. But in every instance Callaghan finds moments to cherish with phrasing, dynamics and pedalling that makes subtle and telling musical points. All too often this type of music, aimed at a younger or less able group of performers, suffers by that association with its inherent qualities masked by the limitations of those who play it. Here you can hear the understated sophistication of the writing and how well wrought this music is.

On the first disc there are two sets of music aimed at younger players. The eight movements of The Open Window suite are given brief but evocative titles such as Field and Wood or Evensong and every mood is tellingly recreated. The latter is a particular charmer. As is the standalone Primrose Mount that follows. Written as a competition piece for a National Piano Playing Contest promoted by the British newspaper The Daily Express [would that happen today....?] for the "advanced grade A section" this is another absolutely delightful piece. The only issue it does raise is quite what is Dyson's "voice" at the keyboard. Primrose Mount echoes Ireland (as Paul Spicer's excellent liner notes) whereas elsewhere the shades of Debussy and even Dyson's beloved Bach colour the music. I suppose the shame is that Dyson did not write a large absolute music keyboard work by which he might be judged or compared to his contemporaries. One work of note is Dyson's first composition at the tender age of seven - given hear with the name Untitled Piano Piece this is remarkably assured in all of its 0:46!

For all the genuine pleasure to be had listening to the artless simplicity of the pedagogical works without a doubt the most musical interest and the greatest substance is to be found in Dyson's more serious/personal keyboard works. On disc 1 this is Bach's Birthday. Although this suite of four movements lasts only a fraction more than five minutes the writing it contains is both brilliantly effective and affectionate as well as being wonderfully clean-textured and leanly written. The suite was written as a 50th birthday tribute to Harold Samuel in 1929 who was one of the leading Bach players of the day. Here Dyson shows his technical skill - each movement is a three voice fugue but the range of expression within the fugal form is remarkable. Spicer notes that the second movement Cantabile has a first subject that contains 11 of the 12 semitones in the normal scale with the missing 12th note being the first note played in the 2nd phrase - an accident? - surely not! This work also gives Callaghan a chance to demonstrate his excellent and secure technique with the closing Vivace possibile a veritable tour de force.

Disc two follows the same pattern of mixing the simple and the more profound. The former includes the Twelve Easy Pieces commissioned in 1952 by the Associated Board [the organisation who oversee most instrumental exams to this day in the UK] for beginner pianists. Again the level of musical "worth" is remarkably high but to be honest - even in as affectionate and generous performances as these - I cannot imagine the average listener seeking out these chips from a master's block very often. That said the teaching-music of the My Birthday suite is of a markedly high level. Lucky the teacher and pupil who can really explore the concepts of musicality and interpretation in compositions of this quality.

The biographical note most mentioned about Dyson is that during his years in the Army in World War I he wrote a definitive handbook on the use of the hand grenade. His time in the trenches did result in some more artistic outcomes including both the ten Epigrams as well as a further Three Wartime Epigrams. As Spicer notes; "few composers could say so much in so short a space of time". Interestingly this is not music over which the shadow of War looms, instead the moods are varied, almost capricious with a French sensibility and wit. Only in such movements as the driving Con Fuoco [No.9 of the Epigrams] is there any sense of a quasi-Rachmaninovian surging melancholy. Rarely does Dyson sound explicitly "English" although the second and third of the Wartime Epigrams combine a folksong simplicity with a nostalgic yearning that makes them both moving and poignant.

The set is completed by the Four Twilight Preludes the first and fourth of which mine a similarly pensive vein. The central and contrasting A capriccio and Grazioso show the debt to Debussy and a valsing Ravel but this is a delightful conclusion to a valuable and revealing collection. I have not yet mentioned the two piano arrangement of the Concerto Leggiero that opens disc 1. Here, Simon Callaghan is joined by Cliodna Shanahan. Dyson himself prepared the orchestral reduction that is the second piano part and the pair of players perform the whole work with all the expected skill and sensitivity. However, with the best will in the world, this type of two piano reduction was usually prepared for rehearsal rather than performance purposes. There already exists a very fine version with orchestral accompaniment from Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia accompanying Eric Parkin and to be blunt this new versions adds little to anything we already know about this charming work except to say it sounds better in the orchestral form. The overlapping style of Dyson's writing it is naturally harder to distinguish between his solo and ensemble writing even when SOMM divide the two players with the soloist left of centre and the 'orchestra' right.

As ever, SOMM back up the excellence of the music-making with a production to match. The Menuhin Hall Stoke d'Abernon seems to be becoming one of their preferred recording venues and once again it sounds very fine here. Callaghan's Steinway Model 'D' piano sounds in superb condition. This is not music that requires the player to thunder around the keyboard but in some ways exactly this musical moderation can make greater demands of the production team to ensure that the music emerges with unforced clarity, sounding warm not thin and with presence. All of that this disc has. In turn, Dyson expert Paul Spicer provides a detailed and informative liner filling in details both about Dyson's life and the music presented here. Again, as normal, SOMM have found an attractive an appropriate illustration for the booklet cover to top off another rewarding and valuable release. Dyson was one of several composers who dedicated much energy and creativity into producing a valuable body of work for "learners" - for all too long this important service has been neglected in terms of assessing its intrinsic musical merits. This set is an important step in that reassessment.

Nick Barnard



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