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In the Wake of the Great War
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Three Preludes for piano (1923) [3:32]
Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Piano Sonata No. 3 in G sharp minor (1926) [24:22]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Hymn-tune Prelude on Song 13 by Orlando Gibbons (1930) [4:03]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Sonata for Piano (1921-24) [27:49]
Charles Spencer CHAPLIN (1889-1977)
'Smile' from Modern Times (1936, arr. Benjamin Martin) [2:22]
Benjamin Martin (piano)
rec. 2006-09, Australian National Academy of Music, South Melbourne Town Hall
MELBA PANTHEON MR301146 [62:08]

All the works here were written in the decades immediately following the conclusion of the Great War (1914-18). However, I think that only Frank Bridge’s Sonata majors on the devastating impact of that conflict. Delius’s Preludes are a backward glance to his younger days; the Bax is more to do with his love-life and his interest in Irish politics; Vaughan Williams harks back to Tudor times and Chaplin considers the impact of modern industrialisation in the aftermath of the Great Depression. All that said, this is an important CD that will be required listening to all enthusiasts of British 20th century piano music.

Frederick Delius’ Three Preludes are hardly in the composer’s ‘greatest hits’ category. In fact, his small corpus of piano pieces is probably amongst the least known of his works. As the liner notes suggest, at the time the Preludes were written, most of the composer’s big achievements were in the past, he was severely incapacitated and was probably trying to recapture his long-departed youth. The Preludes were composed in 1923, with Delius’s wife Jelka acting as copyist. This was before the young Eric Fenby arrived at Grez-sur-Loing to begin his stint as Delius’s amanuensis in 1928.

The first Prelude was dedicated to the English pianist, conductor, and music educator, Evlyn [sic] Howard-Jones (1877-1951). It is changeable and sometimes ‘will o’ the wisp’ in ambience. The second, which is a miniature ‘toccata’, is inscribed to Adine O’Neill, a celebrated pianist, and pupil of Clara Schumann. The final Prelude is a delightful little tone poem portraying (to my mind) a gently bubbling stream. The entire set will remind the listener of Debussy and perhaps Edvard Grieg.  The three Preludes are full of impressionistic sunshine, whole tone scales and magical chromaticism.

Arnold Bax’s Piano Sonata No.3 in G sharp minor (GP 279) was completed in 1926. Like many of his piano works it was dedicated to his lover and muse, the pianist Harriet Cohen. Several commentators note that this stormy work presents Bax’s response to the turbulent and tragic progress of the Irish Civil War as well as his own personal ‘affairs’ with Harriet.

This Sonata is written in the conventional three movement form: his two previous numbered piano sonatas had been composed as single movement works. Bax himself conceded in a letter to John Simons (13 May 1935) that: '[The sonata] gave me a lot of trouble... and as always when work does not come easily, I always felt doubtful about it'.

The first movement, ‘Allegro moderato’ is virtually devoid of lyricism and repose. Bax has eschewed romantic tunes and has used a series of short motifs that are related to each other. The progress of this movement is one of ‘wild passion’ and high drama, which never quite seems to stay the course. Regular changes of mood are the order of the day. The ensuing, ‘Lento moderato’ as a stunningly beautiful creation.  It has been described as a ‘dream-poem’ with its careful balance of one of Bax’s ersatz Irish folk tunes and an intense chromaticism that seems to push towards atonality. There is some warmth in this music, but the deep introspection outweighs any sense of optimism.

It is easy to hear ‘sea music’ in the finale with the relentless use of semiquavers in either hand. There is a wild dance-like theme which appears sporadically. The movement nearly ends quietly with soothingly rippling waves plashing against the rocks, before a ‘ff’ G major chord awakens anyone who may have dozed.

This work is given a splendid performance here by Benjamin Martin. He convincingly expounds the dichotomy between passion and elegy and well as focusing on the essential nature of the work as a stormy love letter to Harriet Cohen and a protest about the Irish situation.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hymn-tune Prelude on Song 13 by Orlando Gibbons was written as a gift for Harriet Cohen. It was presented to her in 1930.  The music is a perfect synthesis of the ‘Tudor’ melody with Vaughan Williams’s inimitable counterpoint. Despite its relatively straightforward sound this is a difficult piece to play. Gaining a good legato with the main melody and working around it the ‘parts’ can be difficult. Benjamin Martin gives it an idyllic performance. There is virtually nothing here that looks back to the Great War: if anything, it is a reaffirmation of Vaughan Williams’s pastoral ‘Land of Lost Content’.

Frank Bridge’s Piano Sonata is one of the greatest examples of the genre – whether this is equated to British music, or music on general. This ground-breaking and style-changing sonata occupied Bridge for several years and was completed in 1924. It might be regarded as composer’s masterpiece; it is certainly his most elaborate work for the piano.  I guess that any listener coming to this work after having heard some of the composer’s character pieces for piano or maybe even the orchestral tone poem The Sea, may be baffled by its sound world. The Sonata is a massive work that displays great profundity and sometimes an almost unbearable sense of despair and hurt. This is hardly surprising, as it was dedicated to fellow composer Ernest Farrar who was killed on the Somme in 1917 - but not just to Farrar; this Sonata seems to be a requiem for all the musicians Frank Bridge had known and who due to the fates of war had been unable to realise their potential.

One of the half-truths about the reception of this work is that it represents the composer’s move towards his ‘Dissonant Contemporary’ period. To be sure, there is much dissonance in these pages. But in some mysterious way, several of these passages create a lyrical magic that seems far away from the horror of the trenches. There are moments of resentment and passion, but this is not the whole story.  The structure of the Sonata owed much to Franz Liszt. There are moments when Alban Berg’s mantle falls on the composer. And then Scriabin’s ‘shifting tonalities’ are often present.

From a recitalist’s point of view, this a challenging work. Maurice Hinson (Guide to the Pianists Repertoire, Indiana University Press, 2000) remarks that it ‘is one of the most ambitious British piano composition of its period.’ He concludes by noting that ‘advanced pianism is required.’ Benjamin Martin presents one of the finest interpretations that I have heard. For the record, there are currently eight versions noted in the Arnold Bax Website discography.

The final number on this excellent CD is a wonderful ‘cocktail piano’ transcription by Benjamin Martin of Charlie Chaplin’s iconic song ‘Smile’. This music was originally written for the silent film Modern Times. Words to the ‘song’ were added in 1954. Over the years it has been rescored and rearranged many times and has been recorded by a diverse group of artists including Placido Domingo, Liberace and Michael Jackson. The film was a critique of the impact of Fordism in the US workforce.  Chaplin plays a man who is at odds with modern technology. It is regarded as the last great silent film, although Chaplin did consent to the inclusion of a soundtrack of music and sound effects. There is no spoken dialogue. Martin’s arrangement makes a thoughtful and wistful conclusion to a fascinating exploration of English piano music.

The liner notes are in two parts: an overview by the late Michael Kennedy and a detailed analysis of each work by Michael Quinn; I think a through-written note would have been preferable. There is a brief biography of Benjamin Martin.  The font is of reasonable size; nonetheless, it is printed as black text on beige and thus not the easiest of reads. As for the cover, it is one of the least inspiring I have seen for a while, the sort that one would skip past in the browser. The pianist is dressed as if he has just come in from digging the garden - which is a pity, as this is a major contribution to the repertoire of English piano music. It is essential repertoire, played to perfection with huge technical accomplishment and a great sympathetic understanding of each piece.

John France



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