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Coleridge-Taylor chamber CHAN20242
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Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
Nonet in F minor Op.2 ‘Gradus ad Parnassum’ (c.1893)
Piano Trio in E minor (1893)
Piano Quintet in G minor Op.1 (1893)
Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective
rec. 2021, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20242 [64]

This disc is a delight from first to last. Every aspect of the music-making, the recording and indeed the music itself is brilliantly achieved. Violinist Elena Urioste and pianist Tom Poster are a couple who previously recorded a recital disc on Chandos. They are the central focus of the group Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective. Following in the footsteps of such esteemed groups as The Melos or Nash Ensembles, this is a flexible chamber group – essentially a wind quintet plus a string quartet, double bass and piano – able to draw on its members to play a wide range of chamber music repertoire. The playing on this disc is uniformly excellent; technically assured, musically sensitive and vibrant and all played with a genuine sense of collective [pun intended] pleasure. The Chandos engineering is very fine too – the disc seems to have been recorded at quite a high level with close microphone positions so player’s intakes of breath are often audible but this adds to the energy and élan of the performances. Sensibly the piano is placed further back into the ensemble for the thickly scored Nonet where in any case it has a less musically dominant role. I have to say the balances across the varying demands of all three works are very well handled indeed.

None of the above would matter if the music itself was not of much worth. But it is. The extraordinary thing about this music is just how technically assured it is. Looking at the Chandos liner you find yourself doing something of a double-take as all three works are listed as being written when Coleridge-Taylor was just eighteen and studying at the Royal Academy of Music under the demanding eye of Charles Villiers Stanford. Stories about just how brutal a teacher Stanford could be are legion but clearly he thought Coleridge-Taylor was one of his best. After all, soon he would recommend the young composer’s Clarinet Quintet to the world’s most famous violinist – of the time – Joseph Joachim, who had given the world premiere of Brahms’ clarinet quintet just a handful of years earlier. You must be pretty certain of a new work’s merit to invite such direct comparison. The useful liner quotes Stanford writing to Joachim saying; “[Coleridge-Taylor has a] quite wonderful flow of invention and idea... altogether the most remarkable thing in the younger generation that I have seen and he knows his counterpoint.” Remember that at the time Stanford wrote this Coleridge-Taylor’s near-contemporaries were Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Thomas Dunhill, Walford Davies, William Hurlstone let alone others studying at the Royal Academy of whom he would have had less first-hand knowledge.

Brahms is the benevolent shadow that is present throughout all three works alongside the melodic flow and energy of Antonín Dvořák. I do not think any of the works here exhibit the astonishing genius of say Korngold’s youthful chamber works but the Austrian composer was a prodigy in the literal sense of the word. Recent years have produced recordings of similar composers’ student works – think Vaughan Williams’ – and therein lays a more useful comparator. Vaughan Williams was older than Coleridge Taylor by three years and a slower developer. His 1898 String Quartet in C minor is recognised as one of his most important works revealing the embryonic genius he was to become. But he was eight years older when he produced that work than Coleridge-Taylor was for the works presented here. Time and again I caught myself thinking that a particular phrase or texture was somewhat derivative only to then catch myself; this is an eighteen year old composer! By the time he was twenty-three the RCM was producing the first performance of the work on which he fame rested for many decades – Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. The frustration for any admirer of this music – and I am certainly an admirer – is the fact that Coleridge-Taylor’s early death means that we can only imagine what work he might have produced had he lived even another twenty years. Coleridge-Taylor was acutely aware of his African heritage and as a composer he sought to integrate African musical influences into his compositions – but this was in a similar manner to Brahms and Hungarian influences and Dvořák with Bohemian. The traditions and conventions of Germanic/Western Classical Music stay front and centre. For composers such as Vaughan Williams and Holst it was only when they were able to find direct inspiration from musical traditions other than Austro-German that their unique musical voices appeared.

But, as I wrote earlier, judging the music we have on its own merits this is pretty remarkable stuff. The disc opens with the Op.2 Nonet subtitled “Gradus ad Parnassum”. The instrumentation and treatment of the material is almost orchestral in its scale and intent. The wind quintet lacks the flute, the string quartet is missing a second violin with the piano and double bass making up the nine players. The role of the keyboard is primarily supportive adding texture and weight to the ensemble. Obviously there are moments when the piano is given some primary material but the way in which Tom Poster integrates his playing into the larger ensemble is exemplary. The issue for any composer – let alone an eighteen year old one – is how to manage the varying scale of the differing instruments within the collective group. Certainly this is clear within bars when the horn has a heroic theme that threatens to dominate everything around it. However, the main and over-riding impression is the sheer confidence with which Coleridge-Taylor dives into the musical argument of the work – this theme is memorable and allows for musical development even if it is undoubtedly Brahmsian in its cast. The manner in which Coleridge-Taylor shares the musical material, the voicings of the melodies and counter subjects are likewise strikingly confident. These are characteristics that hold true across all three works on the disc. The Chandos engineering manages the thick textures here well. Remarkably both this Nonet and the Piano Quintet on the disc received only single performances during the composer’s lifetime remaining in manuscript until the early years of the current century. Given that Coleridge-Taylor was prolific and praised during his lifetime one can only imagine that it was his choice to allow his juvenilia to remain unknown. After all, the previously mentioned Clarinet Quintet and his Fantasiestücke for string quartet (both of 1895) were published to considerable acclaim and objectively speaking for all the qualities of the works on this disc those two pieces do represent an advance by the young composer albeit from a very high bar to start with. The nine instruments do allow Coleridge-Taylor to create some wonderfully rich textures which allied to his undoubted melodic gift makes for instantly attractive passages – the second movement Andante con moto is a case in point even if the unison string second subject is about as Brahmsian as you can get without being by Brahms!

One of Coleridge-Taylor’s most popular works to this day is his Petite Suite de Concert where he displayed a genuine gift for what might be termed ‘salonesque’ melody. I do not mean this in any way disparagingly as Elgar was probably the greatest exponent of this ability to write memorable tunes in slighter works. The trio section of the Nonet has just one such melody and again a harsh observation is that at this stage of his composing Coleridge-Taylor’s melodic gift is tuneful rather than profound. In terms of structural balance the work is well-conceived with the outer movements the longest and the middle pair neatly complimentary. Again, hard not to be mightily impressed by this as a student work – especially in a performance as skilled and convincing as this one

Separating the two major chamber works is a very brief three movement Piano Trio in E minor – Coleridge Taylor packs three characterful movements into a total running time of less than nine minutes. The engineering carefully – and sensibly – repositions the piano further forward in the instrumental balance since the keyboard writing has a significantly more dominant role throughout the work. Here Mendelssohn seems to be the prevailing influence but again the sheer fluency and skill of the writing – by no means easy - is certainly effective and attractive. A word about Elena Urioste’s violin playing – I enjoyed very much her willingness to play with a lightly expressive fluency or more typically ardent Romantic full tone as the music requires – the flickering second movement allegro leggiero is an excellent example of this. Certainly the mood of this central scherzo is quite a bit closer to the salon style of the Petite Suite. In the finale, liner note writer Mervyn Cooke points to the marking con furiant displaying the influence of Dvořák which is undoubtedly true but it is important to note that these are points of compositional departure not slavish imitation.

The programming of this disc saves the best until last. Remarkably this Piano Quintet in G minor is listed as Coleridge-Taylor’s opus 1 and by any measure this is a highly impressive work. Certainly the opening Allegro con moto and the following Larghetto are a pleasure to listen to regardless of the composer’s age or nominal experience. The opening movement is big-boned and turbulent and the slow movement features another of Coleridge-Taylor’s fine lyrical inventions – this time initially given to the solo cello before the rest of the string group intertwine quite beautifully. For sure it teeters on the edge of sentimentality but I like the way the players here do not shy away from that by playing with exactly the right kind of expressive intensity and use of discreet portamenti. The Scherzo that follows is well contrasted written as a kind of weighty waltz. The closing Allegro molto is a quirkier affair. The opening is instantly stormy and arresting but around the 3:35 mark the first violin leads off an extended fugal passage which is totally unexpected and surprising in not necessarily a good way. The players here again use some portamenti which I must admit also sound not wholly effective or actually that stylistically apt. After a minute and a bit of this musical detour, the opening material of this movement returns and brings the quintet to a suitably grandly Romantic close.

Apart from that one mis-step I have to say I enjoyed this music a lot and my respect for Coleridge-Taylor has grown through listening to this disc. Other recordings do exist in various couplings none of which I have heard. By its own merits, this new disc is very well and dynamically recorded and played with equal skill, conviction and musicality. For anyone interested in rare British chamber music this is warmly recommended.

Nick Barnard

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