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Edward Swan HENNESSY (1866-1929)
En passant ... Selected works for piano
Moritz Ernst (piano)
rec. July 2020, Steingraeber Kammermusiksaal, Bayreuth
PERFECT NOISE PN2006 [74:56]

After listening to a recent disc devoted to Swan Hennessy on the Acte Préalable label (review) I was kindly sent the disc under review to consider. As there is minimal overlap between the two – only the Valses caprices, Op 41 – it’s offered an opportunity to increase my acquaintance with the American-born but long-time French resident composer.

Perfect Noise’s reportorial focus is locked closely on the piano music. There’s invariably a great deal of compressed characterisation in his suites and individual pieces. In Croquis de femmes, for example, one encounters bell peals, eager conversational chatter, droll coquetry and much more besides, whereas in Fêtes with its celebratory Baroque elements and its more vitally florid descriptive writing, Hennessy manages to pack a great deal of detail into three minutes’ worth of music. He is an ardent but not over-effusive nature painter. In En passent (1911) there is refinement and limpidity as well as busy village depiction, and a possible presentiment of Honegger’s train study.

Those Valses caprices, which sound markedly different in the two performances – which shows Hennessy’s music can be interpreted in a variety of ways - offer a quick sequence of well-nourished elements. Moritz Ernst tends to be rather slower than Anna Starzec-Makandasis on Acte Préalable, but emphasise the sudden, unexpected abruptness conjured up by Hennessy. At a slightly slower tempo these emerge as all the more disconcerting. And once again Ernst proves a probing exponent, mixing the droll with the capricious to great effect. There’s a Ravelian Sonatine from the same year – the years around 1910-12 were highly productive as regards the piano music – which is unusually voluble for Hennessy, not least in the effusive finale. Hennessy has the knack of writing Celtic music that sounds like transcriptions of original folk melodies but in his Pièces celtiques only the last of the three is based on a pre-existing tune.

In Croquis Parisien one encounters an impressionist Promenade and a Celtic song along with a frantically scurrying finale – excellent contrasts between these three succinct movements. That’s Hennessy all over – never keeping still, always witty, droll and seldom sly. The Banlieues investigate outer-lying Parisian locales with one of them, the finale location (Bourg-la-Reine) sounding Mussorgsky-tinged. In the selections from the sets of À la manière de…we hear examples of Hennessy taking off Borodin, Chabrier, Debussy, Godard and Ravel – but in good taste, and largely affectionately. Au bord de la forêt is the earliest work here, dating from 1906, and its refractive impressionism has great appeal. It depicts a walk in the woods, with cornet notes, a busy squirrel, and birdsong. This is its first ever performance, let alone premiere recording.

Ernst proves an excellent guide to these concise descriptive piano pieces. He makes the most of the music’s contrasts and plays with great sympathy throughout in a sensitive acoustic. The notes are by Axel Klein, Hennessy’s biographer, and one could hardly hope for better writing.

Jonathan Woolf

Croquis de femmes, Op 33 (c.1910-11) [10:12]
Au bord de la forêt, Op 21 (1906) [6:41]
Fêtes. Deux Morceaux descriptifs, Op 36 (1910) [3:16]
En passant …Études d'après Nature, Op 40 (1911) [8:46]
Valses caprices, Op 41 (1911) [11:12]
Sonatine, Op 43 (1911) [8:05]
Pièces celtiques, Op 45 (1912) [5:56]
Croquis Parisien, Op 47 (1912) [5:28]
Banlieues. Six petit pièces, Op 69 (1925-28) [8:08]
À la manière de….
  Deuxieme cahier: VII. Alexandre Borodine [1:07]
  Quatrieme cahier: V. Emmanuel Chabrier [1:43]
  Deuxieme cahier: III. Claude Debussy - Benjamin Godard [2:43]
  Cinquieme cahier: V. Maurice Ravel [1:21] (1926-7)

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