English Piano Music = Works by IVOR GURNEY, EDWARD ELGAR, and HERBERT HOWELLS – Alan Gravill, piano (GURNEY) / Jeremy Filsell, piano (ELGAR, HOWELLS) – Dal Segno

by | Jan 29, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

English Piano Music = Works by IVOR GURNEY, EDWARD ELGAR, and HERBERT HOWELLS – Alan Gravill, piano (GURNEY) / Jeremy Filsell, piano (ELGAR, HOWELLS) – Dal Segno DSPRCD059 [Distr. by Qualiton], 76:55 ****:

Until I heard this disc, Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) had only been a name I encountered on occasion. Given my literary interests, I suppose I should have known his poetry if not his music since Gurney’s poetic reputation has been growing apace with his musical one. While Gurney’s literary skills came to the fore later, his musical talents were obvious at an early age; he wrote the two fine Nocturnes on the current disc while still a teenager.

Gurney won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied with Charles Stanford. Stanford thought highly of Gurney’s abilities, saying Gurney was the most gifted of his students (among whom numbered Holst and Vaughn Williams) but also “the least teachable.”

Gurney served in World War I, being injured twice, once in a gas attack, before his discharge in 1918. At the Front, he began writing poetry seriously; his first two books of verse take the War as their subject and merit comparison with the work of Owen, Brooke, and other celebrated poets of the Great War. In all, he wrote eight collections of poetry. In the sphere of music, Gurney is most remembered for his songs—he penned over 300.

Piano music was clearly not Gurney’s primary interest; the music on the current disc apparently remains in manuscript and had to be “realized” for performance by our pianist, Alan Gravill. Stylistically, it harks back to the high Romanticism of Brahms and Gurney’s teacher Stanford. However, the nine Preludes of 1919-20 have a rhythmic and harmonic restlessness that takes us far beyond late Brahms. The faster pieces such as the A Minor and C Minor Preludes have a start-stop rhythmic pattern—if you can call it that—which seems to mirror Gurney’s own mental turmoil. Suffering from bipolar disorder, he wrote both poetry and music at a manic pace, some of it in the mental institutions he was confined to during the last fifteen years of his life. The C Minor Prelude is so wayward harmonically that it seems to be only nominally in C minor. If it didn’t return so resolutely to the home key at the end, as if Gurney wants to make amends for his past harmonic indiscretions, it could almost be called a Prelude in No Key.

For Alan Gavrill, both editing and playing Gurney is obviously a labor of love. He is as sensitive to the beauties of Gurney’s essentially late-Romantic idiom as he is to the broad emotional landscape that the composer explores in his Preludes.

Like Gurney, Edward Elgar and Herbert Howells are much better known for their works in other genres, Elgar for his orchestral music and Howells for his choral works. The umost substantial of the Elgar pieces is the Concert Allegro, written at the behest of pianist Fanny Davies and disastrously debuted by her in 1901. Elgar must have revised it substantially following this debacle because the end result, though hardly a masterpiece, is quite listenable. It sounds very much like Elgar in his typical public guise and recalls the grand gestures of the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47, written a few years later. The other pieces are more intimate, the most interesting being In Smyrna, in which the Englishman’s usual strain of melancholy nostalgia waxes exotic, freshened up with Eastern musical influences: Edward Elgar meets Camille Saint-Saëns.

Herbert Howells’ Three Pieces show an even more idiomatic flair for piano writing. Rhapsody is lovely though overlong, but Jackanapes is the winner here, a fine pianistic scherzo with an emphasis on the original meaning of the word: a joke. The ostenatos and dissonant sforzandos keep both pianist and listener on their toes.

For the Elgar and Howells pieces we have a change of personnel. Jeremy Filsell is just as successful in interpreting the music of his countrymen as Alan Gravill is. Filsell is equally in tune with Elgar’s big-hearted late Romanticism as with Howells’ energetic neoclassicism.

These performances were originally released on two different labels, Alan Gravill’s on Gamut and Jeremy Filsell’s on Guild, both appearing in the early 90s. Age of recording is certainly not an issue here; both performances benefit from fine and truthful piano sound. So if you like English music and enjoy treading the path least taken, this collection is well worth investigating.


Prelude in F-sharp
Prelude in D-flat
Prelude in A Minor
Prelude in D-flat
Prelude in C Minor
Prelude in C
Prelude in F-sharp
Prelude in F-sharp
Prelude in D
Nocturne in B
Nocturne in A-flat
To E.M.H. – A Birthday Present from Ivor
A Picture

Concert Allegro
In Smyrna

Three Pieces, Op. 14 – Rhapsody, Jackanapes, Procession

— Lee Passarella

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