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Dieren piano PCL10241
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Bernard van Dieren (1887-1936)
Six Sketches, Op 4a (1910-11)
Toccata (1912)
Theme and Variations (1927)
Three Studies (early 1920s)
Netherlands Melodies (1917)
Piccolo Pralinudettino Fridato (1934)
Ballad de Villon (van Dieren/Warlock ed. Christopher Guild) (1917)
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 2021, Old Granary Studio, near Beccles, Suffolk; Ledger Recital Room, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
Text included
PIANO CLASSICS PCL10241 [54 + 47]

There was a time when Bernard van Dieren was deemed to be at the forefront of the avant-garde in England. In fact, he was taken up as a kind of leader by esteemed names such as Peter Warlock, Cecil Gray and Constant Lambert. At his death, someone wrote: “Mystery Man of Music Dies: Music Genius that Nobody Knew.” He was born in Rotterdam on 27 December 1884. Some sources say 1887: the 1911 UK census suggests that he was then 26 years old, favouring the earlier date. He trained as a research scientist before turning to composition. He moved to London in 1909, where he was employed as a music correspondent to several continental periodicals. The following year he took British nationality. He died at Golders Green, London on 24 April 1936.

Van Dieren’s catalogue is small but displays a wide stylistic range. Major works include the powerful Chinese Symphony for voices and orchestra (1912-1914), six string quartets and an opera, The Tailor. Songs may be his most significant contribution. His musical language is eclectic, ranging from complex polyphony and dense chromaticism to sheer sentimentality. Exemplars must include Schoenberg and Busoni, but certainly not the English pastoral school.

I am beholden to the authors of the booklet essay in the preparation of this review.

The notes explain that Six Sketches are thematically linked, and are mainly polyphonic and atonal in style. It is not hard to hear the influence of Schoenberg, especially his Piano Pieces Op 11 from 1909, both in structure and effect. The Sketches balance wide-ranging moods and dynamics: from reflective to violent and from the enigmatic to the acerbic. The atonality leads to a gentle dissonance and a deep chromaticism. They would have been interesting and probably challenging for British audiences at the time, but despite their diverse moods they are enjoyable and satisfying.

The Toccata bears little resemblance to any virtuosic organ piece from the 19th or 20th century. It has atonal links similar what we find in the Six Sketches. The notes say that the “title is a misnomer” but “takes its leave from the Toccata form’s improvisatory roots”. I do not agree with Stephen Plaistow’s opinion (Gramophone, November 1983, p. 656) that it is “rambling” but do feel it may overstay its welcome at just over 13 minutes. It seems to present an ever-evolving development of the opening material, in a subtle and not always obvious manner. There is certainly some imaginative pianism in these pages.

Tema Con Variazione was premiered by van Dieren’s wife Frida at the Wigmore Hall in 1927. It is far removed in style from the Sketches and the Toccata. The piece represents the composer’s later style, and depends much more on tonality and traditional structures. The theme is very short and sweet, and fourteen equally brief variations follow. They are always full of interest. There is some beauty in these pages, especially the gorgeous Variation XI “Dolce et distante”. Here and there the listener may find echoes of Debussy and even Delius. The Frenchman is particularly prominent in the concluding Con ultimo rapidita e brilliantemente. The liner notes do not mention that the piece was dedicated to Arthur Bliss.

Three Studies were probably written in the early 1920s. Once again, early Schoenberg and Berg seem to be the inspiration. I have not seen the score, but the music seems to be atonal and chromatic without any sense of serialism. The original liner notes for the BMS edition suggest that these are more likely to be “studies from the composer’s, rather than a performer’s point of view”. Certainly, there is nothing cerebral or pedantic about these three quite lengthy pieces. In fact, they are typically quite relaxed, with only the final presto with “several distinct recurring themes, rushing arpeggios and vigorous octaves” stretching the pianist’s technique to a great extent. The second study is appropriately signed “Sostenuto romanticamente” – it lives up to its dynamic.

We enter a different world when we turn to the Netherlands Melodies. These twelve short numbers are piano adaptations of tunes heard by the young Van Dieren in Rotterdam. He has admitted there may be a “few bogus ones”, such as a “brothel speech song” from Germany! I guess the difficulty with this collection is how to programme it. There is not enough depth to play the complete set at a recital, and I guess that excerpting might not be advisable, as some of the Melodies last less than a minute.

I like the word “Pralinudettino”: I have never heard of it before. To give the full title, Piccolo Pralinudettino Fridato was the composer’s last work for piano, penned in celebration of his wife’s birthday. The sound word, a million miles away from Schoenberg, is difficult to describe – maybe a kind of slightly surreal cocktail-bar music. Ronald Stevenson edited the present edition.

The Ballade of Villon was originally a setting of a poem by François Villon for reciter and string quartet. Peter Warlock later transcribed it for speaker and piano solo. The French text of the poem is given; a translation would have been helpful. It is a long, slow meditation on the Virgin Mary.

Christopher Guild gives an impressive performance of this piano repertoire. I have not heard Eiluned Davies’s recital on BMS 402 and BMS 405, issued on cassette in the 1980s. The contemporary review I cited earlier suggests that “there may be far more strength in [the music] than Davies brings out”. Stephen Plaistow felt that this “pianist [Davies] seems to meander through the music, with little differentiation of events”. His final thought on this early cassette was that the “playing, like the recording, lacked clarity”.

I sensed complete coherence in Christopher Guild’s performance. This is especially so with the Tema Con Variazione and the Six Sketches. Even the “rambling” Toccata seemed to me to be well balanced, with the sections highly contrasted. Guild brings considerable colour to his performances, and rhythmic freedom where required. What’s more, he can create a sense of wonder and magic. Certainly, the performance of the more atonal music here does bring Stefan George’s image of “Air from another planet”.

The liner notes are an update of those that Alastair Chisholm prepared for the British Music Society cassettes. They give a good introduction to van Dieren and succinct discussions of each piece. They are essential reading when one listens to this disc. The outstanding sound quality compliments the excellent performance.

Was Bernard van Dieren a genius, as some have suggested? I am not sure. Conceivably, he must be put alongside that other enigma of English music, Kaikhosru Sorabji, and await further assessment and evaluation. Meanwhile, it is wonderful to have this survey of all the piano music on one double CD. It is rewarding to listen to, and it is a big leap forward in the reassessment of Bernard van Dieren’s oeuvre.

John France
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf (September 2022)

Published: October 18, 2022

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