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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]

Gustav Holst became a friend and mentor to Cecil Coles in 1907. The young Scot had travelled to London from Edinburgh after winning a composition scholarship, the Cherubini prize, and met with Holst who saw great potential in the young Scot. Alas that potential was mostly unfulfilled; Coles was a casualty of the final year of the First World War at just 29 years old and his music lay in manuscript, some of it covered in the detritus of war, at his old school, George Weston's college until they were rescued in the 1990s by his daughter Penny Catherine Coles, who was then in her seventies. The orchestral and vocal works were released on an acclaimed recording made by Hyperion Records in 2001 (now on CDH55464 review) and our view of him is now supplemented by his solo piano works. I cannot find a complete list of his works but there also appears to be a Rondo in A minor and an Intermezzo from roughly the same period as the works recorded here. Gustav Holst's name of course immediately brings a certain cosmic suite to mind and it is this and his vocal and orchestral works that have been the focus of most recordings; I have not heard any of his piano works before and have found no recordings though I see that the wonderful Ronald Smith recorded his Toccata in 1952 (Decca F10101).

One of the earliest of Coles' pieces here is the short set of Five little variations on an original theme: though still a student Coles already has a firm grasp of idiomatic piano writing and if the work is slight there are nonetheless some lovely moments; the lively 5th variation, scherzo-like in its playfulness, the 1st variation, a jig reminiscent of the opening of Lloeillet's Gigue that Godowsky beefed up into a concert work and the contrapuntal variation whose bass line interrupts the narrative. The Variations on an original theme sound more mature though they are from the same year. The theme is elegiac and reminiscent of Schumann while the variations range from the almost shanty like 2nd variation to the reflective 4th variation with its hints of God save the King and which seems to shift mood part way in as if Coles decided to improvise on the variation he had started. The final variation is a jolly romp for all it is in the minor key though for me the lordly 3rd variation would be a better candidate to bring the work to a satisfying conclusion. The five Sketches are a lovely collection dating from around 1910 and offer short pieces that would be within the grasp of the amateur pianist. After a slow, chordal Prelude Coles paints Her picture in Schumann-like tones with hints of Franck in some of the melody. Little study is just that, its melody wreathed in gently flowing arpeggios while Phantom is a puckish march and Retrospect is short, thoughtful and melancholic. Alongside these stand the short character works Valse in D, Trianon Gavotte and Triste et Gai; the Valse is a lilting and showy salon waltz in the style of the French school, the Gavotte is light-hearted and jovial whilst Triste et Gai has a yearning ache to its outer sections; the gai section features a wonderfully rich treatment of what is very nearly Bah, bah black sheep.

His two movement Sonata in C minor is an accomplished, meaty piece with a first movement full of dramatic, virtuosic flourishes and a song without words slow movement. It is all influenced by the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Liszt but is a piece that rewards repeat listening, especially the simple melodiousness of the andante con moto and its surging heart. Coles uses the same harmonic progression in this movement as in Her portrait, the second of his Sketches; if this is indeed a portrait of his wife-to-be Phoebe Relton then he re-iterates his love in this emotional work.

Holst was not a brilliant pianist – he suffered from neuritis in his right hand - and though St Paul's Girl's School purchased a new Broadwood for him in 1913 it was predominately for teaching purposes and, as it turned out, was the instrument that he composed his Planets Suite on between 1914 and 1917. The original pieces here date from a decade after this and Holst's love of folk-song makes itself felt strongly in the first three piano works here. His Toccata is based on a Northumbrian pipe tune and I am surprised that more pianists haven't taken this delightful work into their repertoire if only as an encore. Holst skillfully builds up the textures from its clear opening, without over-thickening the writing and at the point where a climax is surely imminent the register and key changes and the layers peel away before the piece ends in sudden silence. Chrissemas Day in the morning and the two folk-songs settings, the beautifully flowing O! I hae see the roses blaw and the excitable Shoemakker are all dressed in modal harmonies and writing that is as effective as anything that Percy Grainger achieved in his folk-song settings. To my mind Chrissemas Day in the morning, a breezy, dancing carol, has a lot of the harmonies that make his Planets suite sound so otherworldly. The two Pieces from the early 1930s are advanced harmonically; the Nocturne brings Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau to my mind with its slow left hand melody and ethereal right hand textures though Holst interrupts proceedings with several spiky interjections. The Jig explores contrapuntal textures and if the opening suggests a Shostakovich fugue subject Holst goes his own way exploring contrasting texture and rhythm.

To close James Willshire has chosen Iain Farrington's atmospheric transcription of Egdon Heath, Holst's orchestral depiction of the landscape created by his friend Thomas Hardy and inspired by their walks together between Wool and Bere Regis – the booklet front cover shows Walter Tyndale's painting of Bere Heath in Autumn. It would not perhaps seem the most obvious choice for a piano transcription; I miss the sustained veils of sound from the strings and the almost mournful cries of the winds. It speaks volumes for Farrington's skilled transcription and Willshire's astounding pianism that it is as effective as it is. For all the piano can't bring that sustained hush of sound Willshire brings a magical touch to the opening and differentiates very nicely between the enigmatic contrapuntal lines of the full strings and the chordal winds. The mellowness of the horns comes across very well here and at the poco allegro Willshire brings out the nasal quality of the oboe and cor anglais despite the hectic nature of the writing around their interjections and those of the bassoons and flutes. The whole makes for a very satisfying tone poem for piano and the piano detail matches in with the harmonic textures of the other Holst pieces here.

Recorded in glorious sound and with Willshire's detailed, enthusiastic, searching and always thrilling playing this is a very welcome release. I am very happy to have the Coles and Holst pieces in my collection and can only regret what might have been from a composer who was producing such attractive and evocative music.

Rob Challinor

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf ~ Stephen Greenbank

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]