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Cecil COLES (1888-1918)
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Piano Music
James Willshire (piano)
rec. August 2020, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
DELPHIAN DCD34209 [68:46]

It was his orchestral piece Behind the Lines that brought Cecil Coles’ name to life once again. The disc that brought this and other works by him, directed by Martyn Brabbins on Hyperion, is now 20 years old (see review), old enough to have been reissued in its Helios marque (CDH55464).

Delphian’s all-piano release couples Coles with Holst, the composer who befriended and admired him and who dedicated the Ode to Death to Coles. The piano works fill out Coles’ portfolio, reflecting expected influences, amplifying what he was writing and when – the period covered is largely 1908-10, so well before his immersion in the First World War that was to claim his life. He was clearly attracted by the potential for variety offered by variational form. The Variations on an Original Theme hymns a light Brahmsian element; attractive, yearning, crisp and bright. The highpoint is the third variation, a serious and noble Maestoso though the rolled chords of the fourth (and longest) variation are evocative. This is a lively, confident and hardly epoch-busting piece. The other similar work is the Five Little Variations on an Original Theme – easy to get those two titles mixed up – which lasts all of three-and-half-minutes and embeds a touch of the funereal, a very jolly terpsichorean episode and a brief flirtation with fugato.

The Five Sketches offer rather more in the way of Edwardian salon charm as well as puckish wit and strong hints of Schumann. The two-movement Sonata in C minor is cut from leaner German Romantic cloth. Brahms was obviously a formative influence on Coles as on so many British composers of the time and here he generates considerable intensity allied to fine themes. His confidence in handling sonata form is palpable and the hymnal or chorale-like second movement, an Andante con moto, develops in a rather Beethovenian way. I am perfectly prepared to believe Coles was happy to let the work stand in this form but to me it is crying out for a Scherzo and Finale. The other little works include a ‘popular’ coquettish Trianon Gavotte and a Triste et Gai based on a very popular tune.

Coles’ piano works are largely the product of his early 20s. Holst’s works for the medium here come from his early 50s onwards and are not that well known or much recorded though at least unlike Coles’ works – all of which are première recordings – they do exist in alternative performances on disc. They largely derive from Holst’s Folk Song Fragments and Two Pieces and are vivaciously played examples of Holst in folk style though the Toccata is a daringly stripped-back piece. Deftly coloured and rhythmically vital though they are, the Nocturne is probably the most sophisticated and advanced stylistically and very well worth a listen.

The one exception to the originality of these works is Iain Farrington’s arrangement of Egdon Heath, a first-ever recording. As so often when orchestral thickets are cut back, the bare earth underlines the harmonic complexities of the music’s direction, its chilliness underscored by a recognition of where – and how – Holst is leading the listener via transformations. Egdon Heath is one of his masterpieces and this is a fine adjunct to the orchestral work.

Throughout this programme James Willshire proves a technically and stylistically apt interpreter. He knows better than to overstate Coles’ youthful works or to exploit Holst’s use of Northumberland melodies beyond natural constraints. The ample acoustic of Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh is the recording location – a touch too ample for me but that’s quibbling – and the excellent notes are by composer Nigel Osborne.

Jonathan Woolf


Variations on an Original Theme (1908) [7:41]
Five Sketches (pub. 1910) [7:26]
Valse in D [2:55]
Sonata in C minor (c 1908) [12:20]
Trianon Gavotte [2:04]
Five Little Variations on an Original Theme (1908) [3:26]
Triste et Gai [4:17]
Gustav HOLST
Toccata, H153 (1924) [2:33]
Folk Song Fragments No 1; O! I hae seen the roses blaw, Op 46 No 2/1; H166/1 (1927) [3:06]
Folk Song Fragments No 2; The Shoemaker, Op 46 No 2/2; H166/2 (1927) [0:51]
Christmas Day in the Morning, Op 46 No 1, H165 (1926) [2:58]
Two Pieces, No 1; Nocturne, H179/1 (1930) [3:43]
Two Pieces, No 2; Jig, H179/2 (1932) [2:52]
Egdon Heath, Op 47, H172 (1927) arr. Iain Farrington (b.1977) [12:25]

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