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British Piano Collection Volume II
Peter Jacobs (piano)
rec. 1985, Church of St. Silas, Kentish Town (Balfour Gardiner); 1991, Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead (Dale); 1984, unknown location (Foulds, Bush)
HERITAGE HTGCD406 [4 CDs: 236:04]

The problem with Henry Balfour Gardiner (HBG) is twofold. Firstly, much of his oeuvre was written between 1900 and 1914, so it was a short career.  After First World War service he never really regained the momentum to compose, finally giving up in 1925. Secondly, most of what he wrote is lost, or was deliberately destroyed and several scores remain in manuscript. On the other hand, he did devote a considerable amount of time and energy to promoting the work of other British composers.  His final 25 years were spent at his property on Shaftsbury Down planting trees.

In his book-length study of the Gardiner, Stephen Lloyd intimated that Forsyth Brothers of Deansgate Manchester were planning a Complete Edition of the piano music. This volume was to have included all the extant piano music, published and unpublished. As of 2021, this project has yet to be realised (as far as I can tell). Of the 17 piano works mentioned in Lloyd’s catalogue, Peter Jacobs has recorded nine of them here.

I enjoyed catching up with this repertoire, which I have not heard for many years. The Second Prelude (1920) is a thoughtful exploration of two moods: passion and warmth. It opens quietly but builds up to a considerable climax.  The interesting thing about the Five Pieces (1911) is the alternative titles given to the first two numbers, specifically for the American publication. These were titled Pembroke and Clun. Whether these soubriquets add value to the mundane-sounding titles Molto allegro and Adagio non troppo is a matter of debate. The composer suggested that they were just labels. For me, Clun is quite simply lovely. The third is based on the nursery tune London Bridge. It is a wistful little number in 6/8 time. The following Andante stays in the same mood but the final Gavotte is a different proposition: someone once declared that it was “the finest gavotte that Percy Grainger never wrote.” Enough said. 

Humoresque (1904) and Salamanca (1920) are show-pieces that could find a valued place in any recital. Grainger is in evidence in the brisk The Joyful Homecoming (1919). Michaelchurch (1923) is Balfour Gardiner’s piano masterwork; lasting nearly nine minutes, it is characterised by pealing bells. There is no clue as to the title’s significance. It was sketched out whilst Gardiner was holidaying with Delius in Norway and the influences of Grieg and Grainger are not far from the surface of this splendidly played number. (Out of interest, there is a Michaelchurch near Hereford.)  Noel (1908) is exactly that: a joyful celebration of the Christmas festival. It begins boisterously, explores Good King Wenceslas and ends thoughtfully.  There also exist versions for two pianos and one for small orchestra Shenandoah, and other pieces were reworkings of old sketches. They were completed in 1922. The title piece does not actually quote the sea shanty but alludes to it. Strangely, the opening Con brio was originally called Mafeking!

The final number, Mere (1905) is a celebration of a place in Dorset where HBG would go cycling. It is a romp and unsurprisingly dedicated to Percy Grainger.

Peter Jacobs issued the present recording of Balfour Gardiner’s piano music on LP in 1985 (Aspen Music PEN501D). 

The second disc explores music by Benjamin Dale. It was originally released on the Continuum Label (CCD 1044) in 1992, reviewed here. The key work is the Piano Sonata in D minor (1902-05) which lasts for three quarters of an hour.  We must recall that Dale was barely 20 years old when it was completed. Although Dale’s Sonata won the Mark Hambourg Prize, beating 59 other entrants (it would be wonderful to find a list of the losing entries), the composer was incensed at the Russian-born pianist’s cavalier performance and handed back the prize money to him.  Early recitals were sometimes truncated. Fortunately, it was taken up by Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer (not Schafer as stated in the liner notes) and was praised by Cyril Scott and Josef Holbrooke.  Further performances were given during the 1930s by Moura Lympany, John Tobin, York Bowen and Frank Merrick. The Sonata gradually disappeared from the repertoire; it was too conventional and too Romantic for mid-20th century taste. 

Structurally, the Sonata in in two movements. The first is presented in a massive sonata form, with the second being a set of variations, encompassing the conventional slow movement, scherzo and finale.

There is no doubt that it is work of its time. Clear influences are Brahms, Schumann, and Balakirev, but this Sonata is not a “string of pearls”: Dale has assimilated his material and created a wonderful synthesis. It would be a brave critic who declared it one of the greatest piano sonatas by an Englishman; I would take that risk, as it is a stroke of genius, full of good things, always listenable and often moving.

I first heard Dale’s Sonata at a remarkable evening recital given by Mark Bebbington at St John’s Smith Square. Other works played at that concert, included piano sonatas by William Hurlstone and Frank Bridge. Bebbington has recorded the Dale and Hurlstone Sonatas on SOMM CD 097. It is reviewed here. A third recording, by Danny Driver, was released on Hyperion CDA67827, reviewed here.  Peter Jacobs brings a more classical approach to this Sonata.  Bebbington, on the other hand, allows its sheer Romanticism to rise to the fore. I have not heard Danny Driver on Hyperion.

The adage applies: if this Sonata were composed by a German or Russian, there would be dozens of recordings available, so I suppose we must be grateful for three. It is a difficult work to “bring off” but listeners will be inspired and delighted with Peter Jacobs’ thoughtful and restrained recital.

Two short compositions make up the rest of this disc: Prunella (1916-17/1923) was originally written for violin and piano and is really a little salon piece; Night Fancies, op.3 (1907) is more substantial, with nods to impressionism - and listen for the Westminster Chimes.

For details of Benjamin Dale’s life and achievement, I recommend Christopher Foreman’s extensive “Reassessment” published in 2011 in these files. 

The Mancunian composer John Foulds is showcased in the third CD. This is the first time that I have heard Peter Jacobs performing these piano pieces; nor have I listened to Kathryn Stott playing a somewhat overlapping programme on BIS-CD-933 (1999).

The Seven Essays in the Modes (1927) needs more than a few words to explain and describe them; however, the basic premise is that Foulds has devised A Table of 90 Modes or synthetic scales. This simply means not being diatonic to a major or minor scale. They have been altered by moving one of more notes up or down a semitone, but still just seven notes (plus octave transpositions). All this sounds very cerebral, and I guess that may be a problem with this work. The magic that Foulds creates is the sheer variety that he brings to this limited musical structure. Rather than exploring key relationships and modulations, these Essays stay “in key” and are “far more concerned with colour, mood, texture, and atmosphere.”  Each is given a title: Exotic, Ingenious, Introversive, Military, Strophic, Egoistic and Prismic. For me, they are a little too intellectual. That said, I understand that critics regard these Essays as Fould’s pianistic masterpiece.

It is important to note that the catalogue in Malcom MacDonald’s 1975 study of Foulds, lists this work as consisting of two volumes: six numbers in the first, and a single completed piece (Egoistic) in the second. A further Essay was completed by MacDonald from extant sketches.

The Variazioni ed improvvisati su una Thema Originale, op.4 is a little long-winded. It was an early work written sometime between 1900 and 1905. Commentators have pointed out that the musical aesthetic here leans towards Schumann, Brahms and Liszt; in other words, pure Romanticism. The Variations are divided into three groupings, looking to Milton’s poem L’Allegro ed Il Penseroso, for inspiration. It presents “contrasting aspects of human character”: Variations 1-3 are Il Penseroso (Thoughtful) and variations 5-9 are L’Allegro (Cheerful). The Variazioni concludes with a free form finale.

I enjoyed the English Tune with Burden, op.89 written shortly before the First World War.  The word “burden” simply means chorus to each verse. Nodding towards Percy Grainger in its impact, it has an oft-repeated refrain complimenting a carefree tune, which remains unnamed.

Gandharva-Music, op.49 (completed 1926) refers to Music Angels which are part of Indian theology. Foulds claims to have heard this tune “in the air” one hot summer’s day in 1915. He jotted down what the Angels sang to him. It is like a little toccata with a “rippling D major figuration” supported by an “unchanging ground bass”. It is the ultimate in Impressionistic music, full of the warm haze of an English summer’s day.

April-England was completed on 21 March 1926 on the morning of the vernal equinox. It is a concert study which was the first of a projected, but uncompleted, set called Impressions of Time and Place. The entire work is episodic, with alternating triads, a middle section polyphony and a “sturdy” Grainger-esque folk tune. It presents “the boundless fecundity, opulent burgeoning of Springtime”. April-England is more often heard in its expanded orchestral version. The original piano piece remained unheard until 1980.

This record was originally released on LP by Altarus Records (AIR CD-2-9001) in 1984 and then on CD in 1993.

Alan Bush’s Twenty-Four Preludes, op.84 (1977) is a massive and important composition by any stretch of the imagination, but whether this is Everyman’s music is another matter. The basic principle of this collection is the exploration of several chromatic and diatonic modes, for example, No.2 uses F# Lydian Chromatic, and No.11, F Phrygian Diatonic. These 24 scales are based on the old ecclesiastical modes and the pentatonic scale. Where the title includes “Chromatic” the composer has introduced accidentals. Otherwise just the notes of the original mode in key are used. The musical theory behind this should not bother the listener too much. There is great variety here; that said, I think it best to hear these Preludes a few at a time. They were premiered at the Wigmore Hall on 30 October 1977, with Alan Bush as soloist.

After the Second World War, Bush’s Marxist ideology had inspired him to write music that was accessible to the masses (Patronising?). Nevertheless, it would take a lot of arguing to suggest that these Preludes will ever become wildly popular with the Proletariat!

The Nocturne, op.46 (1957) was part of the original version of the Variations, Nocturne, and Finale on an Old English Sea-Song. Better known in its revision for piano and orchestra. op.60 (1962), this was originally written for piano solo. It evokes a sailor’s or traveller’s nostalgia for home with a little more momentum in the middle section. The liner notes suggest “the whirling propellers and churning water as the ship speeds on through the night.” It is typically tonal with much skill being required to manage some complex counterpoint. It basically neo-Romantic and would provide a great encore.

Despite its dedication to Dmitri Shostakovich, and the use of the inevitable DSCH motive, Letter Galliard op.80 (1974) is a spartan work that is more a scholarly debate than an enjoyable piece of music.

The toccata-like Corentyne Kwe-Kwe, op.76 (1972) was dedicated to “To those men and women of Guyana who faced a British warship and stood their ground”. I was unable to find full details of this event, but it would appear to have occurred in 1953.  It seems that the Royal Navy was responding to a threat of a Communist coup (grist to Bush’s politics, perhaps). The underlying theme is based on an African song commemorating the abolition of slavery in Guyana in 1842. This is rip-roaring music, full of optimism. Kwe-Kwe refers to a traditional Guyanese ceremony where songs and dances are performed around a new bride’s house.

This album was originally released in Altarus Records AIR-2-9004 (1984/1993).

So, these are four great CDs of music by four composers who sadly remain at the margin of the repertoire. The playing by Peter Jacobs and the remastering are brilliant throughout. The extensive and informative liner notes would seem to be reprints of the original. Dates and venue of the Foulds and Bush recordings were not included; I had to search the internet for information about the original LP/CD details.

I am delighted to have these recordings reissued. As I noted in my review of Volume One of this collection, older enthusiasts of British music are likely to have some or all of these records in their libraries. On the other hand, this well packaged re-release provides an ideal opportunity for a new generation to hear this superbly performed repertoire.

John France
Henry BALFOUR GARDINER (1877-1950)
[Second] Prelude (1920) [2:15]
Five Pieces (1911) [11:24]
Humoresque (1904) [3:34]
Salamanca (1920) [7:12]
The Joyful Homecoming (1919) [2:40]
Michaelchurch (1923) [8:36]
Noel (1908) [2:06]
Shenandoah, and other pieces (1922) [10:50]
Mere (1905) [5:42]
Benjamin DALE (1885-1943)
Piano Sonata in D minor, op.1 (1902-5) [44:05]
Night Fancies, op.3 (1907) [10:06]
Prunella (1916-17/1923) [3:06]
John FOULDS (1880-1939)
Seven Essays in the Modes (1927), op.78 [29:55]
Variazioni ed improvvisati su una Thema Originale, op.4 (c.1905) [17:15]
English Tune with Burden, op.89 (c.1914) [5:04]
Gandharva-Music, op.49 (1915-26) [3:45]
Impressions of Time and Place, op.48, no.1 April-England (1926) [7:05]
Alan BUSH (1900-95)
24 Preludes, op.84 (1977) [41:38]
Letter Galliard, op.80 (1974) [2:02]
Nocturne, op.46 (1957) [6:08]
Corentyne Kwe-Kwe, op.76 (1972) [5:14]

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