The advert for this CD notes that ‘the counties on the borders between England and Wales - Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire - are rich in spiritual resonance, powerful historical imagery and a tangible sense of tranquillity and apartness, which continues to appeal strongly to composers, writers and artists.’ It is one of the locations of that idealised landscape, The Land of Lost Content. This fascinating new CD presents four composers from this border-country and includes a number of first recordings.
Shropshire-born Henry Walford Davies is best known for his setting of ‘O little town of Bethlehem’: there are currently 130 (January 2016) recordings of this carol in the Arkiv CD catalogue. The RAF March Past is also popular and the Armistice Service invariably includes his Solemn Melody. In recent years, concert and record promoters have pushed beyond these favourites. In 2009 Dutton Epoch issued his Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor. Two or three years later, EM Records released the Sonatas for violin and piano in A major and in E flat major. The impressive Symphony No.2 in G major was performed at the English Music Festival in 2013.
The present Theme and Variations is therefore a welcome addition to the small number of pieces available to listeners. This short six-minute work was composed in 1890. Duncan Honeybourne writes that he has found no evidence of it having been performed before he unearthed it from the Royal College of Music Library. It is a delightful work with a touching theme and inventive variations. It reminds the listener of Hubert Parry, who was Walford Davies’ teacher at the RCM.
The Five Western Watercolours were written by Ivor Gurney in 1920. These miniature tone-poems reflect the composer’s love of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. The first piece portrays the meandering ‘Twyver River’ which is maybe less idyllic today than 96 years ago. ‘Alney Island’, which is now a nature reserve is a darker little piece. There is a touch of wistfulness about ‘The Old Road’, which could be anywhere, but perchance echoes the composer’s sense of leaving his beloved landscape. ‘Still Meadows’ is bewitching in its evocation of an evening stroll as the darkness descends on the fields. The final ‘Watercolour’ is a musical picture of ‘Sugarloaf Hill’: it is a carefree romp over the Malverns. These are charming pieces that capture something of the composer’s younger days, before mental illness began to take such a severe toll on his life. The collection is dedicated to his friend Miss Marjorie Chapman, who supported Gurney during his sad decline.
The liner notes remind the listener that Edward Elgar’s Concert Allegro is the only substantial piece that Elgar composed for piano solo. It was written in 1901 for the Guernsey-born pianist Fanny Davies, who was a pupil of Clara Schumann. Elgar was to make a number of revisions to this work which included the removal of repetitions from the piece. I feel that it is an uneven work, which often seems to be improvisatory and lacking in coherence, but one that also contains some captivating moments.
The big discovery on this CD is the piano music of Richard Francis. As a reviewer I was quite happy to hold my hand up and admit that I had not (knowingly) heard any works by this composer. On further reflection, I recalled that I had reviewed his Introduction and Grand Concert Variations on a Hymn Tune by Sir Arthur Sullivan (the ‘Not-so-young person’s guide to the organ’) (QUANTUM QM7041). And what a treat was in store. I had guessed that as this CD comes out of the English Music Festival ‘stable’, the music would be approachable and in the trajectory of the great masters of piano that the United Kingdom has thrown up over the past 120 years. I was not mistaken.
A brief note about Richard Francis will be of considerable interest: I acknowledge the liner notes and his webpage for this information. The composer was born in Herefordshire in 1946. He studied at the Birmingham School of Music, followed by graduation with a BMus degree from London University. After various teaching posts at Edinburgh, Ludlow and Sherborne he continued his studies at the University College of North Wales with William Mathias. He completed his MMus, LRAM and ARCO diplomas.
A major part of Francis’ life was the post of Organist and Director of Music at the Parish Church of St Laurence in Ludlow. During this period he did much freelance recital work and composition. His music include the orchestral The Adamantine Door, much organ and choral music as well as a number of chamber and piano works.
The Fantasy Sonata was originally composed in 1969, whilst Richard Francis was studying at Reading for a Diploma in Education. The work is dedicated to his piano teacher at the Birmingham School of Music, William Fellowes, who had died tragically young. Fellowes was a renowned exponent of Franz Liszt, and this interest is reflected in the present work, especially in the virtuosic style and its formal design. Francis has written that the Sonata is an attempt to ‘fuse three movements into a large single whole.’ The music is largely tonal, with considerable interest generated by many changes of tempo. I was not surprised to learn that Fellowes was, and Francis is, enthusiastic about the piano music of John Ireland: his musical legacy permeates this work, which is certainly not a negative comment.
The Fantasy Sonata was revised in 2006 and has been performed a number of times by the present pianist. I found it a beautiful, moving piece: it is the masterpiece on this present CD and demands to be introduced to the British Music repertoire. I look forward one day to perusing the score of this superb Sonata.
The other work by Richard Francis are the ‘Characteristic Pieces’. There were composed over a six year period and were ‘extensively’ revised in 2006 when two new numbers were added (‘Forlorn’ and ‘Jack in the Box’).
These are enchanting miniatures: the composer writes, ‘they are all short vignettes, each with a fanciful name, rather in the nature of Schumann’s Album for the Young.’ Titles include ‘Waltz’, ‘A Child’s Tune’, ‘April Shower’, ‘The Old Millwheel’ and ‘Sea-Idyll’. The series begins with little technical difficulty, but becomes more complex as the numbers unfold. I look forward to being able to play these pieces (where possible!) on my piano.
I am not sure why EM Records did not record the additional movement ‘Forlorn’: I guess it was space on the CD. Could it be presented as a future download from the EM CD webpage?
The premiere of the whole set was given by Duncan Honeybourne in a lunchtime concert at Chepstow Parish Church, Gwent on July 23 2008.
A brief biography of each composer and a detailed analysis of the music is presented in the liner notes written by the pianist and others. This is essential, as with the exception of Elgar’s Concert Allegro, each work is receiving its premiere recording.
I disagree with the pianist’s statement in the notes that this may be a ‘quirky’ recital programme. I found it perfectly satisfying and a wonderful musical ‘portrait’ of an area of Great Britain that has provided the inspiration for countless works of art. It was good to hear the Walford Davies and the Richard Francis for the first time and to be reintroduced to Elgar’s Concert Allegro and to hear Gurney’s Five Western Watercolours given a wonderful performance, as opposed my attempts to play (murder) them on the piano. Honeybourne has given a wonderful, inspired account of all these pieces
Once again, EM Records have drunk deeply into the extensive section of the catalogue of British music that demands exploration, and has succeeded in producing a remarkable CD.
Henry WALFORD DAVIES (1869-1941) Theme and Variations (1890)
Richard FRANCIS (b.1946) Fantasy Sonata (1969, revised 2006)
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) Five Western Watercolours (1923)
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Concert Allegro (1901)
Richard FRANCIS Characteristic Pieces, Volume 1 (1964-70)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
EM RECORDS CD034
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.