English Piano Rarities
Peter Jacobs (piano)
Recording details not provided
Heritage HTGCD145 [71]

Peter Jacobs writes: “the genesis of this CD is curious, and a little unusual”. Between 1980 and 2005 he recorded some thirty LPs/CDs for record companies defunct in 2023. In 2019, Heritage Records began a major project of reissuing several of those albums. This sampler is designed for the interested listener who wishes to appraise this unfamiliar repertoire.

The recital gets off to a good start with Henry Balfour Gardiner’s Noel. It is a seasonal piece with a direct quotation of Good King Wenceslas. A little unusually, it begins energetically and ends softly after having explored the well-known carol.

Billy Mayerl’s pieces had once been popular but he may now only be remembered for Marigold. He fell out of fashion in the late 1930s and his music was revived in the 1990s. Thanks to the diligence of Eric Parkin, Leslie De’Ath and Peter Jacobs, one can hear a wide selection of Mayerl’s work. The evocative Sleepy Piano is no cinch, as a glance at the sheet music will reveal.

In 1932, the great and good in English music published A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen. It included offerings from Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Constant Lambert, William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here we hear the Chorale Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ, as Bach harmonised it, followed by RVW’s delightful re-creation.

“Incunabula” refers to written material prior to 1501. I am not sure what relevance this has to Thomas Wilson’s piece. Its six unrelated sections balance agitation and tranquillity. Not easy music to come to terms with, but no doubt about the imaginative and colourful pianism.

Frank Bridge’s oeuvre divides into several periods. These include Edwardian romanticism, impressionism and finally a well-developed individual modernism, dissonant, almost atonal. It has been suggested that Hidden Fires is a “simmering toccata” which recalls Scriabin’s Vers la flamme. There are nods to Bartók and bitonality, and a lingering romanticism. Here is what Calum MacDonald’s liner notes for the original release of Jacobs’s recording of Gargoyle say: “astonishing, eldritch, sardonically witty piece […] spiky, angular melodic material, bitonal harmonies, frequent biting dissonance and stark, uncompromising textures […] a brilliantly vivid impression of some scuttling, sarcastic, impish being”.

Charles Villiers Stanford wrote two volumes of 24 Preludes, op.163 and op.179. I accept the Jacobs’s warning that one may “become submerged by sheer weight of numbers” if one tries to listen to all forty-eight. So, it is OK to excerpt, like one from each book here. There is well-wrought pianism, rich harmonies and flowing melodies. (The Prelude in E flat minor from Set 1, subtitled Study, is the eighth; the Prelude in E flat Major from Set 2 is the seventh.)

Hubert Parry’s Hands across the Centuries Suite comes from the last year of his life. It reflects his lifelong interest in Bach’s music. The Suite is a selection of baroque dance forms, reimagined for the twentieth century. Jacobs writes that The Passionate Allemande is “a thrilling tour de force, Bach and Brahms combined in British optimism”.

Benjamin Dale is recalled – when remembered at all – for his massive Piano Sonata in D minor op. 1 (1902-1905). He composed a few other works for the instrument, including the character piece Prunella, an English Dance and the present Night Fancies, Impromptu for piano, a substantial ten-minutes piece. The booklet says that it has “rich harmonies and Elgarian opulence” and shows that Dale knew Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. There are also impressionistic and romantic moments. And look out for nods to the Westminster Chimes.

In the 1980s, Peter Jacobs recorded several Piano Sonatas by the neglected British composer Harold Truscott, which Heritage re-issued in 2019. For the sampler, Jacobs chose the Allegro from Sonata No. 13 completed. It is exciting and immediately approachable. It must have been at odds with much written at that time. Jacobs writes that “everything [he] recorded was studied with the [Truscott], who was present at all the sessions”.

Alan Bush’s Corentyne Kwe-Kwe was dedicated to “Those men and women of Guyana who faced a British warship and stood their ground”. This apparently refers to the population’s reaction in 1953 to the Royal Navy response to a “brewing Communist conspiracy” in what was then a British colony. The toccata-like piece is based on an old African tune which commemorates the abolition of slavery in British Guiana in 1842. It is all too complicated date-wise. Kwe-Kwe alludes to a traditional Guyanese wedding ceremony where songs and dances are performed around the new bride’s house. Lots of rhythmic vitality here, but just a little predictable.

I did not warm to Trevor Hold’s enigmatic Musical Clocks from his Six Kaleidoscopes. It does not seem to develop or go anywhere. The musical onomatopoeia created as “the clocks chime, buzz, strike and whirr” is fun, though.

The last composer on this smorgasbord is John Foulds, first up his Gandharva-Music. Often inspired by Eastern religion and mythology, Fould alludes to Hindu/Buddhist “musical angels” which he insisted he heard one summer’s day during 1915. What the angels sang, he jotted down. A toccata-like right-hand part is supported by a ground bass. I have suggested before that this is “the ultimate in Impressionistic music, full of the warm haze of an English summer’s day”. We are not wised up to what the angels sang, save perhaps that the world is a beautiful place.

Most enthusiasts will know John Foulds’s extrovert April-England in its splendid orchestral arrangement. It was originally a study from an unfinished suite, Impressions of Time and Place, completed on the morning of the vernal equinox, 21 March 1926. Listeners will certainly make a connection with Robert Browning’s evergreen poem, O to be in England, now that April’s here (even if the date of composition was a few days previous). Evoking “the boundless fecundity, opulent burgeoning of Springtime”, it is an excellent conclusion to this remarkable recital.

The liner notes, devised by the soloist, present an interesting introduction to each piece. One serious drawback is that the track listing and the text mostly omit the dates of composition, the opus numbers, the given names and the dates of the composers. This is essential information, so I put it in this review. Neither do we get the venues and dates of recordings. I also listed the re-masterings (most of them on Heritage Records) from which this recital was derived.

The compilation does what it says on the tin. The listener who may not have the patience to listen to the entire run of Peter Jacobs’s English music recordings can get to know some of these works, and decide whether to invest further. The performances are diligent and skilful, so I imagine that many listeners will wish to pursue this beguiling repertoire which Peter Jacobs promotes so well.

John France

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Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950)
Noel (1908)
Billy Mayerl (1902-1959)
Sleepy Piano (1926)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Chorale Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ (Johann Sebastian Bach)
Chorale Prelude: Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ (1932)
Thomas Wilson (1927-2001)
Incunabula (1983)
Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Hidden Fires (1926/1927)
Gargoyle (1928)
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Prelude in E-Flat Major, Set 2, op. 179 (1920)
Prelude in E-Flat Minor, Set 1, op. 163 (1918)
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)
The Passionate Allemande from Hands Across the Centuries (1918)
Benjamin Dale (1885-1943)
Night Fancies, Impromptu for piano, op. 3 (1909)
Harold Truscott (1914-1992)
Allegro from Sonata No. 13 (1967)
Alan Bush (1900-1995)
Corentyne Kwe-Kwe, op. 75 (1972)
Trevor Hold (1939-2004)
Musical Clocks (1989)
John Foulds (1880-1939)
Gandharva-Music, op. 49 (1926)
April-England, op. 48, No. 1 (1926)

The Piano Music of Hubert Parry, Heritage HTGCD 160
British Piano Collection Volume 1 (Parry, Stanford, Vaughan Williams), Heritage HTGCD 405
British Piano Collection Volume 2 (Balfour Gardiner, Bush, Dale, Foulds), Heritage HTGCD 406
The Piano Music of Trevor Hold, Heritage HTGCD 294/5
Piano Music of Billy Mayerl, Heritage HTGCD 176
Harold Truscott: Piano Sonatas and Prelude and Fugues (three CDs), Heritage HTGCD 304
Frank Bridge: Complete Music for Piano (three CDs), Continuum CCD1016
Thomas Wilson’s Incunabula (issued on a cassette tape), Aspen Music PEN103