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Gipps piano PFCD171
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Ruth GIPPS (1921-1999)
Sonata for cello and piano, op. 63 (1978) [13:08]
The Fairy Shoemaker (1929) [1:17]
Theme and Variations, op. 57a (1965) [10:32]
The Ox and the Ass: Introduction and Carol, op. 71 (1988) [5:18]
Opalescence, op. 72 (1989) [4:30]
Scherzo and Adagio for Unaccompanied Cello, op. 68 (1987) [5:03]
Sonata for Double Bass and piano, op. 81 (1996) [11:48]
Joseph Spooner (cello)
David Heyes (double bass)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
rec. 25 October 2020 (Cello Sonata, works for solo piano), 28 March 2021 (Scherzo and Adagio), Holy Trinity Church, Hereford; 27 July 2021, Cheap Street Church, Sherborne, Dorset (works for double bass).

I acknowledge the excellent liner notes essential to my writing of this review and have shamelessly cribbed from them as all seven compositions are new to me, and I have been unable to find other sources of information. Four are “world premiere recordings.” For details of Ruth Gipps’ life and achievement, see Pamela Blevins’s interesting essay.  

I listened to this CD chronologically. The earliest, The Fairy Shoemaker (1929), also happens to be Ruth Gipps’ first published work, written when she was only eight years old. It won a prize at the Brighton Festival; sadly, the press accused her mother Helene of having penned it for her daughter. Duncan Honeybourne writes, “A mere trifle this slender piece may be, but it is engagingly descriptive and imaginative. Whilst childlike, in the sense of being direct and unsophisticated, it surely reveals a nascent musicianship of the highest order.” It is presented in ternary form and matches charm with contrast. This is certainly more complete and satisfying than The Robin’s Nest composed by her teacher Ralph Vaughan Williams, when he was six years old.

Thirty-six years later, Ruth Gipps wrote her Theme and Variations, op. 57a (1965), written especially for the young British pianist Eileen Broster, who was also to premiere Gipps’s Piano Concerto with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in 1972. The theme is taken from the third movement of her Symphony No.3, op.57 which dates from the same year. The working out of this idea is clever and utterly pianistic in manner. There is much interest in the six variations, with “rippling keyboard figurations,” an acerbic little march and a restrained climax. The coda brings this lovely and thoughtful essay to a wistful and inconclusive ending.

The Sonata for cello and piano was completed in 1978 and is dedicated to the cellist Loraine Nagioff. For reasons unknown, it took Nagioff three years before it was premiered on 28 February 1981 at Purley. This is the most stylish essay on this CD: it highlights Ruth Gipps’s maturity and confidence. Despite being intense and dramatic in places, this sonata is straightforward. Honeybourne points out the dichotomy between the “infectiously spiky” elements of this piece, and the pastoral musings of the threnodic middle Andantino. There is, overall, a studied balance in this sonata between lyricism and edgy rhythmic zest.

Joseph Spooner reminds the listener that the Scherzo and Adagio for Unaccompanied Cello, op. 68, is one of very few works that Gipps wrote for a solo instrument. Dating from 1987, it was dedicated to the cellist David Johnstone. Its genesis was that “Johnstone had been asked to programme a concert at St John’s, Smith Square, with music from the ’80s of different centuries; he approached Gipps for a piece, and she was taken with the idea.”  The structure is straightforward: after the brief Scherzo, which manages to be “skittish” and “wistful” at the same time, the adagio follows. This is sad music, with something of a Celtic mother calling to her children far overseas. The jittery music returns, before it concludes with a lively coda. The difficult instrumental technique demanded of the soloist requires every trick in the book. It is rewarding and sounds more impressive than its five-minute duration may suggest.

The following year Gipps wrote The Ox and the Ass: Introduction and Carol, op. 71 for double bass and piano. It exists in other versions, including for contra bassoon and with chamber orchestra. The work is based on a carol with words authored by the composer: “The first of His disciples attended at His birth/And watched with gentle eyes their Saviour born on earth…”  Gipps uses the two instruments to paint a musical picture of the text. There is no doubt that it is inspired by the folksong/modal character of Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is “tonal, traditional and very accessible.”

Opalescence, op. 72 (1989) is my favourite number on this CD and is one of my minor discoveries of 2021. It is remarkable for its impressionism. The title is defined as “reflecting an iridescent light.” Merriam’s Dictionary describes the word well as “a lustrous rainbowlike play of colour caused by differential refraction of light waves (as from an oil slick, soap bubble, or fish scales) that tends to change as the angle of view changes.” This is complex and virtuosic music that Honeybourne describes as being “gratefully pianistic.” Certainly the balance between chromaticism, dense chords, and intricate figurations makes this tone poem a perfect manifestation of the title. It was dedicated to the American pianist Selma Epstein.

The latest piece on this disc is the remarkable Sonata for Double Bass and Piano, op. 81, completed in 1996, just three years before Gipps’s death. It was her final composition. The present soloist explains in the liner notes that he had asked her for a new double bass piece. What captured my ear was the idiomatic writing for the instrument. Gipps had confessed to David Heyes that she had “come to the conclusion that after studying music for 71 years [her] ignorance about the double bass would fill a book.” It was a self-deprecating statement. A lot of the work’s progress uses the lower register of the bass. Yet this is not lumbering music; the lyrical and cantabile nature is always to the fore. There is not a surfeit of harmonics, trying to make the instrument what it is not meant to be. There is some pizzicato, especially in the “jaunty” final movement, and here and there a welcome jazzy mood emerges. The programme notes are correct in stating that this Sonata gives the double bass equal billing to the piano. It should be in the repertoire of all bassists.

The three performers bring extraordinary talent and enthusiasm to this repertoire. The sound quality of the recording is bright and immediate. The liner notes are written mainly by Duncan Honeybourne but include contributions from David Heyes and Joseph Spooner. They are informative and detailed and provides everything the listener needs to know about this diverse music. The artwork on the CD gatefold cover is by Steve Plews, Prima Facie’s record producer: it is a vibrant, abstract oil painting of Ruth Gipps conducting. One thing, at fifty-two minutes duration, this CD is a wee bit short. Surely another couple of pieces could have been squeezed in. How about the Kensington Garden Suite for oboe and piano, op. 2 (1938) or the Sea-Shore Suite for oboe and piano, op. 3b dating from 1939? Or maybe the evocative sounding Sea Nymph, ballet for two pianos op. 14 (1941)?

This “Centenary” release of Gipps’s music is a valuable addition to the slowly growing inventory of her recorded music. Looking at her catalogue reveals much still to do.

John France 

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