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London Nights
Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Sonata No 1 for piano (1936-1937, revised 1942) [21:45]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Holiday Diary, Op 5 (1934) [17:24]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Three Sketches for piano, H.68 (1906) [8:30]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Ballade of London Nights (Op posth.) (1930) [6:45]
Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
First Sonata in F-sharp minor, GP 127 (1910, revised 1917-1921) [21:16]
Franziska Lee (piano)
rec. 22 and 24 September 2020, Wolfgang-Rihm-Forum, Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
CAPRICCIO C3010 [75:49]

Michael Tippett’s Sonata No 1 for piano could have done with an explanation in the liner notes. Although an early work, it was his first composition to be critically acclaimed as stylistically integrated. It was first named Fantasy Sonata, to reflect the wayward first movement not conforming to traditional sonata form. It was dedicated to the English author and musician Francesca Allinson, Tippett’s friend and confidante; they had an unconsummated romantic relationship. Franziska Lee gives here an exhilarating, well-studied performance.

The impetus behind the Sonata was Tippett’s wish to write a music that “was to be clean and clear in tone and texture, a sort of modern Scarlatti creation”, whilst “[steering] clear of a heavy, Germanized and too serious work”. It begins with a set of variations which never take themselves too seriously. They are replete with “rhythmical pranks”. The slow movement, the emotional heart of the piece, is a gorgeous meditation on the well-known Scottish tune “Ca’ the Yowes, to the Knowes”. There follows a tightly constructed, Beethovenian Scherzo. In the finale, a rondo, Tippett introduces elements of American popular music including the cakewalk and blues. The work can be summed up well by the words of an unknown listener in 1941: “The Sonata is a delightful composition. Truly pianistic, witty and good music all through.”

Benjamin Britten’s early Holiday Diary, Op 5 is programmatic to say the least. There is much boyish fun and high spirits, but also some surprisingly mature reflection. The titles evokes a pre-war holiday at the seaside. The first movement, a romp, is Early Morning Bathe, full of shivers and splashing waters. In the typically calm Sailing, the middle section reflects choppier weather. The Fun-Fair is a virtuosic toccata, interrupted by several contrasting episodes. The closing nocturne is simply named Night. The Diary is based on recollections of Britten’s days at Lowestoft or Great Yarmouth, rather than Benidorm.

In Frank Bridge’s Three Sketches, the most popular number is the second, Rosemary, which is “for remembrance”. This deliciously romantic piece of music bewitches the listener. The first number, April, is delicately brilliant; the magic here is nervous, presenting chromatic passages and an exercise in arpeggios. The Valse capricieuse is less flighty and more wistful than the title would suggest. The entire suite belongs to Bridge’s period of Edwardian romanticism before he “discovered” impressionism and then moved into his more dissonant (Bergian) modernist phase. Yet, the effect of the Three Sketches is greater than just salon music. There is much here that touches the heart and informs the head.

The Ballade of London Nights was not at first part of Ireland’s canon of works. The fact is, he never completed the Ballade: the manuscript was found in a drawer. It was finished by Alan Rowlands, who premiered it on 6 June 1965. The music is part of Ireland’s response to the Capital City. Other works inspired by the Metropolis include the well-known London Pieces (Chelsea Reach, Ragamuffin and Soho Forenoons) and the Comedy Overture with its musically onomatopoeic “'Dilly! Pica-dilly!” The seven-minute Ballade explores diverse moods, from tranquil, dreamy music to “a shattering bitonal cascade traversing several octaves”. It has been suggested that the programme behind the piece may depict a night on the town in Soho followed by a late-night walk along the river to Chelsea. Yet, I can hardly imagine Ireland hitting the heavy end of town. Whatever the inspiration, it represents the composer’s love-hate relationship with the city. It is imaginatively played here, with great contrast between the emotional underpinnings of this de facto tone-poem.

Background information would have been helpful for approaching Arnold Bax’s Sonata No 1 in F-sharp minor. For one thing, not unusually for this composer, a woman was involved. In 1910, Bax had gone to the Ukraine in pursuit of a Russian lady, Natalia Skarginska, whom he had fallen madly in love (or became infatuated) with. The relationship came to nothing, and Bax returned to London. Lewis Foreman has suggested that it is not a picture postcard impression of Russia. It reflects Bax’s despair about losing Natalia’s affection. (Sadly, after her marriage, she died from typhoid.)

The formal construction of the Sonata nods to Franz Liszt, and the musical language owes much to Scriabin and Balakirev. The overall mood distress, violence and despair rather than tenderness. The ending is a marvellous recreation of the Easter bells in St Petersburg. The work was revised over a long period, and renamed on several occasions. Graham Parlett has noted the titles Romantic Tone Poem, Sonata, Symphonic Phantasy, Sonata again and finally Sonata in F# minor. The performance here is stunning.

The CD booklet gives a brief resume of the soloist’s career in three languages but no details about the music. I was unable to find any downloads of an expanded booklet. All the music on this disc needs some gentle introduction. The record company cannot expect the listener to have a selection of reference materials available to allow them to get to grips with this vital music. Here it is a case of spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.
 
Franziska Lee is truly enthusiastic and sensitive towards 20th century British piano music. Do visit her webpage. I know well all the pieces recorded here: she gave me new insights – and considerable listening pleasure.
 
John France



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