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De Profundis Clamavi
Christopher EDMUNDS (1899-1990)
Piano Sonata in B minor (1938) [17:17]
Edgar BAINTON (1880-1956)
Variations and Fugue in B minor, Op 1 (1898) [11:47]
Cecil Armstrong GIBBS (1889-1960)
An Essex Rhapsody, Op 36 (1921) [7:34]
Ballade in D-flat (1940) [4:16]
Richard PANTCHEFF (b.1939)
Nocturnus V: Wind oor die Branders (2015) [4:16]
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) 
Shulbrede Tunes (1914) [33:38]
Edgar BAINTON
Willows (1927) [6:49]
The Making of the Nightingale (1921) [3:03]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Piano Sonata (1924) [35:44]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76)
Night Piece (Notturno) (1963) [6:51]
Richard PANTCHEFF
Piano Sonata (2017) [25:15]
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
rec. 20/21 August 2020, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
EM RECORDS EMRCD070/71 [75:58 & 77:48]

Let me get a few practical considerations out of the way first. Many readers will be unfamiliar with much or most of this recital. I certainly was. Of the eleven works programmed, no fewer than eight are marked as first recordings. The sound is excellent, the piano comfortably placed in a recital room acoustic. The 36-page booklet is outstandingly good, with short biographical notes on the composers and the pianist, and listening guides to each work. Many of these have been written by Duncan Honeybourne himself and are exactly what is required: knowledge and experience easily worn with a few personal anecdotes added. Richard Pantcheff, the only living composer in this collection, writes about himself and his music rather uncomfortably in the third person. The booklet is filled with photographs.

Edgar Bainton’s Op 1 is made up of a series of clearly delineated but nicely contrasted variations, the unresolved close of the final variation leading comfortably into the short but well-argued fugue. If the work’s form shows signs of a set plan rather than evolving naturally from the material, that is hardly surprising from an 18-year-old composer. Honeybourne tells us that this accomplished and immediately attractive work has not been performed for 120 years. It is well worth reviving. The Making of the Nightingale shows the extent of Bainton’s progress over the years. It describes the moment the god of youth transforms a rose in order to create the nightingale. Bainton’s music is full of added seconds and sixths and could easily have been too sweet, but he evokes the nightingale’s song with great skill and considerable charm. To judge from its title alone, one might expect Willows to be a typical piece of English pastoralism. In fact, at more than twice the length of The Making of the Nightingale, its musical and expressive scope is considerably wider than that. Elements of musical language to be found in the earlier piece are again present, but they are expanded, as is the expressive nature of the music. This is a very fine piece indeed, another unexpected find. All the more surprising, then, that the composer did not seek publication for either of these pieces. They were first performed only in 2019 by the present pianist, and all three receive are recorded here for the first time.

I had never thought of Parry as a composer of piano music, but here, in what was, for me, another fascinating discovery, we encounter another side of this prolific and important composer. Shulbrede was the name of the country home of the composer’s daughter, Dorothea, and her family. There are ten ‘tunes’ in all, making a substantial suite. Some of them are affectionate family portraits, including particularly appealing ones of Parry’s grandchildren, Elizabeth and Matthew, a boy who, according to the composer, had ‘an enquiring turn of mind and a serious side’. ‘Children’s Pranks’ is light of heart, especially its close, and we are also charmed by the good-natured supernatural beings evoked in ‘Bogies and Sprites that Gambol by Nights’. One of the rooms is portrayed in ‘Prior’s Chamber by Firelight’, a recurring pedal point giving the piece a satisfying air of seriousness and solidity. ‘Father Playmate’ brings the set to a striking and boisterous close. These are delightful pieces, and often more than that, touching and with a sense of genuine sentiment and affection running through them. Connoisseurs and admirers of Parry’s vocal and choral works will probably be surprised. Honeybourne writes that they are ‘hugely rewarding to play’, to which I add that they are also very rewarding to listen to, especially in performances as committed and accomplished as these.

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs is another composer whose name, in my mind at any rate, was hardly associated with piano music. It is a surprise, then, to find his youthful An Essex Rhapsody is no less than a bravura showpiece for keyboard. Duncan Honeybourne, whose notes are a constant help in this little-known repertoire, is not blind to the work’s imperfections, but his performance makes the most of it and it does indeed make a striking and impressive recital piece. The Ballade in D-flat is even more impressive, opening as it does with an immediately memorable theme passed from one hand to the other. This theme is by turns lyrical and heroic, but in the middle section it is given a much more disturbed treatment in line with the troubled times in which it was composed. This is a most interesting, rather equivocal, piece.

Anyone coming new to Frank Bridge’s monumental Sonata with only works such as Sir Roger de Coverley as preparation is in for a shock. The work was dedicated to the memory of Bridge’s friend and fellow composer, Ernest Farrer, who was killed in action in 1917. To my ears this work communicates anger and bitterness; hints of tenderness in the slow movement are brief indeed. While its textures are closer to the constant figuration of late Brahms rather than anything resembling melody and accompaniment, or even perceivable counterpoint, the musical language itself is advanced, highly dissonant and closer to European expressionism than anything that might resemble contemporary ‘English’ sensibilities. It is a long and harrowing listen, its three movements marked to be played without a break (though Honeybourne elects to leave a short breather between the movements). An astonishing and unexpected masterpiece, anyone who plays the work in recital must surely be in need of a shower followed by a lie-down at the end. Peter Jacobs recorded it as part of his three-disc complete survey of Bridge’s piano music, issued in 1990 on the late Murray Khouri’s Continuum label and recently reissued. That magnificent performance was my introduction to this astounding work, but Honeybourne’s reading is in no way inferior. He is fully in control of Bridge’s horribly challenging writing, and, helped by the superbly clear recording, arguably makes even more sense than did Jacobs of the charged and intricate textures.

Benjamin Britten was himself a magnificent pianist, so it is surprising that solo piano music figures so little in his catalogue. When his friends Fanny Waterman and Marion Harewood launched the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1963, Britten composed a short test piece for the first edition. The result was Night Piece. The soundscape is nocturnal enough, though there are disturbed moments, and the work follows a logical and satisfying trajectory. The composer’s customary craftsmanship is in evidence, but I doubt that many listeners, even seasoned Britten admirers such as myself, coming blind to this work would easily identify the composer. It is a slight piece that does not add much to what we know of Britten’s oeuvre, but it more than earns its place in this fascinating recital.

The 1938 Piano Sonata in B minor that opens this collection is, I am pretty sure, the first music I have ever heard by Christopher Edmunds. I wonder if the stormy, tortured nature of much of the work, just as the second international conflagration was threatening, is also the result of the composer’s particularly harrowing experiences as a soldier in the First World War. This is music in a strong late-Romantic idiom; less blatantly violent than Bridge’s Sonata, it features, none the less, many quite shocking moments. Again, like Bridge’s work, actual themes are hard to come by, with greater weight given to figuration and short motifs, though the composer’s melodic gift suddenly and briefly blossoms in the slow section that precedes the brilliant end to the work. Duncan Honeybourne describes it as ‘gratifyingly and gloriously pianistic’. I take this to mean that it falls under the fingers in a natural way. This is not at all the same thing as saying that it is easy to play!

The collection closes with the most recent work in the programme, the Piano Sonata by Richard Pantcheff. The earlier Nocturnus V describes, according the composer, ‘the impending arrival of blustery weather on the sea, breaking into turbulence, and then subsiding into a peaceful ending.’ A peaceful ending is certainly not provided in the Sonata, which was composed for the present performer. Pantcheff again: The Sonata ‘is a work expressing the greatest possible tumult and, on occasions, desolation.’ Pantcheff appears to achieve his aims, at least in the outer of the work’s three movements, by way of lengthy fortissimo passages of the utmost dissonance. I am unable, after three hearings, to perceive any real, memorable thematic content. On the contrary, the relentlessly percussive nature of much of the writing and the use of extreme dissonance seem gratuitous to this listener, achieving little. The long slow movement is an easier listen, but even there the musical material seems distressingly thin. I have tried my best, and, as always in these circumstances, willingly admit that the fault may lie with me. Clearly Duncan Honeybourne, having already performed other Pantcheff works, has great faith in the music, and that should be good enough for me. Indeed, Honeybourne’s performances throughout this fascinating recital deserve the highest praise. Virtuosity is one thing, and it is delivered in spectacular fashion. But in these performances, virtuosity is combined with profound musical insight and mastery of the architectural spans of extended movements.

William Hedley
 
Previous review: John France



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