Richard FRANCIS (b. 1946)
Piano Sonata No 2 'Irish Memories' (2010) [36:08]
Grand Concert Variations on a theme of Greville Cooke (2015) [15:32]
More Characteristic Pieces for Piano (2006-2015) [27:52]
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
rec. April 2019, Ty Cerdd studio, Cardiff Bay, UK
PRIMA FACIE PFCD108 [79:32]
I enjoyed the Piano Sonata 'Irish Memories'. I was at first concerned about a possible stylistic imbalance, but this uneasiness largely evaporated on a second hearing. The work, completed during November 2010, was premiered in Waterford Cathedral the following year. It is dedicated to the present pianist. To quote Richard Francis's webpage, the piece
"is very much a reminder of the composers' several trips to Ireland, and is subtitled "in memoriam" to Aloys Fleischmann and Ernest John Moeran".
The Sonata has an unusual structure. After an Introduction, which has all the hallmarks of a Nocturne, we hear a great storm-like, virtuosic piece of Lisztian bravura. There follows a set of widely contrasting variations on the folksong Slane, commonly sung as a hymn tune to Be though my vision and Lord of all hopefulness. The energetic Scherzo, a bouncy galop, reminds the listener that
"Ireland is very good horse-riding countryside". The Finale is based on another Irish tune, Maggie Pickens. The movement builds up to a climax before recalling the opening Nocturne.
Grand Concert Variations on a theme of Greville Cooke was written for Duncan Honeybourne in recognition of what he has done to promote the composer's piano music. The work is based the hymn tune Golden Grove composed by Greville Cooke (1894-1989). In 2014, Honeybourne had released a remarkable survey of Cooke's piano music, coupled with pieces by Holst and Vaughan Williams (on EMR CD022; review). The present variations, conceived as
"retro-tonal", hark back to the musical style of the so-called Georgian composers, possibly including York Bowen, Walter Leigh, Joseph Speaight, Benjamin Dale and Greville Cooke. Richard Francis assures the listener that there is some pastiche but no composer has been parodied. After a statement of the beautiful hymn tune, the six variations include the opening, wayward Fantasy, a two-part invention, a cool march tune, a pastoral Eclogue, a dynamic canon at the octave and a three-part fugue to conclude. It is a good set of variations, enjoyable and rewarding. Once again just a touch of eclecticism, but that is probably the point.
The disc concludes with ten More Characteristic Pieces for Piano, written over a period of years. The first set were issued on A Western Borderland (EMR CD034; review). Several of them have evocative titles. Take Painted Sky, inspired by
"remarkable cloud formations" seen from a train "following the outline of the Brecon Beacons". The Seaside Jaunt calls to mind trips to the seaside back in the 1950s, complete with a little stick of Blackpool Rock. Scales and Arpeggios nod to that bane of the tyro pianist, Czerny. The most haunting is The Lost Garden, with its slow, moody progress. The sequence is brought to a rumbustious conclusion with Revelry, where the vivacious mood lives up to its title. I guess that the partying is not too boisterous and never quite gets out of hand. More Characteristic Pieces are varied in mood and style, but never lack interest. Many of these miniatures would make a splendid encore, or they could be played in contrasting groups of three or four.
A few biographical notes about Richard Francis will be of interest: The composer was born in Herefordshire in 1946. He studied at the Birmingham School of Music, and then graduated with a BMus. degree from the University of London. After various teaching posts in Edinburgh, Ludlow and Sherborne, he continued his studies at the University College of North Wales with William Mathias. He completed his MMus, LRAM and ARCO diplomas.
A major part of Francis's life was as Organist and Director of Music at the Parish Church of St Laurence in Ludlow. During this period, he did much freelance recital work and composition. His compositions include the orchestral The Adamantine Door, much organ and choral music, and some chamber and piano works.
The sound quality is beyond reproach. The soloist has supplied interesting, readable liner notes but the date and venue of recording only appear on the disc's Prima Facie webpage.
I thoroughly enjoyed this recital. Duncan Honeybourne is an unmistakably powerful advocate of Richard Francis's piano music. All the music here is approachable and easily enjoyed. That does not mean that the listener need not engage. The Sonata is a big work that demands concentration.