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Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
Bantock Rediscovered
Chanson de Mai (1920) [2:17]
Memories of Sapphire (1938) [8:32]
Cloisters at Midnight - New College Oxford (1920) [4:39]
Barcarolle (1894) [3:49]
Reverie (1894) [2:08]
Parade March (1936) [2:51]
Two Scottish Pieces (1918) [7:29]
Saul - A Symphonic Overture (1894) [12:24]
Twelve Piano Pieces (1897) [29:21]
Maria Marchant (piano)
rec. Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton University, UK, 2017
SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD0183 [73:43]

The Somm label is synonymous with excellence. They might not have the largest month on month release schedule but every recording is a model of its kind: fascinating repertoire, persuasive performances, excellent engineering, exemplary documentation. And so it proves again here with seventy three minutes of previously unrecorded piano music by Granville Bantock, played with flair, sensitivity and considerable skill by Maria Marchant.

Robert Matthew-Walker's excellent (English only) liner notes make a passionate case for the reassessment of Bantock's entire oeuvre, not just the keyboard works. Certainly it is worth being reminded what an important musical polymath he was on the British musical scene in the early decades of the last century. As an administrator, educator, conductor and composer, he has a legacy which, while diminished, is not lost. After all, he helped found the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He was the dedicatee of Sibelius' Third Symphony; this shows the respect of fellow composers of the day. Yet it would be hard to argue other than that his composer reputation has dwindled. Hyperion have made the greatest contribution to salvaging his reputation with six wonderful discs from Vernon Handley and the RPO of his large and opulent orchestral and vocal works. But the most recent of them is already fifteen years old. Since then Chandos – again with Handley but still over a decade ago – gave us the sprawling Omar Khayyam. Other labels struggle to find the budgets or potential for sales to justify investing in speculative large-scale projects. Which is where this new Somm disc comes in, and is of real interest and value to collectors of both Bantock's music specifically and British music in general. As mentioned, none of the twenty three pieces played here have been recorded before. Indeed, a quick look at the catalogue shows almost no Bantock keyboard works at all, aside from a brief contribution to a Stephen Hough collection of English miniatures and a Bach transcription Bantock contributed as part of the Bach Book for Harriet Cohen.

So Maria Marchant, quite literally, has the field to herself. Not that she would need to fear the competition if it were otherwise. Keyboard prowess is pretty much a given these days, so no real surprise that Marchant is completely assured and unphased by any of the technical demands of the music. Much more impressive to my ear is her total immersion in the style of this music. Matthew-Walker makes much of the impact of impressionism but this music is also heavy on the kind of gentle sentiment that is as affecting as it is elusive. It can be so easy to over-emote in this style of writing, yet Marchant finds exactly the right balance between passion and reticence. In terms of presentation and execution, I could not imagine this music having a better advocate. I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to this recital. The surprise – and, to be honest, the disappointment – is that the actual music itself is not more substantial. In British music, the fifty years from 1895 saw the remarkable flowering of what could be termed a British keyboard tradition. Bax, Bridge and Ireland are obvious examples, joined in recent years by the re-evaluation of the works of Bowen, Scott and Dale amongst many others. Curious that the giants of the English Musical Renaissance – Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Delius and Holst – wrote so little significant music for keyboard.

The Bantock works presented here cover more than forty years of his composing career. They lack the individual mastery or power of the piano composers listed above, or even the personality of the few works the major composers mentioned produced. Do not get me wrong: this is all extremely attractive and easy on the ear music, but – with a couple of exceptions – not particularly substantial or significant. Referring to the Twelve Piano Pieces Matthew-Walker rightly states; "[these works have a…] more direct style of utterance which perhaps points to the drawing room rather than the recital hall". What lifts this music out of the realm of the overly-simplistic or trite is Bantock's neat way with a melodic shift or harmonic side-slip. But that said, at no point does this repertoire challenge the finest piano music that any of the contemporaries mentioned above produced. Once that nominal limitation is accepted, there is much to enjoy here. Very typical in terms of the mood offered here is the opening Chanson de Mai: a salon piece if ever there was, rather out of place in post-World War I 1920, closer to the world of Eric Coates in his early Edward German phase. But this does showcase the easy fluency of Marchant's playing and her subtle and sensitive use of rubato which is absolutely central to the successful interpretation of this style of music. There follows a group of three pieces which, to quote Matthew-Walker, are "among the most personal music Bantock wrote", collectively titled Memories of Sapphire. Published when Bantock was seventy, the memories turn out to be of an affair he had with a much younger woman; the Sapphire of the title is a town in North Carolina. The actual music is again far less complex and chromatic than the Bantock familiar from the orchestral music, but these quite beautiful and clearly emotionally charged musical portraits are a highlight of the recital.

There follow four stand-alone works which again are mood-paintings rather than abstract works. Clositers at Midnight is a rather literal evocation as the title suggests, and Reverie is again in the popular salon style that might be found in many a front room's piano stool. Worth remembering that amongst Bantock's many talents, his name can often be found on piano reductions of 'famous music' for the domestic pianist. This piece is clearly an original work but targeting that same market. Barcarolle is more substantial both technically and emotionally, taking its inspiration from a Browning poem. This 1894 work does stand out for the lyrical flow of the writing and effective keyboard writing. The disc includes one transcription by Bantock of one of his orchestral works, Saul - A Symphonic Overture. Given that no recording exists of the orchestral original, it is good to have this version as well performed as it is. It proves to be a dramatic and impressive piece with a real melodic sweep again with the spirit of the work well projected by Marchant. The caveat here of course is that it makes one long to hear the original. Less impressive as a piece is the very generic Parade March. It is perfectly effective as such, and useful to hear as an example of the composer's range, but it does not linger long in the memory in its own right. Sandwiched between these two works are Two Scottish Pieces. Bantock had an abiding fascination for all things Scots. These are two minor but delightful examples of this obsession. Each is a traditional tune that Bantock expands and treats beyond the confines of the original melody: think Grainger without the excess. These are sprightly good-natured pieces that sparkle in Marchant's hands.

The disc is completed by a collection of pieces which were published in 1897 under the slightly bald title Twelve Piano Pieces. Matthew-Walker suggests that they were not planned as a set, having been written over the preceding years, although the sequence as published roughly follows the order in which they were composed. There is considerable variety in mood and pace across the twelve pieces. It makes listening to them as a set very enjoyable. The Rhapsode that opens the set and the Romance that closes it are particularly touching. Again all credit to Marchant for pitching the emotional tone of her performances here so subtly. As implied by Matthew-Walker – and in no sense is this a veiled criticism of the music – this is salon music of the highest order, beautifully crafted and skilfully conceived. That it storms no heavens and demands little of its listeners is simply a statement of fact.

As usual, the regular Somm technical team of Siva Oke as producer and Paul Arden-Taylor engineering have produced a typically fine and natural recording. The Turner Simms concert hall at the University of Southampton is a familiar venue for them (Peter Donohoe's complete Scriabin Sonatas were recorded there amongst others), so they know how to achieve an excellent natural balance across the keyboard set in a pleasingly supportive but not overly resonant acoustic. Admirers of Bantock's music need not hesitate. This fills a small but valuable gap in his discography, revealing not only his skill in writing for the piano but also a generally 'lighter' side to Bantock's musical personality than is usually acknowledged. The IMSLP library online lists at least one other CDs worth of pieces along similar 'miniaturist' lines – the 12 miniatures Silhouettes looks charming and the Nine Dramatic Poems intrigue by title alone – but no obviously 'big' works which given that Bantock wrote sonatas for other instruments is both a shame and surprising. My guess is that the simpler salon music provided Bantock with a useful income stream to support his other, more searching musical adventures.

Fine playing and recording of appealing music –- no forgotten masterpieces perhaps, but a worthwhile project beautifully presented.

Nick Barnard

 

 




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