British Piano Collection Volume 1
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Shulbrede Tunes (1914) [34:16]
Theme and Nineteen Variations in D minor (1878) [12:43]
Hands across the Centuries: Suite for Piano (pub.1918) [24:20]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Twenty-Four Preludes Set I, op. 163 (1918) [52:36]
Six Characteristic Pieces, op. 132 (1912) [18:33]
Twenty-Four Preludes Set II, op. 179 (1920) [51:17]
Three Rhapsodies op. 92 (1904) [27:12]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Lake in the Mountains (1947) [3:51]
Six Little Pieces (Teaching Pieces) (1934) [7:58]
Hymn Tune Prelude on ‘Song 13’ (Orlando Gibbons) (1928) [4:20]
Suite in G Major (Suite of Six Short Pieces) (1920) [14:39]
Choral and Choral Prelude (Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ – Lord Jesus Christ with us abide) (1930) [5:51]
Peter Jacobs (piano)
rec. December 1992, Roslyn Hill Chapel, London (Parry, Stanford); ? (RVW)
HERITAGE RECORDS HTGCD405 [4 CDs: 259:27]
A few notes about Peter Jacobs may be of interest. He was born in 1945, and graduated from the Royal Academy of Music some twenty-two years later. His teachers included Alexander Kelly and Eric Fenby. After a short spell as Director of Music at Taunton School, he returned to London to begin his career as a concert pianist, an examiner and an adjudicator. Beginning in the 1980s, Jacobs began to explore, learn, perform and record a wide range of then-neglected British composers, including John Foulds, Alan Bush, Harold Truscott and Billy Mayerl. Of huge interest to me were the complete piano works of Frank Bridge. These have remained my favourite exposition of these pieces, despite rival releases by Ashley Wass (Naxos) and Mark Bebbington (Somm). The liner notes for this set point out the sad fact that many of these definitive recordings have “fallen into obscurity” and have been deleted from the catalogue. Several of those were originally released on the Continuum and Olympia labels, now long defunct. It is fantastic news, then, that Heritage Records are currently in the process of re-releasing some of those important CDs.
Volume 1 of this project covers Parry, Stanford and Vaughan Williams. My introduction to Parry’s piano music was the evocative Shulbrede Tunes (1914), conceived when the composer was staying with his eldest daughter, Dorothea, at Shulbrede Priory in West Sussex. I had found a score of this music in a second-hand bookshop. Most of these pieces were beyond me, but I could just about manage the second, Elizabeth. The concept behind Shulbrede Tunes was the creation of sketches of the folk who lived there, as well as the numinous aspects of the Priory itself. Hence the mysterious Prior’s Chamber by Firelight and In the Garden with Dew on the Grass. People depicted include Parry’s son-in-law Arthur Ponsonby in Father Playmate. Matthew and Elizabeth were the composer’s grandchildren, whilst Dolly No. 1 and Dolly No. 2 were different characterisations of his daughter Dorothea. The reader will note that these charming pieces were composed in 1914, just before the optimistic Edwardian Era vanished during the cataclysmic Great War.
The earliest piece here is Parry’s Theme and Nineteen Variations in D minor (c. 1878-1885). This rewarding work was ignored during the composer’s lifetime. Once described as being “a most inartistic and depressing arrangement”, it seems to have come of age. It is wide-ranging, and offers a challenging and idiomatic pianism.
The attractive Hands across the Centuries: Suite for Piano was written towards the end of the First World War, in 1918. This work reflects Parry’s interest in J.S. Bach. The entire progress of Hands across the Centuries relies on Baroque dance forms, brought up to date, at least to Parry’s musical aesthetic. Its retro mood falls into the same category as his Lady Radnor and English Suites, both composed for strings.
If this piano music echoes Mendelssohn and Schumann, this is no problem. Often, Parry’s own individual voice shines through to great and moving effect. Peter Jacobs brings this music to life. His rendition is always full of charm and warmth, and it totally lacks condescension.
The next two CDs in this boxed set explore the music of Charles Villiers Stanford. Peter Jacobs presents the massive Twenty-Four Preludes Set I, op. 163 (1918) and Twenty-Four Preludes Set II, op. 179 (1920), as well as the Six Characteristic Pieces, op. 132 (1912) and the Three Rhapsodies op. 92 (1904). In recent years, Christopher Howell has issued the Complete Piano Works in three two-disc volumes (see the reviews of Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3), an essential purchase for all Stanford enthusiasts.
The reader will excuse me for not musing on each of the 48 Preludes. Three things need to be said to aid appreciation. Firstly, they follow the key scheme of J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893. Secondly, they are not academic or pedantic. John F. Porte has suggested that they “cover almost every mood, from that of the funeral procession to the jovial, and from the weighty Hibernian march to fairy-like charm and grace..” There are waltzes and Irish melodies here, as well as a Study and an In Memoriam. Thirdly, they are deemed to be highly pianistic and do not introduce technical difficulties for the sake of it. One last thought: are these two sets of Preludes meant to be heard as two cycles or can they be excerpted? I guess that either makes sense.
The Three Rhapsodies were inspired by Dante Alighieri. These powerful pieces were composed in 1904. J. A. Fuller-Maitland defines them as “the most ambitious of Stanford’s pianoforte compositions” but also “strangely lacking in inspiration”. Charles Porte considers that despite the Dante theme “they are rather dull as musical works”. I disagree with these negative comments: I find these explorations of Francesca, Beatrice and Capaneo moving, inspiring and beautiful. They are “gorgeous expressions of love and loss”.
Stanford wrote his Six Characteristic Pieces, op. 132 in 1912 for the Polish pianist and composers, Moritz Rosenthal. There is considerable variety in this music, ranging from the sometimes fervent, but always lovely, Romance to the Schumannesque Roundel, and from a Study that echoes Felix Mendelssohn to the final Toccata that appears to foretell George Gershwin’s big hit I got Rhythm composed some 18 years later. It is a splendid set of pieces, brilliantly played here.
The Vaughan Williams CD divides into two parts: those pieces which are slight, and those which are deeper in intent. I recall (c. 1971) finding the sheet music for The Lake in the Mountains in the Coatbridge Town Library. I could not play it, but more pertinently, it did not sound like the Vaughan Williams I had been discovering, such as the Greensleeves Fantasia, The Lark Ascending and Hugh the Drover. The present piano piece, which has its origins in the film score 49th Parallel (1941) was written for the pianist Phyllis Sellick. Although the music is quiet and reflective, it hardly ticks the boxes of ‘pastoral’. RVW has injected more than a hint of acerbity, as befits the plot of the film. The Lake in the Mountains was to be Vaughan Williams final work for the piano.
The Hymn Tune Prelude on ‘Song 13’ (Orlando Gibbons) (1930) is a perfect fusion of styles. The music seems to emerge from the Tudor past, and is imbued with RVWs personal musical fingerprint. It was written for, and dedicated to, Harriet Cohen. Peter Jacob captures the timeless magic of this music.
The other important work here is the Chorale and Chorale Prelude 'Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ'. It was included in the Harriet Cohen Bach Book (1930). This is a collection of pieces by several front-ranking British composers including Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Constant Lambert, William Walton and Vaughan Williams. RVWs contribution is a re-imagining of Bach’s Chorale Prelude ‘Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ’, BWV 649 (the fifth of the six Schübler Chorale Preludes). This, in turn, was Bach’s own transcription of the of the third movement of his Cantata ‘Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend warden’ BWV6. Vaughan Williams’s take is a little masterpiece.
The Six Little Pieces (Teaching Pieces) (1934) and the Suite in G Major (Suite of Six Short Pieces) (1921) are both minor works but enjoyable and satisfying if not vital.
All this music by Stanford, Parry and RVW is played with conviction and perception. Jacobs is not a flamboyant pianist. He uses his considerable technique to better reveal the musical content of each piece. That said, he is well able to introduce passion, vivacity and intimacy when appropriate. The liner notes would appear to be from the original CDs and records: Jeremy Dibble for the Parry and Stanford, and Robert Matthew-Walker for RVW. The only thing I could not find in the liner notes were details of the original releases. I think that they are as shown here:
- Parry: Priory PRCD 451 (c. 1995)
- Stanford Volume 1: Priory PRCD 449 (c. 1996)
- Stanford Volume 2: Olympia OCD 638 (c. 1997)
- Vaughan Williams: Phoenix Records DGS1019 (c. 1982)
This is an excellent re-presentation of old[ish] but essential recordings of piano music by three great composers from the British Isles. Those of us who are long in the tooth will probably have some, or all, of these albums in our collection. On the other hand, there must surely be a new generation of listeners who will enjoy exploring this music, ably performed by Peter Jacobs.