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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 in 1907 that the young Scottish composer Cecil Coles turned up at Morley College, London and met Gustav Holst, the director of music who had just taken up a post there, a position he held until 1924. Holst took Coles under his wing, being taken by the young man’s “genuine love of and talent for music, combined with his never failing geniality, enthusiasm and energy”. The two became firm friends for the remainder of Coles’ tragically short life. He would send Holst manuscripts whilst on active service. The end came on 26 April 1918 when he was killed by a German sniper on the Western Front, whilst helping to recover casualties. He was 29 years old.

Almost all of Coles’ piano music dates from around 1908 when he was a student. That year he won the Edinburgh University Bucher Scholarship for music, which enabled him to study in Stuttgart. During his stay in Germany he penned his Variations on an Original Theme. The theme itself is serious, with perhaps a whiff of wistful nostalgia. Five variations follow. The second sounds Scottish and folksy. No 4 is doleful and plangent, harnessing the dark sonorities of the lower keyboard. The final variation is animated and sounds a little Schummanesque. With a similar title, the Five Little Variations on an Original Theme also date from 1908. The theme is brief with a funereal tread. The variations depict the contradictory moods of Coles’ music, happy and sad, by the use of major and minor keys. The last variation is fleet and mercurial.

Take the ingredients of Slavic mournfulness and what sounds like ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, mix together and you’ve got Triste et Gai (Chanson).

It was in 1910 that the captivating Five Sketches were published. The work fulfills a desire of the publisher to print music that the reasonably competent pianist could play at home. So, with touches of Edwardian popular song and French chanson, Coles provides a home and hearth experience. Emerging out of the shadows of the opening Prelude ‘Her Picture’, the first piece evokes the comfort of an Edwardian drawing room. Pianists can brush up on their arpeggios in ‘Little Study’ which follows. A genteel ‘Retrospect’ calls time on the set. Coles pulls out all the stops in his two-movement Sonata in C minor. It opens with Brahmsian passion and virtuosity. The second movement, by contrast, is more tranquil and reverential, and Willshire paints it in vivid hues.

Holst’s piano music accounts for only a minor part of his compositional oeuvre. Early on he wrote some salon pieces, then later in the mid-1920s, when he was in his early fifties, works such as Toccata (1924), Christmas Day in the Morning (1926), The Shoemaker (1927) and O! I hae seen the roses blaw (1927) he based on Northumbrian folk music. They reveal imagination, deft colourful construction, rhythmic thrust, vitality and joyous abandon. Willshire performs them with infectious zeal and a real feel for the idiom. Towards the end of his life in the early 1930s he wrote the Nocturne and Jig for his daughter Imogen, the former characterized by stacked fifths, whilst the latter delves into the world of ancient modal melodies. The orchestral tone poem Egdon Heath happens to be a great favorite of mine, and Iain Farrington’s arrangement for solo piano, here embarking on its first recorded performance, works very well indeed, capturing the music’s very essence.

All of Cecil Coles’ works are here receiving their premiere recordings, and it’s high time they established a foothold in the repertoire. James Willshire’s advocacy, coupled with his sensitive and engaging pianism, does this music proud. Nigel Osborne’s interesting essay sets the context. All I can say is hats off to Delphian for this enjoyable and rewarding release.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: 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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