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Billy MAYERL (1903-59)
Piano Music - Volume 1
Autumn Crocus [3:26]
Wisteria [3:20]
Evening Primrose (1946) [4:28]
Aquarium Suite [17:02]
Marigold [3:04]
From a Spanish Lattice (1938) [5:04]
Puppets Suite [8:43]
Weeping Willow (1932) [4:42]
Railroad Rhythm (1938) [3:41]
Siberian Lament (1934) [3:50]
Three Contrasts [8:10]
The Harp of the Winds [4:31]
Shallow Waters [3:31]
Robots [2:47]
Philip Martin (piano)
rec. January 2012, Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire

There can never be too many Billy Mayerl recitals as far as I’m concerned and it’s good to see that this is an inaugural volume of a new, and one hopes extensive series from Somm. At the helm is the Irish pianist Philip Martin, something of a hero of the Gottschalk discography and a man who, I remember, earned Malcolm Arnold’s admiration.
Martin’s view of Mayerl is unusually mellow and his tempi largely quite slow; certainly they are slower than Mayerl’s own - whose aren’t? - but they are also slower, in the main, and sometimes significantly slower, than Susan Tomes on Virgin, Leslie De’Ath on Dutton Epoch, and Eric Parkin, an indefatigable exponent of Mayerl, whose recordings on Chandos and also Shellwood I’ve admired for years. This tempo question can initially bring one up with a jolt.
My hunch is that Martin is more interested in pointing up Mayerl’s harmonic writing, and that he is intent on pursuing the more veiled impressionism that does indeed lie at the heart of some of Mayerl’s music - that and Gershwin and Rachmaninovian impulses. The former is not surprising since Mayerl famously gave the first British performance of Rhapsody in Blue. Maybe too he is more concerned to situate Mayerl in a specifically English school of pianism, and thus is resistant to overstate Mayerl as the galvanic syncopator.
Certainly, Evening Primrose is a lovely confection but it’s considerably peppier and style-conscious under Parkin’s fingers. De’Ath splits the difference, timings-wise, half way between Parkin and Martin and strikes a good compromise. Marigold is another Mayerl favourite and again we find Martin a sympathetic and affectionate player though one who resists speed-as-drama. He takes the 1938 From a Spanish Lattice as slowly as I’ve ever heard it taken - a reflective, introspective approach.
I daresay Martin could play as fast as anyone if he so wished, but he clearly doesn’t wish, as is graphically shown in Railroad Rhythm, Mayerl’s tribute to the Coronation Scot. This isn’t the occasion for a 100mph, smoke-billowing jaunt, more a question of taking in the view from the carriage window; harmonies are certainly pointed, but somewhat at the risk of turning the gleaming engine down a branch line.
Attention to textual detail, concern for voice leading, and measured tempi are very much Martin’s way throughout this recital. His Siberian Lament is justly melancholic. The Harp of the Winds is pensive with its impressionism strongly to the fore. Martin seems closely attuned to the dappled Willow Moss, the first of the Aquarium Suite, where the prism of Debussy and Rachmaninov is notable. Maybe he finds something here, a specific lineage that other pianists are apt to overlook. It’s good that he intersperses some great favourites with three of the less well-known suites; Aquarium, Puppet and Three Contrasts. He brings out bluesy hues in Judy, the second of the three pieces that make up the Puppets Suite, He characterises the Three Contrasts well, even though the final Fiddle Dance lacks a bit of insouciance. So, sadly, does the final piece in this recital, Robots. The dynamic modernity of this is far better conveyed by Parkin. It’s a shame that Martin, fine player though he is, seems so reluctant sometimes to drive on, but as I say, he clearly has his reasons.
The recording is well judged. It’s not as warm as those for Parkin or Tomes which perhaps gives a glint to Martin’s tone.
I respect what he is doing, if I have interpreted him correctly, but the other pianists cited seem to me to convey the thrills and excitement of Mayerl rather more comprehensively.
Jonathan Woolf