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Frédéric d’ERLANGER (1868-1943)
Piano Quintet (1901) [37:49]
Thomas DUNHILL (1877-1946)
Piano Quintet in C minor, Op.20 (1904) [35:25]
Goldner String Quartet
Piers Lane (piano)
rec. 2019, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
HYPERION CDA68296 [73:14]

The richly rewarding and artistically excellent collaboration between the Goldner String Quartet, pianist Piers Lane and Hyperion Records continues with this new disc. By my reckoning it is something like their eleventh disc together with this label alone. So no surprise that the level of the music-making is of the very highest order complimented by Hyperion's typically refined and sophisticated recording which produces a near-ideal balance between strings and keyboard.

As to the actual music, few would probably argue that the Piano Quintets by Frédéric D'Erlanger or Thomas Dunhill are towering masterpieces but in as lovingly prepared performances as these, they emerge as wholly enjoyable, well-written works worthy of revival. Neither composer is exactly well-known, but d'Erlanger takes the palm as the more obscure of the two. Dutton have devoted a complete disc to his orchestral music and Hyperion themselves shared his violin concerto and a Pöeme with Frederic Cliffe's concerto as volume 10 of their "Romantic Violin Concerto" series. And that is about it for D'Erlanger recordings. The score of the Quintet given here can be viewed on IMSLP for those who are curious. Both these Piano Quintets are big and bold works lasting over thirty five minutes and it probably is best to listen to them without overly worrying about their rather traditional layout and musical style. English music at the dawn of the 20th Century was far from radical, with efforts to break free from the dominant influence of the European masters still somewhat tentative. Neither D'Erlanger or Dunhill exhibit much, if any, desire to do so preferring instead to revisit the forms and norms of music written twenty and more years earlier.

D'Erlanger was what might be termed a gentleman-composer. In essence his 'day job' was as a banker and his status as a composer was as an amateur albeit a talented one. His regular well paid work helped him promote and publish his own - and others - music. Part of D'Erlanger's strength is also his weakness. He has a definite knack of writing attractive melodies that sound grateful to play and also easy to remember. There is often a song-like balladic quality to these themes but therein lies the problem. Attractive as they are, I wonder just how well they lend themselves to extended traditional musical development whic is what D'Erlanger seeks to do. Lewis Foreman in his ever-insightful and interesting liner points out that both composers follow traditional structural formulae such as an exposition repeat which are duly given in this recording. I must admit that in the D'Erlanger, I did wonder if this stretched that material just a little too far. The opening Allegro moderato-allegro molto runs for a full twelve and a half minutes with the Finale: allegro ma non troppo just a minute shorter. To my ear, after just a handful of listens, my sense is that the most successful music is contained in the two central sections - an Andante followed by a Scherzo: Allegro. The relative concision of these movements brings with it a greater concentration of musical thought and fewer rather rhetorical gestures.

One thing worth noting here and throughout; I particularly enjoyed the stylish playing of the Goldner String Quartet who judiciously apply just the right amount of subtle portamenti to the sweeping melodic lines. One thing that the ear suggests and the eye - when following the IMSLP score - confirms is that D'Erlanger makes quite a lot of use of instrumental doubling of melodic lines. Elsewhere his accompanying figurations are effective but hardly original. This makes for a pleasingly full instrumental texture - beautifully caught by engineer Ben Connellan. Overall, this work emerges as thoroughly appealing and well-worth hearing although lacking in that last degree of individuality that would make it last longer in the memory.

Thomas Dunhill was born in the middle of that generation whose names are synonymous with 'The English Musical Renaissance'. Both Elgar with a full twenty years older and Delius fifteen, but Dunhill was just nine years younger than Bantock, five and three younger than Vaughan Williams and Holst, shared his birth year with Roger Quilter and was then a little older than Ireland, Bridge or Bax. The harsh truth is that he has a less individual musical voice than any of those composers. Even by British standards, Dunhill was a conservative creative artist, albeit a technically very accomplished one. A couple of quotes from contemporary surveys of British music are telling. Donald Brooks' "Composer's Gallery" published in 1946 - the year of Dunhill's death - states; "He believed in the evolution of music rather than the revolution and thought that all art should be founded upon what had gone before it … music, he believed, should provide an escape or relief from present-day restlessness". In another book "The Well-tempered String Quartet" from 1949, when referring to Dunhill's chamber music in general, not this particular quintet, D. Millar Craig wrote; "... eminently grateful to players and audience alike...admirable use of the instruments, and pleases the strings by the restraint which the pianist is constrained to use.... Dunhill's music always has the practical advantage of being admirably suited to its purpose, and his chamber music is clear in style, and rich in attractive melodious freshness."

These two quotations point towards a composer of a certain reserve both emotionally and creatively but one with a fine understanding of the type of music he sought to write and how to achieve that to best effect. Those qualities are abundantly on display in this Piano Quintet which is quite delightful throughout. Much as I enjoyed the D'Erlanger, this Dunhill is the finer work in every respect. Once you accept, as with the D'Erlanger, that its musical heroes belong to the previous century, then there is much to enjoy. Dunhill does have a lyrical gift writing tunes that sit gratefully in the most effective registers for the instruments he deploys. This is another substantial work but I feel Dunhill achieves a better formal balance both within movements and across the entire span of the work. The very beautiful Elegie is placed third and opens with a soulful viola melody played with great sensitivity here by Irina Morozova. Not for the only time in the work, Dunhill's melodies have more a central European flavour - the quintet's opening features a cello-led melody of a Dvořákian accent. When Dunhill does write a lyrical line which echoes more obviously British sensibilities, it is of an Elgarian salon-style flavour - and none the worse for that. In the Brooks article quoted above, it is clear that Dunhill had little if any interest in the folk-song revival as a source of musical inspiration.

Again, the performance here sounds exemplary and I find it hard to imagine a better played or sensitively interpreted version. Piers Lane and the Goldner String Quartet understand that this style of music benefits most from being given a powerful but not overstated or over-emoted performance. Clearly Dunhill can write music of considerable impact, listen to either the second movement Vivace assai con fuoco or the dashing closing pages of the finale's Prestissimo to hear a composer willing to unleash the full range of colours and dynamic power this group of players can provide. But conversely, the gently poetic endings to the first and third movements display someone who appreciates that often the profoundest statements are quietly uttered. At the time of this work's creation in 1904 the great chamber music of The English Musical Renaissance had yet to be written. In recent years, recordings have revealed that both established composers such as Parry and Stanford and the rising stars of Vaughan Williams, Bax et al were producing chamber music of far greater stature and individuality than the pedlars of the "land without music" theory would have you believe. For a composer in his mid to late twenties, Dunhill's Quintet is a worthy addition to that list of impressive but little known works.

Dunhill was a fairly prolific composer in all genres, but little of it has been recorded or released on CD. Dutton has preserved some chamber music and the A minor Symphony. Elsewhere, the 2nd violin sonata, some woodwind chamber works, the Piano Quartet and a couple of songs can be found as well as the overture to his "hit" operetta Tantivy Towers. I have not heard the Dutton chamber music disc, but reviews from the time of its original release seem to praise the quality of the music in much the same way as I am responding to this new recording. Hopefully the excellence of this new release will help introduce Dunhill's attractive and well-crafted music to a wider audience.

Hyperion's presentation from engineering to excellent liner (in English, French and German) is very much up to the high standard of the house. The Goldner String Quartet and Piers Lane add to their already illustrious reputations with performances of the greatest quality and insight. These might not be the profoundest piano quintets you will ever hear, but they offer many pleasures and rewards for the curious listener.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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