Monday 5 February 2024

Late romantic at Wigmore Hall: Simon Callaghan in Cyril Scott's sonata

Percy Grainger and Cyril Scott, photographed in Frankfurt-am-Main, c. 1900 by Theod Bänder (Photo from Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne)
Percy Grainger and Cyril Scott, photographed in Frankfurt-am-Main, c. 1900 by Theod Bänder (Photo from Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne)

Debussy, Stravinsky, Grainger, Cyril Scott: Piano Sonata No. 1 Op. 66; Simon Callaghan; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 3 February 2024

Viewed as ground-breaking by contemporaries, Scott's style languished in the later 20th-century but Simon Callaghan revived the piano sonata in a masterly performance

It is often forgotten that Percy Grainger, for all his personal eccentricities, was a major pianistic talent [just try his 1925 recording of Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 3 on YouTube] and Grainger highly rated Cyril Scott's Piano Sonata No. 1. Scott is a fascinating figure, an important presence in English music during the first quarter of the 20th century, his late-romantic style gradually went out of fashion and his own eccentricities including a fondness for mysticism and the occult, did not help.

Possibly for the first time since Scott premiered it there in 1909, Simon Callaghan played Cyril Scott's Piano Sonata No. 1 at Wigmore Hall on 3 February 2024 alongside a wide-ranging programme of music from Scott's era with works by Percy Grainger, Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky. In fact, all three of these composers connected to Scott in some way.

Scott was a man of connections. He studied in Frankfurt (including piano with one of Clara Schumann's pupils), where he met Percy Grainger and they formed part of the Frankfurt Gang with Balfour Gardiner, Norman O'Neill, Roger Quilter and Frederick Kelly, all of whom studied composition there with Iwan Knorr. Scott knew Stravinsky and visited him in Switzerland where Stravinsky played Scott parts of The Firebird, then a work in progress. It is speculated that Scott's fondness for constantly changing time signatures (something found in the piano sonata) influenced Stravinsky. Scott also knew Debussy, and the latter's support helped Scott with his publishers and Scott was often referred to as the English Debussy.

So, the first half of the concert was something of a voyage around Scott's sound-world. We began Debussy's La plus que lente, all gentle flexibility and lovely rubato, with moments of great intensity. Then three movements from Stravinsky's The Firebird in virtuosic transcriptions by the Italian pianist Guido Agosti (made in 1928 and dedicated to Agosti's teacher, Feruccio Busoni). Danse Infernale was vigorous and vivid, all bravura and colour, Berceuse was laid-back, supple and full of rich sonorities whilst Finale was all shimmer and dazzle. Then came Debussy's Balzac-inspired Les sons et les parums tournent dans l'air du soir, from book one of the preludes, with its wonderfully wash-like atmosphere. Grainger's Country Gardens was played in the composer's virtuosic solo version from 1918 (made when he was in New York) so we moved from insouciant charm to engaging, bravura complexity; Grainger the composer showing off Grainger the pianist. Debussy's La fille aux cheveux di lin (also from book one of the preludes) was played with a gentle clarity. This group ended with Grainger's Molly on the Shore, also from 1918, catchy of course and similarly engagingly show-off .

Cyril Scott by Herbert Lambert,circa 1922 (National Portrait Gallery photographs Collection NPG Ax7750)
Cyril Scott by Herbert Lambert, photogravure circa 1922
(National Portrait Gallery photographs collection NPG Ax7750)

Scott's sonata is in four movements but they play without a break and the use of constantly changing time-signatures gives the music a sense of restless flow, it begins and never ceases in a rich stream of complex textures. Lyrical, late-romantic and highly wrought, but rather seductive too. The richly chromatic harmonies providing a wonderful shifting backdrop of colour to the rhapsodic material, constantly in a state of flux and transformation. For all this, there were little flashes of material that evoked Grainger's more complex piano works.

The second movement, Adagio, was calmer but no less fluid and here there were those Debussy hints that Scott's contemporaries noted. Eventually the music settled into something rich, dark and expressive, building to a skittish Allegro scherzo that included the glissandi which Grainger so disliked playing. The melodic outlines often felt English yet supported by a late-romantic chromaticism that did not. The final movement began as a spiky fugue but got more rhapsodic and almost orgasmic at time, though the climax was constantly delayed, and delayed, as Scott brings back the opening material. The ending slowed things down and had an element of 'oh do get on with it' to it.

Callaghan gave a consummate performance of a piece that is a positive torrent of notes with little in the way of sonata form structure to give the performer a basic outline to work with. In a way, the writing resembled a composer like Scriabin (Scott's teacher, Iwan Knorr was much influenced by Russian music). There is much to be done regarding Cyril Scott's music and it was heartening to find such a large audience for a relatively unknown work in a style that was long unfashionable. Callaghan's recording of the sonata will be released in April on Lyrita and personally I can't wait.

Never miss outon future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Singing Wagner has been crucial: transgender tenor Holden Madagame on their journey towards singing Mime in Regents Opera's production of Siegfried - feature
  • What about blowing the box to pieces: composer Eímear Noone on writing for video games, films and TV - interview
  • As chilling and emotional as ever: Kate Lindsey returns as Offred in ENO's strong revival of Poul Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale - opera review
  • Fiery & fully committedManchester Collective in Freya Waley-Cohen's Spell Book at the Barbican - concert review
  • Being themselves: the young artists of the National Opera Studio in Simple Gifts, a programme of song from across the globe - concert review
  • Identity, displacement and homesickness: Raymond Yiu's new violin concerto inspired by the experiences of Chinese violinist and composer, Ma Sicong - feature
  • Back with vengeance: Nina Stemme in Richard Strauss' Elektra at Covent Garden - opera review
  • What happens when a conductor best known for his operatic work, conducts Mendelssohn's Elijah: Sir Antonio Pappano & the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican with Gerald Finley - concert review
  • Awash with musical history: Thea Musgrave's Mary, Queen of Scots at Oper Leipzig, Shostakovich celebrated by Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig Music Trail, Mendelssohn Haus, Bach Archiv & more - feature
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month