Sir Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935)
Complete Music for Solo Piano - Volume Three
Scenes in the Scottish Highlands, op.23 (1880) [20:34]
Variations in E minor (1861 or earlier) [06:03]
Nocturne in A (1861 or earlier) [05:44]
Morris Dance (1899) [03:42]
Six Song Transcriptions by Giuseppe Buonamici (later than 1885) [19:12]
Varying Moods, op.88 (1921) [15:22]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 2017, Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan, Italy
SHEVA COLLECTION SH251 [70:06]
In 1997, the Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam released a remarkable CD entitled Essentially Scottish. It featured music by (amongst others) Ronald Stevenson, Erik Chisholm, Granville Bantock as well as the Scenes in the Scottish Highlands, op.23 by Alexander Mackenzie. The disc was reviewed by Colin Scott Sutherland for MusicWeb International (December 1998). I bought this CD as soon as I saw it in HMV Oxford Street. It was the Mackenzie that most impressed me. I had come into possession of the sheet music for the Scenes some years previously. Reading the score and picking out some melodies and phrases on the piano was of interest. Playing the Suite was beyond my Grade 6¼ ability. My overall impression was of an important work that demanded a recording or at least an occasional performance. Now, with the present CD, there are two stunning accounts committed to disc.
Scenes in the Scottish Highlands is, as Scott-Sutherland stated in his review, ‘an extended Suite of Lisztian proportions.’ In fact, many other composer’s might have entitled the work a Scottish Sonata. The opening movement has a wide sweep in much of its progress. The liner notes suggest that ‘the imposing opening theme is cut out of similar tartan to that of MacCunn’s Land of the Mountain and Flood overture.’ (MacCunn’s work was composed seven years after Mackenzie’s Suite). The striding, tramping music is characterised by dotted quavers in both hands, with much use made of octaves. There are a few Scotch snaps (short followed by long notes) and grace notes provided to emphasise the Scottish connection. The middle section of this ternary (three part) ‘movement’ is more reflective and infinitely less warlike in mood.
Anyone who has ever stood on the banks of Loch Lomond with a ‘special friend’ will ‘get’ the second piece, ‘On the Loch’. This typically restrained ‘barcarolle’ or ‘nocturne’ creates a picture-perfect atmosphere of evening. The time signature here is 4/4 but the figuration of the left hand is largely in triplets. This may not technically be a barcarolle, but the effect is the same. It is quiet, crepuscular, and drifting, with this latter quality highlighted by some gentle, but fascinating modulations. Howell notes that ‘a descending phrase here and there seems to recall the “were ever wont to gae” phrase from the famous song ‘The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond’. The music of John Field seems to inspire this ‘movement’.
All sadness, recollection and wistful ‘what might have beens’ are blown away with the final piece, ‘On the Heather’. This is a ‘gentle romp’ with lots of Scotch snaps, especially in the middle section. The ethos here is of a day trip to the heather clad hills and most certainly not a ‘yomp’ across them.
Whatever the impact of the scenery implied by the titles of each piece, Mackenzie has created a work that is impeccably constructed, replete with many attractive themes and melodies and is well-written for technically competent pianists. From a personal point of view, Scenes in the Scottish Highlands is an ideal evocation of the Scottish scenery, eclipsed only by the above-mentioned Overture by MacCunn and the Scottish works by Felix Mendelssohn.
The Scenes in the Scottish Highlands, op.23 was published by Novello in 1880. It is dedicated to the eminent German pianist Edward Dannreuther.
The earliest work on this CD is the thoughtful ‘Nocturne’ seemingly composed sometime around or before 1861. Once again, this music owes more to the Irishman John Field rather than the Polish Frederick Chopin. The melody that dominates this piece is quite beautiful, with a considerable Scottish atmosphere about it. It ends with a passionate restatement of the tune, rather than drifting into the gloamin’. The fact that the ‘young’ composer possibly overdoes the repetition of melody, and may have something to learn about modulation, does not detract from this beautiful little work.
Equally ‘vintage’ is the inspiring set of Variations in E minor (c.1861). This is influenced by the sights and sounds of the Scottish landscape and songs, respectively. I love Christopher Howell’s description of the theme ‘as typically Scottish as any icy mountain burn.’ It may or may not be based on a given melody. After an introduction, the music progresses through ever more complicated and decorated variations. A little respite is given in the third, which is written in a melancholic minor key. It will bring a tear to the eye any sentimental Scot (like me!). The finale is a gentle romp, with some wayward modulations, and brings this bewitching piece to a solid conclusion. These Variations were composed whilst Mackenzie was living in Herriot Row in Edinburgh.
Morris Dance, written in 1899, looks ‘Furth o’ the border’ with its bouncy, almost Grainger-esque nod towards an English village green rather than a Highland clachan. In the same year, Mackenzie orchestrated the Morris Dance and paired it with a ‘Processional.’ The work carries no opus number, however Duncan James Barker, in his thesis (1999) about Mackenzie, notes that early printed copies of this work carried the subscription op.2, but this was later dropped in successive reprintings.
Six Song Transcriptions by Giuseppe Buonamici is a remarkable work by any measure. The first thing to ask is who was Giuseppe Buonamici? He was an Italian pianist and composer. Born in Florence on 12 February 1846, he studied music with his uncle, Giuseppe Ceccherini and then with Hans von Bülow and Joseph Rheinberger at the Royal Bavarian Conservatory in Munich. On his return to Florence in 1873, he worked as a piano teacher and choral conductor. Buonamici was later appointed professor of piano at the Instituto Musicale in Florence. As a concert pianist, he made several European tours performing in Germany, Italy, and England. He was highly regarded by Liszt. Another aspect of his musical achievement lay towards editing music. Buonamici published editions of Beethoven and Schubert. His own compositions included several piano pieces, a string quartet, and an overture. Giuseppe Buonamici died in his home city on 17 March 1914.
The relationship between Buonamici and Mackenzie should be the subject of a dissertation. It seems that whilst on a ‘rest-cure’ abroad, the Scotsman was recommended to Buonamici and George F Hatton, both pupils of von Bülow, and living in Florence. It is known that Mackenzie was friends with Liszt and was a member of the ‘Liszt Circle’ with the Hungarian composer having considerable influence on his harmonic and formal procedures.
Returning to the Six Song Transcriptions by Giuseppe Buonamici… Mackenzie wrote many songs over his career: few, if any, have been recorded. His choice of texts was wide-ranging and are (apparently) characterised by ‘their fresh simplicity’. I have never heard any of them. Buonamici has here provided a masterclass in song transcription in the Lisztian manner. Each piece is a flawless miniature which is often moving in its effect. Of especial appeal to me were the subtle Scotticisms of ‘Phyllis at the Fair’ despite Burns’ poem being written in standard English. The final transcription ‘O Roaming Wind’ is quite simply stunning. They are over the top, to be sure, but as such are ‘guilty pleasures.’ I love them.
The titles, sources and dates of each arrangement are only alluded to in the CD liner notes. Full details are as follows:
‘Phyllis the Fair’ (Robert Burns) from Eleven Songs, op.31, no.1, pub.1885.
‘It was a time of Roses’ (Thomas Hood) from Eleven Songs, op.31, no.2, pub. 1885.
‘What does little birdie say?’ (Alfred, Lord Tennyson) from Eleven Songs, op.31, no.7a, pub. 1885 (First version)
What does little birdie say?’ (Alfred, Lord Tennyson) from Eleven Songs, op.31, no.7b, pub. 1885 (Second version)
‘A Birthday’ (Christina Rossetti) from Three Songs, op.17, no.3. 1878.
‘O Roaming Wind’ [‘Heart-Sorrow’] (J. Logie Robertson) from Three Songs op.16, no.2, (1878)
Listeners may be encouraged to look up each poem to gain a greater appreciation of the musical impact. Unfortunately, I was unable to study the sheet music of Mackenzie’s original song versions. It is surely a project for Christopher Howell to examine the possibility of a recording of Alexander Mackenzie’s ‘Complete Songs’.
The final work on this CD is Varying Moods. This was composed in 1921 and dedicated ‘To his friend Myra Hess’. Howell explains that at this time, Mackenzie had taken Hess ‘under his wing’ whilst she was studying at the Royal Academy of Music. Varying Moods was to be his final piano work. The four pieces in this collection will strike the listener as being harmonically and stylistically in advance of his earlier piano music. ‘Revery’ (Lento (quasi recit.) is quite perfect. Howell suggests that this piece nods towards ‘early Scriabin’ or perhaps Nikolai Medtner. I wondered if Frank Bridge could have been a model too. The second piece is the will o’the wisp ‘Ariel’, which is musically matched to the character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Bridge is certainly an analogy here, especially his delightful The Dew Fairy from The Hour Glass Suite (1920). The eponymous ‘Varying Moods’, is a little valse lente. It is sad and introverted in its progress. ‘Grotesque Dance’ is a huge surprise. The Victorian Mackenzie has fully engaged here with the ‘modern’ world. Howell is correct in likening this piece to Sergei Prokofiev. I was unable to find any details of this work’s premiere. I wonder if Myra Hess ever performed it…
I have previously reviewed Volume 1 and Volume 2 of Christopher Howell’s survey of the complete piano music of Alexander Mackenzie for these pages. As to the inspired and sympathetic playing, the high sound quality, and the excellent liner notes, I have little to add. I have enjoyed immensely the pleasure and privilege of exploring the varied piano music of fellow-Scot Alexander Mackenzie. I was constantly surprised at just how pleasurable his piano music is. Any listener who enjoys the great European Romantic composers such as Wagner, Liszt, Schumann, and Chopin will find this present CD and the other two in the series of great interest. The listener needs to realise that Mackenzie is very much a European composer, rather than a British or even Scottish one. On the other hand, he often brings the numinous quality of his native land into his music (as well as a few Scottish musical devices and clichés) to make much of his music appeal to the Celt or Lowlander and draw them back over great distances of time and space to the Mother Country.