Monday 23 March 2020

Islands and seasons: Tom Hicks in John Ireland and Tchaikovsky

John Ireland Sarnia: An Island Sequence, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky The Seasons; Tom Hicks; Chatelet Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 March 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two substantial works by John Ireland and Tchaikovsky form the basis for this engaging recital from pianist Tom Hicks

This new disc from pianist Tom Hicks brings together two very different suites for piano, both major works by well-known composers yet neither work is as known as it ought to be, John Ireland's Sarnia: An Island Sequence, and Tchaikovsky's The Seasons.

John Ireland was a frequent visitor to the Channel Islands and was inspired by the landscape. He composed The Island Spell (from his 1913 set of piano pieces Decorations) when visiting Jersey in 1912. Then in 1940, shortly before his evacuation from the islands, which were occupied by the Germans during World War II, he started Sarnia: An Island Sequence. Composition continued in London, during The Blitz, and perhaps the evocation of his magical time in the islands was a counter to the realities of wartime bombing in London.

Sarnia consists of a trio of pieces 'Le Catioroc', 'In a May Morning' and 'Song of the Springtides' which lasts a little under 20 minutes.  It is a distinctive and colourful score, in which some commentators feel Ireland was thinking orchestrally (the pieces have been orchestrated by Martin Yates), but here we have the piano originals.

The title of 'Le Catioroc' refers to a Neolithic site in Saint Saviour, Guernsey, and it is quite dramatic with a sense of underlying pulse in the piano, as Ireland's complex melancholy is woven around and above it. The result is undoubtedly John Ireland, but perhaps more dramatic and intense than some of his shorter piece. 'In a May Morning' is Ireland in more familiar form, a lyrical song without words full of his lovely rich harmonies. Finally, 'Song of the Springtides', which refers to the gravitational phenomenon which generates especially high or low tides rather than the season of the year. This is lyrical and flowing with a highly decorative texture, leading to quite a lively rhythmic structure; this is perhaps the best known of the three pieces.

Hicks follows this with the earliest of the Channel Islands inspired pieces, The Island Spell, which is Ireland in delicate and wistful mode full of transparent textures and evocative piano sounds

He follows with Tchaikovsky's The Seasons, a sequence of twelve short piano pieces which Tchaikovsky wrote as the result of a commission from Nikolay Bernard, the editor of  St Petersburg music magazine The Nouvellist; the idea being that each month readers would get a new piece by Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky began work after the completion of the First Piano Concerto and continued whilst he was completing Swan Lake. He seems to have written January and February first, awaited feedback from Bernard and then written March, April and May at separate time, finally sitting down and writing the rest once the orchestration of Swan Lake was finished.

The music, of course, had to be playable by good amateurs but Tchaikovsky still managed to bring a lot of his own feeling into the music. The opening movement, January is one of the longest and most developed, whilst in February we feel that Tchaikovsky's ballet music is not far away, whilst March is thoughtful with a haunting melody, so it is clear that the composer was thinking about contrast between the movements and what strikes one is the variety that he manages to bring to the genre. Whilst some movements do suggest Swan Lake  (and perhaps surprisingly none was used when Riccardo Drigo reworked the score for Marius Petipa in 1895), the spirits of Schumann and Mendelssohn are often not far away either. Tchaikovsky seems to have regarded the pieces as a money-making exercise, but each has a melodic charm, and of course some such as the melodically evocative barcarolle for June or the lovely troika for November are very well known.

Tom Hicks plays them with real feeling and style, never trying to make more of the music than he should be always bringing out the particular quality of a movement. Interestingly, though Nikolay Bernard gave each of the movements subtitles (so January is 'At the Fireside') the booklet does not print them, so that Hicks wants us to listen to the music for its own sake. In fact, Bernard not only gave the pieces titles but poetic epigraphs, you can find them all listed in the Wikipedia article about the suite.

I will be quite frank, the combination of all 12 pieces together is perhaps a bit much and it is much more a cycle to dip into, but Hicks makes a convincing advocate, bringing out the hints of Tchaikovsky's deeper works.

The recorded sound has an admirable clarity and vividness to it, and this gives the Tchaikovsky great presence though in the Ireland suite I perhaps wanted a little more distance and the sheer presence of the sound sometimes mitigates against the evocativeness of Ireland's writing.

The recording was made in one session, and it does indeed have that sense of 'as live' engagement and communicability. Tom Hicks has produced an admirable and engaging exploration of a pair of lesser known works which deserve to be explored and understood for their own right rather than as simply curiosities.The CD cover uses illustrations by the Guernsey artist Wendy Heume.

John Ireland (1879-1962) - Sarnia: An Island Sequence
John Ireland - The Island Spell
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - The Seasons, Opus 37a 
Tom Hicks (piano)
Recorded February 2019, Stoller Hall, Manchester 
Chatelet Records CHA01 1CD [60.46] 

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