Baines pictures DDA25234

William Baines (1899-1922)
Pictures of Light

Paradise Gardens (1918-1919)
The Naïad from Three Concert Studies (1920)
Silverpoints (1920-1921)
Tides (1920-1921)
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 [78]

It is remarkable that there have not been more releases of William Baines’s music to commemorate the centenary of his death in 1922. He was clearly one of the finest British composers for the piano and by the time of his death at the age of just twenty three had created an impressively large number of compositions of lasting value. No British composer achieved so much of this quality by such a young age, with the possible exception of Kenneth Leighton. Curiously, both of these composers were from Yorkshire, though their music is, of course, very different stylistically. This disc is especially interesting because it includes pieces which have never been commercially released before; some of these premier recordings fascinatingly demonstrate how Baines worked in a genre not usually associated with him, that of songwriting.

To the best of my knowledge, there is just one single disc currently available that is entirely devoted to Baines’s music, the splendid 1996 recording by Eric Parkin on the Priory label. This supersedes an earlier Lyrita record that Parkin had released in 1972 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Baines’s death (later released on CD and rather oddly coupled with some of Moeran’s piano works). The later recording is much to be preferred in terms of both performance and sound quality. There are several discs available that include isolated tracks of Baines piano pieces, such as a Heritage disc by Peter Jacobs. There is also a rather fine Swinsty CD, coupling Baines with Goossens, performed by pianist Alan Cuckston, which seems to have been unfairly overlooked by many critics. Duncan Honeybourne himself released a sumptuously played and recorded version of Baines’s magnificent Seven Preludes (one of his major works) on an EM Records disc back in 2013, which I reviewed at the time in glowing terms. This was coupled with works by Moeran, though it cannot be admitted that these two composers have a great deal in common, musically speaking.

I have noted that many reviewers have discussed Baines in terms of other composers; frequent comparisons have been drawn with Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin and Bridge, for example. What is striking is how Baines has absorbed these influences and arrived at a distinctive manner of his own; how many composers arrive at an individual style at such a young age? While his music has clearly benefited from the innovations in piano writing made by French early twentieth century composers, Baines’s work is always instantly recognisable. It is considerably darker than Debussy and far more harmonically adventurous that Ravel. Furthermore, there is a limpid English quality in Baines’s piano writing, hard to define but nevertheless still present, that separates his music from the work of Scriabin. A good example of this is the beautiful Floralia from his suite Silverpoints; this sounds (to my ears at least) nothing like any of the composers mentioned above.

So how do Honeybourne’s performances measure up to these earlier recordings? His version of Paradise Gardens is, in my opinion, the finest now before the public. Curiously it is slower than other performances I have heard, but far more flexible and subtle. Baines’s frequent use of ostinati can seem to be a bit of a mannerism in this piece, but Honeybourne avoids any hint of monotony by making his reading more fluid. He achieves this through a sensitive use of rubato, a masterly use of pedalling and a strong feeling for the poetic mood of this piece; Eric Parkin’s version seems rather rushed in comparison. I defy anyone to hear these new performances of William Baines’s solo piano pieces and not be swept away by the music, the performance and the recording. Tides, perhaps Baines’s most immediately striking work, is given an inspired reading on this disc. Even pieces that seemed a little puzzling in other recordings, such as The Naiad, make perfect sense here. Eric Parkin’s 1996 version once again seems a touch hasty; this new rendition seems far more cogent and meaningful. Of the three Pictures of Light miniatures, the second is the most musically striking and is brilliantly realised here. The Eight Preludes, recorded here for the first time, are also fascinating; the Lullaby (Prelude No. 7) is absolutely lovely, though on this occasion one might wish that the music went on for just a little longer.

It is particularly interesting to hear Baines’s Five Songs in their first appearance on CD. My overall verdict is that these pieces are interesting but not essential works within the composer’s output. They flesh out our knowledge of the composer and show that he is certainly more versatile than he is given credit for. However, my reaction is rather similar to when I first encountered Howard Ferguson’s Discovery song cycle. Both sets are made up of five miniature songs and both last under nine minutes. In these two cycles I sense a skilful and sensitive response to each text but am also left with the feeling that neither composer is completely at home in art song. (Gerald Finzi’s Dies Natalis is a perfect example of music by a born vocal composer). It was a lovely idea to involve the tenor Gordon Pullin, as he was the original singer when these songs featured in the BBC radio documentary about Baines Goodnight to Flamboro’. Pullin sings with total commitment in this recording.

I had not heard any music by Robin Walker before, but was hugely impressed by his At the Grave of William Baines. I can hear much that reminds me of the earlier composer, but also much that is original to Walker; this is certainly no pastiche. I was so taken by this imposing piece that I went on to listen to Walker’s orchestral work The Stone Maker; this is a remarkable post-Sibelian musical canvas that demands to be heard.

So here we have a splendid new disc with inspiring music in glowing recorded sound. The performances are first class and the documentation is superb; this production appears to be a labour of love. I should like to suggest that future releases of Baines’s music include one of his piano sonatas. It would also be lovely to have a commercial recording of the gorgeous Poem-Nocturne of 1919 – not Baines’s most original work, admittedly, but irresistable all the same. In the meantime, there is a fine rendition of this haunting piece by John Peace available on YouTube.

David Jennings

Previous reviews: John France (November 2022) ~ Nick Barnard (December 2022)

To gain a 10% discount, use the link below & the code musicweb10