William Baines (1899-1922)
Pictures of Light
Paradise Gardens (1918-1919)
The Naļad from Three Concert Studies (1920)
The Island of the Fay (1919)
Pictures of Light (1920-1922)
Eight Preludes (1920-1922)
Five Songs (1919)
Robin Walker (b. 1953)
At the Grave of William Baines (1999)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano), Gordon Pullin (tenor)
rec. 2022, Holy Trinity Church, Hereford, UK
DIVINE ART DDA25234 
This notable CD explores the piano and vocal music of Yorkshire-born composer William Baines. Several of the pieces are receiving their first recording. For much of the background to my review, I am beholden to the outstanding liner notes, and to Roger Carpenter’s seminal Goodnight to Flamboro’: The Life and Music of William Baines (Triad Press, 1977).
The recital begins with Baines’s most “popular” piano work, Paradise Gardens. The composer wrote: "there was a lovely view, overlooking the gardens of the Station Hotel [in York]. You looked through thick green foliage on to the grounds, which were beautifully laid out with flowers - and in the centre a little fountain was playing. A perfect blue sky, and the sun shining low - made indeed a grand picture." The piece he began just a few days later is a major tone poem for piano. Here is a subtle balance of impressionism and a more romantic musical language. (Sadly, much of the Paradise Gardens has been turned into a car park.)
The score of The Naļad is prefaced by John Keats’s lines which evoke a “bowery nook” in Elysium with “Nymphs in woods and fountains”. The muse for The Naļad was Ravel’s Ondine from Gaspard de la nuit. Roger Carpenter insists that it is the hardest of Baines’s works to interpret. He notes the “quality of restless longing and sadness underlying ‘the bubbling swirl of tiny waterfalls,’ ‘the soft undertones of the shallow rivulet’ and the ‘rush of miniature torrents.’”
The four numbers of Silverpoints have a definite whiff of the Orient about them, a least as far as artists who had never travelled there would have imagined. Labyrinth conjures a “deep sea cave” which could be as easily below Flamborough Head, East Riding as on a secluded island in the China Sea. It is easy to hear echoes of Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie in these pages. Water Pearls is a scherzo, which, to quote the contemporary pianist and teacher Frederick Dawson, has “the flash and glitter of falling water”. We are securely in East Asia with The Burning Joss Stick; its lugubrious progress suggests the rising of incense in some temple hidden deep in the forest. Floralia, is classical in its stimulus, euphoric and lush in effect. It capturs well the image of children celebrating the Roman goddess of flowers in high Maytime.
Tides is one of Baines’s better known piano pieces. It was the last work that he saw through to publication, by Elkin in September 1922. It presents two dramatic tone poems. The Lone Wreck uses a minimum amount of material to create its effect: “rolling arpeggios”, “booming pedal” and “plaintive melody”. The score is prefaced by an evocative, but unattributed, quotation: “In the hidden beach the deep sea rolls around the lonely wreck…” Whether it was inspired by Baines’s trips by bicycle from York to Flamborough Head is a moot point.
Goodnight to Flamboro’ certainly owes its existence to the Yorkshire Coast. Baines’s diary entry for 1 July 1920 says everything one needs to know: “Tonight I have written a lovely ‘mind's eye impression’. I got the idea from Colin Hunter's Goodnight to Skye [a painting now held at Glasgow Art Gallery] - only I have written mine to my beloved Flamboro' - instead of Skye - and I call this piece Goodnight to Flamboro'. The waves persistently roll on the rocks and in the caves… a beautiful ecstatic sorrow surrounds everything about…only the sea can give that feeling. The last chords are a dream.”
The track that first caught my eye was The Island of the Fay. It was finished on 27 July 1919 but the following month Baines orchestrated it. Both versions have been recorded before, by Alan Cuckston (review), and by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and Leslie Head. The latter can be heard in the Internet Archive, along with its companion Thought Drift.
In its melancholy mood, The Island of the Fay has been likened to Frank Bridge’s There is a Willow grows aslant a Brook. It is dark and ominous music at first, andthen a slightly warmer theme builds to a large climax before returning to the deep gloom. The piece is based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, where the narrator is exploring alone. He stumbles across a mysterious island in a river inhabited by fairies, which is sometimes seen in the shadows and at others in the sunlight. The Fay pass from life to death, and vice versa. Baines has created the correct atmosphere for this tone poem.
Pictures of Light include the character piece Pool-Lights. Honeybourne considers that it has “a spareness of aesthetic and a transcendental lucidity of utterance”. There is little here of warm romanticism or impressionism: a frozen landscape is depicted. The first Picture uses an unsettlingly repetitive ostinato in the right hand to suggest Drift-Light, whilst Bursting Flames is supercharged, almost atonal in impact, and with some dissonance. The exoticism of the suite sounds well as a group. They were collected by Frederick Dawson posthumously, and published by Elkin in 1927.
The liner notes explain that the Eight Preludes were constructed/realised by the pianist Robert Keys. The original holographs typically lacked performance directions. Honeybourne says that he “was delighted and fascinated to recognise a strong family likeness in the colouristic tints, intervallic shifts, lyrical shapes and pianistic layout…found in these intriguing pieces.” There is definite enchantment here, and not only in the evocative titles. Ebbing Tide is immediately appealing, with its “meandering melody” supported by a gently rocking accompaniment. Here and there some wayward notes creep in to give a little frisson and shiver. Shade Imagery is uneasy with its progress of rising arpeggios. We can allow our imaginations to supply the plot of the gentle A Fairy Story. Wind Sprites is like thistledown, blown into the night. The short Prelude in C presents an interesting study of a repeated figuration. Lullaby is certainly not restful, except in the final bars. The final Prelude, given the title Eroica by Robert Keys, is a study in octaves. Along with the first, Prelude in G, it exudes romanticism and strength.
The Five Songs are new to me. They explore the wide-ranging extent of Baines’s literary reading. Roger Carpenter cites them as a group in the catalogue section of his monograph. They were not published in Baines’s lifetime but have been issued by Tim Brooke in recent years. The opening number sets Fountains by the Georgian poet and dramatist James Elroy Flecker. It conjures still water rather than splashing fountains, and has a gentle and reflective mood. The American poet John Banister Tabb’s Fern Song is played “Delicatissimo, like liquid pearls”. It is another watery song, this time rain and dew. By the Sea, setting a text by Christina Rossetti, evokes the ocean “fretting against the shore”. It has a more straightforward vocal line and piano part. The most profound setting is The Vigil by Sappho. It tells the age-old tale of a woman awaiting her lover. Carpenter has noted “the aching longing of the words is conveyed in a vocal line of hesitant disjointed phrases and a keyless accompaniment of poignant beauty.” Morning, to a poem by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, is the most dramatic of the set. Yet even here, after a marching theme in the piano, and a vocal line that is “delirious with songs”, the music just evaporates like a will o’ the wisp in the final bars.
I had not heard Robin Walker’s At the Grave of William Baines before. It having been composed to celebrate the centenary of Baines’s birth. I wondered what I was about to hear. I imagined it would be a kind of well-meaning pastiche. I was wrong. Walker has created an entirely legitimate work that not only honours Baines’s achievement but adds considerable interest and a unique musical experience. He could have written a melancholy piece, but the result is celebratory. Walker says that “the present piece [is] compelled forward by the concerted forces of exaltation and tragedy towards a conclusion that recognises suffering for the beauty and miracle it is.” One hears bell chiming, not tolling. There is something of the subject’s exoticism and even romanticism in these pages, but it is celebrated with latter-day freshness. The exceptional Yorkshire illustrator and author Richard Bell has summed up ideally this commemoration on his blog: “There's so much of Baines in there, but seen afresh through Walker's imagination, with no hint of pastiche or nostalgia. I find myself thinking that this could be what Baines would have written himself, had he lived.” At the Grave of William Baines makes an essential pairing in any recital of the subject’s music.
I was impressed by the booklet. It contains an interesting introduction by Robin Walker, and the pianist’s detailed programme notes on Baines’s piano works. The comments on the Five Songs by Gordon Pullin include the texts. Finally, Walker writes about his At the Grave of William Baines. The booklet is illustrated with photographs of the performers and Richard Bell’s two evocative line drawings of Flamborough Head.
This is a very fine new release of music by William Baines (and Robin Walker). It is perfectly executed by all concerned. I hope that Duncan Honeybourne will dig deeper into the surviving manuscripts located at the British Library, and record more piano works from Baines’s pen. There is, I understand, an unpublished Sonata …
Published: November 25, 2022