Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
24 Preludes op.163 (1918): No.24 in B minor [2:01]; No.5 in D major [1:18]
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912)
Three-Fours, op.71 (1909), No.2 Waltz [3:08]
Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)
Cortège (c.1930, rev.1970s) [4:17]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Piano Sonata (1918-20) [24:29]
Franz LISZT (1811-86)
Piano Sonata in B minor (1853) [28:36]
Tom Hicks (piano)
rec. 2021, St James Concert Hall, St Peter Port, Guernsey
DIVINE ART DDA25227 [64:10]
The liner notes explain that the theme of teacher and pupil run through the repertoire on this CD. This is true of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Rebecca Clarke and John Ireland, all three of whom were students of Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music. Somewhat more tenuous is the inclusion of Franz Liszt. David Wordsworth explains that Frederic Lamond, who gave the premiere of Ireland’s Piano Sonata on 12 June 1920, was a pupil of the renowned Hungarian, but the real rationale for including Liszt’s Sonata lies with the contemporary critic Ralph Hill, who wrote that Ireland’s Piano Sonata was “one of the finest and most important since Liszt.” No doubt this is a statement that could be discussed and debated, but I have much sympathy with Hill’s contention.
The proceedings open with two Preludes from Stanford’s op.163, completed in 1918. They may well have had an educational purpose. It was the first time that a British (Ireland was not then a republic) composer had written a cycle of 24 Preludes. Christopher Howell has noted the irony of this “cycle [coming] at a time when tonality was being abandoned entirely by certain continental European composers.” This may well have been Stanford’s deliberate attempt at “making a plea for the tonal system, which he associated with musical sanity.” Prelude no.24 features arpeggios supporting a delightful tune, in a highly-wrought bit of Romanticism which concludes quietly. Arpeggios also feature in the Prelude No.4. Unusually written in 12/16 time, “it projects a singing melody over running semiquavers.”
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Valse Suite “Three Fours” op.71 was published in 1909. This is a pot boiler, a sequence of six waltzes that uses every cliché in the book. The present selection is Valse No.2 in A flat major. It is memorable for its charming melody and rich harmonic accompaniment. The Suite was dedicated to “Miss Myrtle Meggy,” an Australian pianist and pedagogue.
Rebecca Clarke’s dark and lugubrious Cortège was completed around 1930, dedicated to William Busch, and revised by her in the 1970s; it is her only piano piece. This music nods to Debussian Impressionism but lacks something of the Frenchman’s luminosity.
John Ireland once asserted that the first movement of his Piano Sonata was about “life,” the second was “more ecstatic” and, the last was “inspired by a rough autumnal day on Chanctonbury Ring & [the] old British Encampment.” It could be argued that the second movement is not “ecstatic” but reticent and meditative. On the other hand, Ireland’s words give the listener a valid clue for understanding this music. The knack for the pianist in this compelling work is to get behind some of the mysteries that it seems to present. This includes the supernatural elements that are derived from Ireland’s reading of Arthur Machen, and the visual and spiritual impact of the prehistoric hill fort at Chanctonbury Ring in the South Downs.
Stylistically, this sonata is in the trajectory of Brahms and Liszt, but with the “added note” harmony being Ireland’s own fingerprint. There are many moments where Impressionism is to the fore. Fellow composer E.J. Moeran noted at the time the sonata’s “complexity of harmonic texture…[and] its absolute conciseness: there is not a redundant note in it.” Colin Scott-Sutherland wrote that all the facets of Ireland’s art are present here: “…the lyrical, the dramatic, the extrovert and the melancholy – the intense self-questioning and the open, almost naïve, avowals.” It was written between 1918 and 1920 and was revised by Ireland in 1951.
There are several recordings of Ireland’s Piano Sonata currently available. These include Alan Rowlands, two by Eric Parkin, John Lenehan, Malcolm Binns and Mark Bebbington (although I may have missed one). Certainly, Tom Hicks gives a remarkably rhapsodic account here. This is a demanding work to perform, both from a technical and interpretive perspective and he succeeds remarkably. In the slow movement he creates the numinous atmosphere the music requires. On the other hand, the first account I heard of this sonata was Eric Parkin’s and that version for me bears the palm. That said, Hicks’s account is a welcome addition to John Ireland’s discography.
The Liszt Sonata needs little introduction but I cannot understand why Hicks has chosen it for the present CD. I would have thought that another English piano sonata would have been ideal, and not necessarily the often-recorded Frank Bridge. My mind ranges over possibilities, and thinks of examples by Harry Farjeon, Leo Livens and William Baines. Is there really a need for yet another version of the Liszt? There are more than 200 in the catalogues already, including those by the “greats” such as Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Emil Gilels, Van Cliburn and Vladimir Horowitz.
Undoubtedly, it is given an exceptionally commanding performance, which balances the dramatic with the intimate. Technically, the Sonata uses wide ranging pianism, including intricate finger work, tumultuous octaves, part playing in the fugato sections and depth of tone in the melodic section, but most important of all is whether the pianist can project and maintain the unity of this entire structure, which is made up of a small group of themes subject to constant transformation. It has been said that there is virtually every emotion known to humankind in these pages. Tom Hicks goes a long way in satisfying this aim in a sonata that Wagner described as ‘… beyond all conception, beautiful, great, lovely, deep and noble – sublime.’
The sound recording is perfect. The booklet notes devised by David Wordsworth give all the information required for an intelligent appreciation of this CD. Biographical details of the artist can be found at his website.
Despite my nag about swapping the Liszt for another British piano sonata, this is an excellent and well-balanced recital that fully deploys Tom Hicks' multitudinous talents.