Armstrong Gibbs An Essex Rhapsody Op.36 (1921); Ballade in D flat (1940)
Bainton Variations and Fugue in B minor Op.1 (1898); The Making of the Nightingale (1921); Willows (1927)
Bridge Piano Sonata H160 (1921-4)
Britten Night Piece ‘Notturno’ (1963)
Edmunds Piano Sonata in B minor (1938)
Pantscheff Nocturnus V: Wing oor die Branders (2015); Piano Sonata (2017)
Parry Shulbrede Tunes (1914)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
EM Records EMRCD070-71 [two discs, 156’46”]
Producer Oscar Torres & Richard Pantcheff
Engineer Oscar Torres
Recorded 20 & 21 August 2020 at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk
Written by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
Never a pianist to pull his punches, Duncan Honeybourne adds to his expanding discography with this extensive survey of British piano music which, written across almost 120 years and evincing a range of styles, more than reinforces the descriptive heading of the overall project.
What’s the music like?
The first disc begins with the Piano Sonata by Christopher Edmunds. Birmingham-born and long active at the School of Music there, he left a sizable output from which the present work impresses through its wide expressive range within modest formal dimensions. The opening Allegro recalls Medtner in its pivoting between fervency and repose, then the Lento strikes a note of heartfelt emotion underlined by its ‘mesto’ marking. Utilizing aspects of scherzo and finale, the closing Allegro returns to more extrovert concerns as it arrives at a virtuosic close.
Edgar Bainton was still in his teens when composing the Variations and Fugue which became his first acknowledged work. Brahms is a key influence, but the music’s motivic and textural discipline ensures a formal focus throughout the nine deftly contrasted variations then into a tensile and vividly cumulative fugue. Remembered primarily for his songs, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs wrote idiomatically for the piano as is demonstrated by the intricate passagework and often bravura writing of An Essex Rhapsody, while the later Ballade exudes deeper emotion – not least an ominous central section with undeniable overtones of war. Part of a compendious sequence exploring different aspects of night, Richard Pantcheff’s Nocturnus V: Wind on the Waves follows a trajectory of impending marine turbulence that duly regains its earlier calm.
Written at the home of his daughter’s family, Shulbrede Tunes finds Hubert Parry reflecting on domestic environs in a methodically constructed cycle – the 10 pieces taking in evocations of the priory and people within. A lively humour informs Bogies and Sprites that Gambol by Nights, with a ruminative pathos to the fore in Prior’s Chamber by Firelight. Here, as in the exuberant Father Playmate, the aging composer’s devotion to Austro-German romanticism results in music which is as affecting as Parry’s orchestral and choral works from this period.
The second disc opens with two further pieces by Bainton. From among his many miniatures, Willow is a limpidly impressionist album-leaf of no mean poignancy, then The Making of the Nightingale evokes this bird’s creation in imaginative terms that are appealingly realized here. Written for the first Leeds International Piano Competition, Benjamin Britten’s Night Piece is the only acknowledged piano work from his maturity – a study in dynamic and timbral nuance of a finesse as to make one regret his stated antipathy for the modern piano on its own terms.
It is the Piano Sonata by Frank Bridge (placed before the Britten) which inevitably dominates this collection, not least as this recording is among the finest from recent years. Testimony to the composer’s response to the carnage of war as well as its impact on his evolving idiom, the three movements unfold as a single cumulative entity – the sizable opening Allegro preceded by a slow introduction whose main motivic elements are gradually elaborated for the ensuing opposition between anguish and eloquence. The savage rhetoric of its close makes the contrast with the Andante’s consoling rumination more acute, the music as if surveying a landscape of memories which elides straight into the final Allegro with its renewed confrontation of earlier motifs – on the way to a stark denouement then a resigned and almost confessional epilogue.
Pantcheff’s almost contemporary Piano Sonata rounds off this collection. Its three movements each carries an inscription from the epic poem The Axion Esti by Odysseus Elytis that sets the tone for a restive and increasingly tumultuous Inquieto, followed by an Elegia whose sombre imagery might feel almost nihilistic were it not for the plaintive expression that emerges in its latter stages, then a finale whose Alla Vortice marking aptly indicates the gradual intensifying of mood which carries this movement – and the work as a whole – towards its explosive close.
Does it all work?
Undoubtedly, when heard as a collection. Honeybourne has been astute in his planning so that each disc can be appreciated as a stand-alone recital in its own right, or as independent halves of an ‘uber-recital’ which even he would be unlikely to undertake in a live context. All except the Bridge, Britten and Parry are receiving their first recordings, and it would be surprising if some pieces did not enjoy greater exposure in future. For his dedication in championing them, and for putting together such an ambitious anthology, Honeybourne can only be commended.
Is it recommended?
Very much so. The piano sound is a shade hard at climaxes, while spacious and wide-ranging elsewhere, with detailed notes on each work and composer from various sources including the pianist. It adds up to an impressive release and a highlight of the EM Records catalogue so far.
Listen & Buy
You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the EM Records website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more on Duncan Honeybourne, visit his website – and for more on Richard Pantcheff click here