Review of ‘The Moon Sails Out’ CD by Rob Barnett

EM Records have the pulling power to attract artists who share its vision of recording meritorious yet unperformed British works. The accent here is on works of the last century with a scatter of departures from Ian Venables who upholds with eloquence and subtlety the languages of that era.

Cyril Scott had the longevity to live several decades into a critical climate that presented a chilly shoulder against his music. Like many another of his generation he pressed ahead regardless. His music has received some attention on disc although little elsewhere. His two cello sonatas include this one written on the brink of The Beatles era. In four movements, it is typically subtle and suggestive. The writing tends towards moody, contemplative Pierrot-expressionism without thorny dissonance. The sound is akin to late Frank Bridge but with an overlay of Szymanowskian intensity. Once or twice, especially in the determined Rondo finale, I thought of Bax’s music for cello and piano. It’s in that sphere: serious, romantic but making the listener work for it. Scott wrote other works for cello and piano including the 1950 First Cello Sonata for which the piano part has been lost. There are also two cello concertos: one from 1937 recorded by Chandos and another from 1907 heard on Dutton in a reconstruction by Martin Yates and Raphael Wallfisch. The Scott Lullaby is a transcription by the composer Ethel Barnes (1874-1948) of Scott’s 1908 song setting words by Christina Rossetti. This is a dreamy, honeyed and sighing reminiscence of a piece.

Ian Venables is a poet-craftsman who writes in a sincere and impressive lyrical style. His songs and piano music have been extensively recorded. The five mood pieces here cut quite a swathe. In total they run to approximately 35 minutes. The crystalline meditative singing of At Malvern (2013) with a quietly insistent piano ostinato recalls the glittering piano in Bax’s Winter Legends. This precedes the Elegy (1980) which is made of darker fabric with a tragic tidal eloquence. The Moon Sails Out (2009) flows out of Venables’ setting of the Lorca poem of that name in his cycle On the Wings of Love. The music has a sombre and not surprisingly Hispanic accent and for the first four of its seven minutes is for solo cello. The piano brings light and release but pauses for what might well be a reminiscence of the poet’s murder in an orchard during the Spanish Civil War. It Rains (2012) is in part a song and in part a dream journey. It’s potently imaginative – hypnotic in its directness of speech. The Poem (1997) – the longest of these Venables pieces – also feels the oneiric pull towards darkness. It reminded me of Rubbra’s Soliloquy for cello and orchestra.

We owe the Ivor Gurney Cello Sonata to the work of Philip Lancaster among the seemingly voluminous Gurney Archive at Gloucester. Last year saw three orchestral works featured on BBC Radio 3 when Gurney was Composer of the Week. Rest assured, this short single movement rhapsodic Sonata is rife with Gurney fingerprints. This includes especially the luminous piano writing which often recalls that for the two chamber ensemble song-cycles, Ludlow and Teme and The Western Playland. Venables points out in his notes that the lyrical theme that runs through the Sonata is reminiscent of Brahms’ Clarinet Trio and that Brahms was one of Gurney’s musical heroes. There will, I hope, be much more Gurney chamber music to come. After all we are told that there are three violin sonatas, four string quartets, a string trio and two piano trios.

Ian Venables provides substantial essays for all the music here with the exception of the Scott biographical profile which is provided by Desmond Scott. The notes are in English only.

The sound is healthy, open, very forward and strong yet with the subtlety to handle the tints and shading of the Scott and Venables works.

These are world première recordings and the performances feel completely committed and no wonder: Richard Jenkinson studied with Florence Hooton, Raphael Wallfisch and William Pleeth while Benjamin Frith has 17 solo discs to his name and took first prize in the 1989 Artur Rubinstein International Piano Masters Competition and shared top prize in the 1986 Busoni International Piano Competition. Among English music recordings of good report we already have Frith in Moeran and Jenkinson (as a conductor) in a tangy collection of piano concertos on Somm. This attractive disc is a natural progression as well as enriching the catalogue of British chamber music.

Rob Barnett for Musicweb-International