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van 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]

The last time I heard Bernard van Dieren’s piano music was via British Music Society cassettes which were themselves ex-Whitetower Records. They were played by Eiluned Davies (1913-1999), herself a composer, who’d not only given the British premiere of Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata, Op 12 but who had studied with Frida van Dieren and had met van Dieren himself. She’d also studied with the distinguished pianist Kathleen Long who is also known to have played some of van Dieren’s music. It’s good to see that her name is kept alive in this twofer as she played the same programme as this with the exception of Christopher Guild’s edition of the van Dieren-Warlock Ballad de Villon which was cast for speaker and string quartet; here it’s recast for speaker and piano.

Van Dieren’s earliest piano music can be elliptical. The Six Sketches Op 4a date from 1910-11 and to me evoke stripped-down Scriabin. This is quite a wide-ranging set and nearly 30-minutes long with a shifting, somewhat indistinct emotive centre of gravity. Stylistically it does range. There’s impressionism in the third sketch and elements of neo-baroque in the fourth. But van Dieren has a way of ending some of these sketches quietly, almost in a deadpan way that seems to shut down exploration of any deeper meaning. In No 5 we find a contrast of sepulchral with scamper whilst the final sketch binds everything together by revisiting earlier material. Not always an easy nut to crack.

The Toccata (1912) is not a Toccata as generally understood in that it’s not a virtuoso study, rather it’s a quasi-improvisational and occasionally eruptive piece in which the harmonies feel largely untethered. Schoenberg may have provided a model and I have to say I find it rather forbidding and unapproachable but that’s not to downplay its technical assurance. The Theme and Variations is a much later work, dating from 1927 and very much more approachable, as it’s couched in an almost ingratiating style that hearkens back to late nineteenth century models - though in a strongly refracted way. The variations themselves are very brief but decisively constructed. At the midway point, the Legato variation [No 7], van Dieren allows himself a decisive moment. In XI there is a rolled chords romance – not something for which he is much credited - and there’s a playful variation 11.

In the early 1920s he wrote Three Studies, an impressive achievement in its marrying of sophistication with expressive generosity. The unusual marking ‘con dignità’ is precisely conveyed in Guild’s performance in the first Study where a degree of floridity is allowed to permeate the music, even to the extent of frivolity. The second Study is notable for its romantic profile but the Third offers craggier elements, though it too allows the injection of deftness. When he was a boy in Rotterdam, van Dieren stored up a treasury of local tunes and in 1917 wrote a sequence of twelve in the set called – appropriately enough – Netherlands Melodies. All very brief, except the more expansive final one, they embrace carols, children’s songs, hymns and suchlike. The tune that was imported from England is the last and most extensive, something of a tribute both to van Dieren’s homeland and to his adopted land.

The pithily named Piccolo Pralinudettino Fridato was his last completed piano work, written as a present to his wife in 1934. Which leaves the Ballad de Villon in this world première recording. Philip Hesletine substituted a piano for string quartet and its inclusion makes sense in the context of an otherwise all-piano disc but whether you’ll be taken by the piece is another matter. There’s a long piano introduction, meditative and quite static which lasts 3:40, and then for three minutes the reciter (Dr James Reid-Baxter) is heard, without piano backing, reading the Villon poem. At 7:20 the piano again gently re-joins until the end, at 9:50. The recitation vogue had quite a few adherents in Britain though this one is difficult to programme, and you’ll need your wits about you to understand the text. Fortunately, it’s reprinted in the booklet, in French only, and because Reid-Baxter’s French is so clear, I’m sure some would have welcomed an English translation.

Christopher Guild is working very hard on behalf of British music, rescuing and restoring little-known works to the living catalogue. He does so again and proves a worthy successor to the pioneering Davies, whose mantle he now adopts. The recording is fine if a bit chilly and the notes revisit with minor revisions those that the learned Alastair Chisholm wrote for Davies’ recordings.

With van Dieren’s larger-scaled music making gentle reappearances it’s high time labels got to the string quartets and the songs before too long.

Jonathan Woolf

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