Sir Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935)
Complete Music for Solo Piano - Volume 1
Six Compositions, Op 20 (1879) [22:57]
Trois Morceaux, Op 15 (1877) [17:10]
Jottings – 6 Cheerful Little Pieces (1916) Books 1 and 2 [13:53]
English Air with Variations, Op 81 (1915) [12:26]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 2016/2017, Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan, Italy
SHEVA COLLECTION SH221 [65:44]
I have long been familiar with Sir Alexander Mackenzie by name. He was a friend of Liszt, and even wrote Liszt’s biography published in 1920. But till now I have only heard his Piano Concerto, Op 55 in volume 19 of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series.
Mackenzie published the Six Compositions, Op 20 in 1879. The first is an appropriately religious sounding Hymnus. Something in the way the piece is structured adds a sense of piety. It require little virtuosity, and is rather touching. The short and rather witty Ritornello makes frequent use of offbeat notes, and its rather infectious tune will stay with you and probably make you smile. Reminiscence is a rather heartfelt five-minute work. Its sort of “once upon a time” introductory passage progresses nicely into a more choppy and melancholy section in the middle of the work. This then grows in power and difficulty before nicely resolving back to the opening music and then continuing to develop the same themes. The work concludes with a clever and slightly unexpected coda in a remote key.
The fourth piece is a rather complex little Etude, full of leaps and clever melodic invention. The opening reminds me vaguely of a Chopin Impromptu before it changes character and wanders off into a minor key. Mackenzie then brings back the opening material but with some clever ornamental additions. This memorable little piece is bound to stick in your head! Christopher Howell plays the attractive little Reverie with suitable reverence. It is very pretty and has some very nice harmonic touches and some clever piano writing, especially in the middle section. The rather fun-sounding Dance lasts around four minutes. This is my favourite here, full of mordents and hints at Scottish tunes. It goes along at a fair lick as well! This is tremendous fun to listen to and, I suspect, to play. The ending is surprisingly touching after the joyous dancing that precedes it.
Trois Morceaux, Op 15 were written two years earlier. Valse Serieuse is very much modelled on Chopin, especially in the opening theme, not particularly serious-sounding but certainly waltz-like. Hints of happiness throughout nicely counteract the serious mood. The middle section may owe more to Liszt because of the odd harmonies which Mackenzie employs before the melancholic first theme returns to round off the piece. This is another piece that sounds fun to play: I shall try to find the music. The Nocturne is a lovely, perfect little creation with some beautiful playing by Mr. Howell. The slightly wistful atmosphere works very well. The liner notes correctly point to a persistent theme in the inner voices throughout the piece. It is one of those bound to stick in your head; I certainly cannot seem to shake it. In a short passage at about six minutes the main theme is repeated high up in the treble, and it serves as a perfect run-up to one of Mackenzie’s unexpectedly wistful endings. The notes refer to the third piece as Schumann-like; I am inclined to agree. The music is restless, especially near the beginning. This puts me in mind of the stormier elements in some of Schumann’s earlier piano works (such as the Fantasiestücke, Op 12). The central section, more restrained, seems to teeter on the edge of falling apart. Very melodramatic, it is played here with suitable feeling. As the work progresses, the feelings grow more agitated and herald a return of the very Schumannesque opening theme which serves as a suitable conclusion.
I like the collective title of the next series of pieces: “Jottings – 6 Cheerful Little Pieces”. While they come from 1916 when much of the world was anything but cheerful, there is no hint of warfare, conflict or misery anywhere in these happy works. On the Village Green is rather fun! Perhaps “Playfulness” would have made a good subtitle. The piece reminds me of a pastoral English setting, where children play hide-and-seek among the stalls at a summer Fayre. Gossiping passes themes from one hand to the other in a strange detached manner. It almost sounds like a conversation. To my ears, there are hints of Alkan in some of the strange modulations between the themes. Drum and Trumpet is a strange little piece. I am again reminded of Alkan; there is a strange growling of the drum in the bass of the piano keyboard and a contrasting tune in the right hand. Marvellous stuff!
Humours is a minute-and-a-half of good-natured cheer. The opening theme evolves into some Lisztian complicated-sounding passagework for the pianist to get to grips with. This quickly dissolves and the quirky opening theme returns, acting as a coda. The piece entitled A Game in the Garden – with its simple jolly charms – seems to inhabit the same sort of world as Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood”. Finally, there is a comical little piece Heave Ho. It is an apt description for the tune heard at nine seconds in and elsewhere: it fits those words exactly. Perhaps it is a description of a tug of war played on the village green from the opening piece? Some strange interrupted rhythms could imitate people pulling on the rope. I have listened to this set many times with a smile on my face: “cheerful” is certainly a perfect description for these pieces, all of them impeccably played.
The disc ends with the English Air with Variations” published in 1915 as the composer’s Op 81. The unidentified opening theme goes through nine variations, each with different tempi and instructions. The theme is simple, direct and rather melancholic. The following Poco piu animato, much sunnier, leads to an even jollier Sempra piu animato which bounces along nicely with plenty of awkward passagework and rhythms for the pianist to negotiate. The third variation sounds to me as if it is going to break into a fugue; there is a lot of scurrying about by both hands and the tune is hidden amongst fistfuls of notes. Variation 4 Molto meno mosso is the strangest piece on the whole disc; the tune is surrounded by strange intervals and some very odd harmonies. The next variation, very short, whizzes past in a flash; the rhythm of the initial tune is compressed here, and occurs mostly in the bass with some clever accompanying counterpoint in the right hand. The following variation – a lovely, peaceful little creation marked Piu tranquilllo (con espressione) – it quite wonderful. The Allegro moderato is a bit of a surprise. There is plenty of interesting harmony here and some very grand playing; from about 50 seconds onwards, the piece becomes increasingly playful and rapid, and then Mackenzie applies the brakes for the penultimate Lento con molto espressione. This inhabits the same world as the earlier Nocturne from Op 15, and is superbly played. It is an amplification of the theme with added clever harmonies, and it serves nicely as we enter the final march-like Allegro marcato; it strides confidently along, providing a suitably virtuosic conclusion to this fascinating little work which really deserves to be better known.
This is a splendid disc. The useful booklet notes remedy my lack of knowledge about the composer and his life. The works are described with less detail but this does not matter: the music speaks for itself. Christopher Howell is clearly at home in this repertoire. I am glad that there are two more discs of Mackenzie’s piano music to discover.
Previous reviews: John France, Jonathan Woolf