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Sir Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935)
Complete Music for Solo Piano - Volume 1
Six Compositions, op.20 (1879) [22:57]
Trois Morceaux, op.15 (1877) [17:10]
Jottings – 6 Cheerful Little Pieces (1916) Books 1 and 2 (1916) [13:53]
English Air with Variations, op.81 (1915) [12:26]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 2016/17, Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan

To add to a burgeoning discography, which already includes a raft of music by Stanford, Christopher Howell has now turned his attention to Alexander Mackenzie, the Edinburgh-born longtime principal of the Royal Academy of Music in London. Whilst there have been a number of discs devoted to his music, this is the first of three discs to cover his complete works for solo piano.

Very sensibly the sets aren’t presented in chronological or opus number. This Ascent of Man ordering would have traced his development but at the cost of programmatic coherence so instead, in this first volume, there is a focus on the years 1877-79 and 1915-16.

He was already in his early 30s when he wrote the Six Compositions, Op.20, a sequence of little character pieces exemplifying nobility, charm, Schumannesque sensibility and, in the final Dance, hints, never overdone, of his Scottishness with a droll ‘snap’. Published two years earlier Trois Morceaux reveals another mid-century inheritance alongside Schumann, that of Chopin. Of the three it’s the central Nocturne that most catches the ear, its limpidity and warmth couched in a lyric inheritance, which is cleverly varied and fully sustains its seven-minute length. After this comes a decidedly Schumann-inspired Ballade, its exuberance finely balanced by a Bardic B section. This is an intriguing set, well worthy of investigation.

His Jottings of 1916 come in two books. It’s an educational piece of music, charming little character pieces to stimulate and entertain. Compression is at a premium here and drollery and charm are the salient qualities, not least the whimsical Drums and Trumpets and the lightly foam-flecked ‘Heave ho!’. The English Air with Variations, Op.81 is of rather sterner structural stuff. It’s certainly the most extensive work in the volume, notwithstanding the pleasures of the Morceaux though the latter seems to be the more musically satisfying. The sturdy but unidentified theme is followed by nine variations, the last of which, as is so often the case, is the largest. By this stage Mackenzie’s writing is fluid and free-flowing where required – sample variation three – and there are nicely pungent dissonances in the following variation. Variation six is cast richly in the vein of romantic writing, and there’s a rather droll march to draw things together and to conclude the piece.

Christopher Howell writes a biographical note and an overview of the music performed. He plays with typically perceptive and persuasive musicality, warmly aerating the textures of Mackenzie’s more effusive writing, crisply delineating his more fanciful ones. Whether cast on a domestic or concert stage setting everything is appropriately graded and played with fine tone in a realistic acoustic. As with his Stanford journey, his Mackenzie exploration seems likely to turn up admirable pieces that have been, very largely, overlooked and unrecorded.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: John France

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