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The Peter Jacobs Anthology: Twentieth Century British Piano Music
Peter Jacobs (piano)
rec. 25 May 2021, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales HERITAGE HTGCD159 [76:40]
This disc has a straightforward background, as the booklet explains. Heritage Records asked Peter Jacobs to “compile a sequence of British piano music hitherto unrecorded”. From a vast personal repertoire, he has selected nineteen works, some with several movements, by a good cross-section of composers. The keen reader will note that some pieces in this recital have been recorded before, sometimes more than once, but this album is unique in presenting these typically interesting pieces together.
In Martin Shaw’s romp, Roundabouts, all key centres are touched during its two minutes. Shaw is best recalled as a composer of dozens of songs; this little number is a rare treat. Arthur Bliss’s acerbic Polonaise comes from his Suite for piano (1925, not 1926, I think), a sonata in disguise. This extract has traces of Prokofiev and Stravinsky from Bliss’s “bad boy” days.
Students of Virgil will recall that an “Eclogue” is a short pastoral poem, sometimes in the form of a dialogue between two people, often shepherds. Walter Leigh’s 1940 piece is a gentle conversation between him and his teacher Paul Hindemith. It has some beautiful counterpoint and spine-tingling melodic phrases.
Calcutta-born John Mayer’s tribute to his birthplace is over in a flash. The first of the Three Pieces from Calcutta-Nagar (1993), In Chandni Chauk Street, is a fleeting portrait of a large street market, Kali Temple evokes a numinous atmosphere with a definite sense of prayer and incense. The final number is a rumbustious image of The River Hooghley, the holy river in Kolkata. Lots of movement here, whether of water or people. The full set are perfect miniatures.
I love Roger Quilter’s evocative Summer Evening (1916). Like John Ireland’s eponymous piece, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It creates an atmosphere of a secret location, (perhaps) in the South Downs, near the composer’s birthplace. Peter Jacobs correctly highlights the disparity between Quilter’s introspective musings and Mátyás Seiber’s Scherzando Capriccioso (1953, or was it 1944?). Does this skittish piece suggest jazz, or is it serialism, or atonality? Who cares? It is a little gem, a child of its time. Born in Hungary, émigré composer Seiber deserves more attention from performers and concert promoters. In complete contrast, Amy Woodforde-Finden’s Kashmiri Song, extracted from her Four Indian Love Lyrics (1903) is chock-full of sentimentality with a delicious melody. It is none the worse for tugging at the heart strings. This is an ideal example of Edwardian salon music.
The booklet should have said that Herbert Howells’s Procession is the finale of his Three Pieces op.14 from 1918-1920, his longest composition for piano. (The other two movements were Rhapsody and Jackanapes.) The Procession was the result of a nightmare. Howells was approached by a large crowd, and midst the sound of pealing bells: he was overwhelmed. It is a “million miles away from any pastoral imaginings that the listener may have constructed around the composer’s reputation”. The work reflects his interest at that time in Diaghilev and the Russian and French composers of the period. Stravinsky is evident in this often bleak music. The Procession was orchestrated in 1922.
More fun is Arthur Benjamin’s Scherzino (1936). Not as popular in effect as the ubiquitous Jamaican Rumba, it is a remarkable exploration of will o’ the wisp rhythms and sassy harmonies. The overall effect reminds the listener of Mendelssohn rather than Modernism.
My big discovery here is Humphrey Searle’s powerful Vigil (France 1940-1944). Completed presumably after D-Day, it was written for an album in honour of the French Resistance Forces. I am not sure if the complete album was published but Searle’s contribution was issued by Lengnick in 1949. The music is serious, sometimes bitter, often despairing, but with just the occasional flash of light and hope. The composer’s deep interest in Liszt is clear in the pianism.
The mood lightens with Hubert Parry’s whimsical Scherzo in F. The structure includes a Schumannesque “trio” bookended by a whimsical “minuet” section. It was composed in the 1870s and published posthumously.
Cyril Scott’s melancholy Egyptian Boat Song was part of his 1913 five-movement Egypt Suite. The esoteric ascription reads: “To my friend, Mrs. Marie Russak, that enlightened Seer, who brought back for me the memory of my past Egyptian lives, these impressions are affectionately dedicated.” Even so, this is haunting music that lives up to its image.
Peter Jacobs notes that William Sterndale Bennett was not a twentieth-century composer but he includes a short work in the programme. This shows where the sympathies of ‘land without music’ sympathies lay, and how the achievements of Parry, Stanford and others began to give Britain its own identity. The Presto agitato is the fifth movement of Sterndale Bennett’s Suite de pičces op.24 (c.1842). Mendelssohn is the exemplar here.
Raymond Warren’s magical Monody (1977) comes from his Second Piano Sonata (with the composer’s sanction). It is simply a single line of melody with decoration. This long movement may make it difficult for the performer to maintain the listener’s interest. Jacob succeeds in this.
William Baines’s Seven Preludes from 1919 offer an overview of his musical achievement. They explore a wide range of moods and technical requirements. Despite this diversity, there is a keen sense of unity and purpose about these Preludes, when we consider their contrast. Jacob has chosen to play Nos. 1, 3 and 6. Scriabin is the most obvious influence in these pieces. Sadly, I found the Moderato from Benjamin Britten’s Sonatina Romantica (1940) the least interesting work on this CD. It could have been omitted to present the full set of Baines’s Preludes.
We are again on significant ground with honorary Scotsman Ronald Stevenson’s four pieces from 1964 (published in 1967). A Wheen Tunes for Bairns tae Spiel means – to help the readers who may not be fluent in Scots – A Set of Tunes for Children to Play, and indeed this was written for the composer’s youngest daughter. The influence of Percy Grainger has been observed here, as well as Bartók. The pieces are a Croon, Drone, Reel and Spiel. They reflect Stevenson’s ability to write (relatively) easy piano music for a wide range of ability, but never be patronising.
The final two pieces could not be more different. The clue to Bax’s Winter Waters (1915) is the subtitle ‘A Tragic Landscape’. It is sea music, rather than a musical depiction of a loch or a river. For me, it is a companion to the orchestral Tintagel: the waves pound against the base of the Cornish cliffs on a cold and stormy winter’s day. This dark and menacing music offers no intimation of personal companionship apparent in Tintagel. Compare this with Trevor Hold’s charming and gentle Tango written 60 years after the Bax. It is a lovely way to close this imaginative and absorbing exploration of British piano music.
Each work – played with skill and diligence, and without condescension – reveals the underlying talent of the composers. The recording, made earlier this year, is clear and vibrant. The pianist supplies excellent liner notes and a short CV. I would have welcomed composer and work dates in the track listings, not only in the notes. It should always be clear if a track is an extract.
I have yet to hear Peter Jacob’s two discs of Trevor Hold’s piano music (Heritage HTGCD 294/5; review). For a few details of his achievement, see my review of his four-CD British Piano Collection Volume 1.
This is a great conspectus of rarely heard British Piano Music. Fascinating from the first note to the last.
Contents Martin Shaw (1875-1958) Roundabouts (1925) [1:55] Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
Polonaise from Suite for Piano (1925) [4:15] Walter Leigh (1905-1942) Eclogue (1940) [3:25] John Mayer (1930-2004) Three Pieces from Calcutta-Nagar (1993) [3:20] Roger Quilter (1877-1953) Summer Evening from Three Pieces, Op 16, (pub.1916) [4:56] Mátyás Seiber (1905-1960)
Scherzando Capriccioso (1944) [3:13] Amy Woodforde-Finden (1860-1919) Kashmiri Song from Four Indian Love Lyrics (1903) [3:25] Herbert Howells (1892-1983) Procession from Three Pieces, Op 14 (1918-20) [4:28] Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960)
Scherzino (1936) [2:56] Humphrey Searle (1915-1982) Vigil (France 1940-1944) [6:08] Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)
Scherzo in F (pub. post. 1922) [3:09] Cyril Scott (1879-1970) Egyptian Boat Song from the Egypt Suite. (1913) [3:54] William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)
Presto Agitato in F-sharp minor from Suite de Pieces,
Op 24 (c.1842) [2:41] Raymond Warren (b. 1928) Monody (1977) [6:11] William Baines (1899-1922)
Seven Preludes (Nos 1, 3 & 6) (1919) [3:52] Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Moderato from Sonatina Romantica (1940) [5:56] Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015) A Wheen Tunes for Bairns tae Spiel (1964) [3:43] Arnold Bax (1883-1953) Winter Waters (1915) [6:46] Trevor Hold (1939-2004) Tango (1975) [2:14]