REVIEWS:  diversions ddv 24118 Britten Resonances


AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE:
What a wonderful pianist Anthony Goldstone is. He makes every one of these pieces sound its best – better, in fact, than I’ve ever heard before. Lennox Berkeley’s quicksilvery Six Preludes have been recorded half a dozen times, most recently in an admirable reading by Margaret Fingerhut on Chandos, but somehow I’ve never deeply enjoyed them as I do now. How could that be? I compared the recordings and the answer is clear: Goldstone makes the Preludes both more lucid and more involving. He brings melodic lines into sharper relief, shapes them with more sensitivity, finds delicacy and harmonic nuance glossed over by other pianists, and in so doing transforms each prelude into something more meaningful and memorable. I always thought these pieces were likable minor creations; now, for the first time, I see them as exquisite gems. That, surely, is the sign of a great musical interpreter.

Adding to the interest of this superbly engineered recital is that several of these works have rarely, if ever, been recorded before. Britten’s charming Five Walztes dates from 1923 or so (and that’s the misspelling of the composer, who was barely into his teems when he wrote this cycle), while his lovely Night Piece was written 40 years later. Ronald Stevenson’s 1977 Sonatina Serenissima, in four brief movements, must be just as rare on records, and it’s a pleasant discovery too- wistful, whimsical, and mysterious, like the fleeting smile on a dark-eyed gamine hurrying down the street to some secret tryst.

Finally, Colin Matthews’s 1976 Five Studies. These are more adventurous, virtuosic, and various than anything else here. In Goldstone’s hands this set ranges from spiky and glittering to murmuring and evocative – except for the horrendously repetitive V. Not even Goldstone can save that.
Lehman

BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE:
My only reservation here concerns the title. There are historical connections with Britten in the pieces recorded here, but musical ones are harder to find – partly, perhaps, because his significance and influence as a composer for solo piano are minimal. Britten’s Five Walztes are impressive for a pre-teen composer, but that’s about it. More interesting are the surprisingly Scriabinesque little Idyll and the elusive Night Piece. But they pale beside the opulent grotesquerie of Bridge’s Gargoyle (written the year before Bridge first encountered Britten). Ireland’s robust and fantastical Ballade of London Nights may date from the time when Britten was his student, but that clearly didn’t affect Ireland when he picked up his pen. I would never have guessed that Ronald Stevenson’s Sonata Serenissima was a homage to Britten; it’s utterly individual, and captivating in a very different kind of way. Perhaps it was Death in Venice that gave the young Colin Matthews the idea of imitating Balinese Gamelan music in his Five Studies, but it clearly took him on a journey of his own.

Better simply to be glad that the idea gave Anthony Goldstone a reason to explore so far off the beaten path, to find so many interesting things along the way, and to play them with such lucidity and sensitivity – good recordings too. Recommended to adventurous pianists and listeners . Performance ×××× Sound ××××
Stephen Johnson

MUSICAL OPINION:
This disc offers a selection of piano pieces by Britten, his teachers and associates when he was a teenager. The notes tell us about a search for a teacher who would be able to spot the hints of genius. The ultimate result was a truly creative teacher-pupil relationship with Frank Bridge.

As we listen to these undisturbing pieces it is hard to grasp that the amazing String Orchestra Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge lay just around the corner. As we find the young Britten in these finely crafted pages we can admire the general air of quiet confidence and the insistence on clarity of texture. This is the product of a fastidious talent nurturing roses in bud. Now that we can savour the full blooms we can only marvel at the industry which produced so swift a flowering.

Anthony Goldstone’s playing is immaculate and the recording quality superb.
Geoffrey Crankshaw

MUSICAL POINTERS: (joint review of 24118 and 25024)
My over-riding criterion for claiming valuable reading time from Musical Pointers' visitors, and encouraging them to part with some of their hard earned cash, is that a new recording (or indeed an old one, because too much attention is devoted onto new releases) should be in some important way unique. That rules out many re-recordings of standard works in the popular Canon of masterpieces, which has no monopoly of fine music.

These two CDs have come my way as a spin-off from enjoyment of this famous piano duo's revelatory recording of Schubert's Trout Quintet together with the adagio of his String Quintet. In this special collection of British music they both satisfy my requirement in spades.

It is good to have opportunities to hear Anthony & Caroline both together and each separately. You won't know too much on either disc, even if you're a British contemporary music enthusiast. Goldstone & Clemmow's fans (and they have many, world-wide) will know to expect exemplary presentation with illuminating liner notes, and these are no exceptions.

I generally jib at CD titles which are just handles to catch attention, but both are fully warranted here. The chosen composers to explore are represented by characteristic works of high quality and well planned variety; and the BrittenResonances disc does exactly that too, each item selected to reflect Britten's musical world, teachers and friends. The only ones of the latter selection I knew well are Berkeley's Preludes and Britten's beautiful, reflective Night Piece, having played them for years and, with Goldstone, lamenting that Britten wrote so little for his own instrument solo; that reflecting his social commitment in taking on commissions.

Bridge is well represented by a Cobbett-influenced Fantasia and a far more dissonant Gargoyle; Stevenson, who works on the grand scale (his Passacaglia needs 80 mins) by a compact piece in tribute to Britten and his last opera. Less to my taste is the last of the '70s studies by Matthews, Britten's amanuensis in his final incapacity, in a rather relentless Reich-like minimalist mode.

Nearly all the Resonances was recorded at the RNCM in Manchester, save for Britten's Little Idyll, recorded for the first time at the couple's usual recording venue, the village church (which I once chanced upon) at their home of Alkborough, where they keep a Steinway at the ready (pictured). We all have too much to read on the Net, so I opt to keep this brief, but pointing out that The Divine Art, which like Musical Pointers makes the most of the internet's hyperlink capability, has a splendidly organised and maintained website, in which you can click onto a page full of unabridged reviews of Explorations at http://www.divine-art.com/CD/rev25024.htm.

Buy both these CDs, add some of these artists' releases to your Schubert collection, and you will not have any regrets!
Peter Grahame Woolf

GRAMOPHONE:
This is an imaginatively conceived anthology, mostly recorded in 1991 and now reissued with the addition of Britten’s Idyll, but it’s a mixed bag even though all the composers had some connection with Britten. The best pieces are the Lennox Berkeley preludes, stylishly played; Frank Bridge’s last piano piece, Gargoyle, and Ireland’s posthumously published Ballade of London Nights, which luxuriates ecstatically as only the best of Ireland can. Bridge’s Dramatic Fantasia (1906) is an eloquent piece that reveals its origins in19th-century piano styles, whereas Gargoyle shows where he was bravely and successfully going - into what, in the late 1920s in England, would have been regarded as continental modernism.

Britten’s Waltzes, already recorded twice, come from the composer’s massive juvenilia. Their only interest is that he wrote them at the age of about 10 and revised them 45 years later. A Little Idyll – surprisingly close to what Bridge was writing at the same time – would have been more interesting if it had been recorded along with its astonishing contemporary A Poem of Hate. The atmospheric Notturno, another rare Britten piano solo, was written for the 1963 Leeds Piano Competition – a musical rather than a pyrotechnical test-piece.

Colin Matthews was helping Britten with his final scores when he wrote his sharply etched and attractively varied Five Studies in tehmid-1970s. These, like the Ireland, the Stevenson and the Britten Idyll, fill gaps in the CD catalogue – everything admirably played. The recorded sound is slightly close and dry.
Peter Dickinson

MUSICWEB:
This CD explores the works of composers that were prominent in the life of Benjamin Britten. Britten was taught by Frank Bridge and John Ireland. He was friends with Lennox Berkeley and Ronald Stevenson. Finally he influenced Colin Matthews’ musical style. This last composer was to become Britten’s amanuensis. Last but not least, the CD has a few works by BB himself.

No CD could commence with a more attractive and impressive work than Frank Bridge’s Dramatic Fantasia. The piece was composed between Bridge’s two Phantasies which had been written specifically for W.W. Cobbett's prestigious chamber music competitions. The present piano piece was composed very much under the formal spell of these chamber pieces and uses a similar constructive framework. This is a particularly complex work that reveals the composer’s ability to compose in a strong and effective pianistic style. It was written under the influence of the prevailing Western, late-romantic school of pianism. However it is fair to say that there are plenty of moments when a touch of Englishry is perceived in these difficult and fascinating pages. It’s a ‘big’ work that covers considerable emotional ground – sometimes intense, often romantic, occasionally ominous and often just quite simply gorgeous. Do not try to hunt the influence – just thank goodness that the piece exists, that it moves the heart and the soul and that it is played to such effect as it is on this recording by Anthony Goldstone. An absolutely stunning opening number.

The stark and brittle Gargoyle was composed some dozen or so years after the romantic Fantasia. The First World War had taken its toll on a musical generation and Bridge had responded deeply to this loss. This is a modernist work that ‘confronts modernism head-on’ and absorbs much that was musically in the air at the time, especially Scriabin and Debussy. Sadly, although Bridge lived until 1941, Gargoyle was his last piano work. Do not get this piece wrong – this is no friendly ‘carved creature’ that mischievously graces the gutters and spouts of an English Cathedral. This is a demon from the hell of the Somme.

The next piece is one of the least known works by John Ireland. In fact The Ballade of London Nights was not part of the repertoire until after the composer’s death. The progress of the work encompasses a wide variety of moods – from tranquil, dreamy music to ‘a shattering bitonal cascade traversing several octaves.’ It is a piece that I believe is totally in keeping with the Ireland canon – it serves as ‘an evocative tone picture’ of the city that Ireland lived in and probably had a love/hate relationship with. It sits well with the London Overture and the London Pieces as an effective evocation of the Capital city. Strangely this present version appears to be the only recording of this work currently available.

The Britten works comprise three attractive numbers that represent virtually half of what the composer wrote for the piano. It is eternally surprising that Britten, who was such an accomplished pianist, should have written so little for his own instrument.

The Five Waltzes were selected, by the composer, from his childhood portfolio. They are interesting perhaps because of the precocity of the composer, rather than for any profound musical value. It would be wrong to attempt to spot too many later ‘Britten’ fingerprints in these juvenile waltzes. I doubt many people would ‘guess the composer’ if subjected to an ‘innocent ear’ test. Yet this does not deny the fact that they are interesting examples of the genre – especially the final number, which has the most memorable tune and was composed when BB was nine years old!

I had not heard the short ‘A Little Idyll’ until this recording – and I must confess that I found it quite engaging. It is extremely chromatic in its linear progress. In fact, in places, it appears quite ‘Spartan’ in texture. Yet towards the conclusion the impression is of a well controlled romanticism. Unfortunately the CD clicked and bounced and stopped during the final bars of this piece – so I missed the ‘slightly incongruous sweet added sixth’ of the ultimate chord. Yet my impression is that this is one of the loveliest of Britten’s offerings – but I must confess to the reader that I am biased: I am a fan of early Britten as opposed to late!

The Nightpiece (Notturno) was composed in 1963 as a test piece for the 1st Leeds International Pianoforte Competition. It is not a showpiece or war-horse, but rather a restrained study in more introverted pianistic styles. Of course it is not an easy work – as the pianist has to deal with considerable technical problems of interpretation and balance. The Italianate mood does predominate – more perhaps in an operatic sense than any impressionistic musing on the Bay of Naples by moonlight. A valuable addition to the CD catalogue.

The programme notes point out that collaborations between composers are rare – yet Britten and Lennox Berkeley produced a fine set of Catalan dances called Mont Juic. This reflected their time in Barcelona in 1936. These dances show the empathy between the two men and even today it is hard to decide – just by listening - which composer wrote which dance. The Six Preludes are perhaps some of the most performed and recorded works in the Berkeley catalogue. There are at least three recordings of this work available, including those by Colin Horsley, Margaret Fingerhut and Len Vorster. Yet this attention is certainly well justified. These Preludes are excellent examples of the ‘Gallic’-influenced style that permeated Berkeley’s works. Certainly Poulenc never seems to be far way – and the spirit of Chopin is pervasive. The first prelude is ‘toccata-like’ with ‘horns of elf-land’ predominating in the melodic pattern. This is intricate music that balances romanticism with a neo-classical perfection. No.2 is a brooding essay where, although the melody asserts itself it seems to be shrouded in the dark. We are back in the classical world with the third prelude which is full of a bubbling vitality: it is like a mountain stream. The fourth is a Valse Triste which could almost, but not quite, be played in the piano bar of the Savoy Hotel. It is certainly not pastiche – but it is a beautifully crafted exercise in writing a waltz. Number 5 is described in the programme notes as a ‘whistling tune’ which suggests gaiety. Yet there is something darker in the middle section of this prelude. The last is in the form of a lullaby – and a ‘baby sings the blues’ one too. Perhaps this is the most memorable of the six?

These preludes are always approachable without being musically patronising or condescending. The Six Preludes Op.23 was composed in 1945 for Colin Horsley who gave them their first performance.

I learnt something I never imagined whilst reading the excellent programme notes to this CD. I had always assumed that Ronald Stevenson was the arch-typical Scottish composer. The couple of times I have met him did nothing to disabuse me of this view. Yet I read here that he was born in Blackburn, Lancashire! You live and learn.

Stevenson is best known for his massive Passacaglia on DSCH or the shorter Fantasy on Peter Grimes so it is interesting to hear a lesser known piece from his catalogue. The present Sonatina Serenissima was written in 1973 as a tribute to Benjamin Britten. Stevenson uses an ‘encoded’ version of the composer’s name to generate the musical material in a similar manner to the method used in the Shostakovich tribute. The work is written in four very short movements comprising a Barcarolletta, a Fugetta, a Chorale and a Carol. There are a number of references to Britten’s late opera Death in Venice. This is a completely satisfying work that seems to me to be stylistically consistent and musically interesting. Pianistically, this reveals Ronald Stevenson as the consummate artist – both as composer and concert pianist. I have never been a huge fan of BB – so it may come as no surprise that I prefer the piano music of the dedicator to the dedicatee!

The Five Studies by Colin Matthews are a bit of a mixed bunch. The work exploits the composer’s interest in ‘minimalism’ and ‘Indonesian’ exotica. The first study uses chords that are strangely reminiscent of Gorecki’s Third Symphony. Yet neither work depended on the other. The second is a rather turbulent and involved ‘toccata’ that calls for the pianist’s left hand to play only white notes and his right, black. The third study evokes the sound of an Indonesian Gamelan – an example of his indebtedness, perhaps, to Britten who made transcriptions and recordings of gamelan music in Bali. The fourth is a ‘chordal study’ which frankly did not impress me. However the last number is definitely the best. It may well be ‘minimalism’ run riot yet it is an attractive piece for all that. These Studies definitely deserve a secure place in the repertoire.

Anthony Goldstone has recorded music by a variety of lesser performed British composers, including Thomas Pitfield, Kenneth Leighton, Edgar Bainton and Anthony Hedges. His performance on this present CD is excellent and makes each one of these works fresh, vital and essential. The programme notes are good and the sound quality of this Diversions disc is great.

I recommend this disc to all lovers of British music and also to enthusiasts of piano music who maybe do not know this particular repertoire. If this is the case, begin with the Frank Bridge Dramatic Fantasia and follow through with Berkeley’s Preludes.
 John France

DELIUS SOCIETY MAGAZINE (USA):
Be aware that this program originally appeared on Gamut GAMCD526. This (Diversions) is a reissue label which is part of Divine Art. The Bridge pieces are winners but the piano tuning is suspect with some notes in mid-range sounding tinny. Ireland was a superb pianist, and his compositions are never easy to lay. Ballade of London Nights was found among Ireland’s papers after his death; it was published in 1968. It’s really quite a piece.

I’ve always liked Britten’s very brief Five Walztes (sic) from 1922-23. Too bad he couldn’t spell then. The Idyll is rather abstract but the Night Piece from 33 years later doesn’t sound as modern. Berkeley’s Six Preludes have had several recent recordings. These are all charming miniatures.

Stevenson’s Sonatina has four very short movements. Not bad, this. But I dislike Colin Matthews’ Five Studies brief as they are. He’s the composer who ruined Holst’s Planets by adding the “Pluto” movement which ruins the effect of the women’s chorus fading away at the end. Now that Pluto has been demoted, perhaps that movement will suffer the same fate!

Goldstone appears solo on this CD without his wife Caroline Clemmow. Excellent playing, so the CD is worth your attention despite the quibbles, but be sure you don’t have the Gamut which has all but one number, I believe.
Un-named reviewer