'This wonderful Hyperion collection featuring The Nash Ensemble at its golden-toned and responsive best … Coleridge-Taylor's Op 10 emerges as a quite astonishingly mature achievement … Backed up by a blemish-free production from the Keener/Eadon team and attractively presented, this has to be one of the most engaging releases I've heard all year' (Gramophone)
'Coleridge-Taylor's creative light would seem to be firmly in the ascendant … The Nash Ensemble has maintained such an astonishingly high level of interpretative and technical expertise down the years that it is easy to become complacent. Yet even by its standards this is an exceptional recording, with Ian Brown excelling hmself with playing of the utmost sensitivity and imagination. High honours also go to violinist Marianne Thorsen who plays the 13-minute Ballade with a radiant glow and passion which have one hanging onto her every note … Enhanced by one of the most natural-sounding recordings that even Andrew Keener and Simon Eadon have ever produced, this is a must for all lovers of late-Romantic chamber music' (International Record Review)
'This splendid disc of early chamber music goes a long way to explain [Coleridge-Taylor's] charisma. The Piano Quintet … is a superbly characterful work with an especially original finale. And the Clarinet Quintet … is so assured, so obviously independent of the obvious contemporary model (the Brahms), that the much-overused term 'masterpiece' may not, in this instance, overstate the case … The Nash Ensemble do these deeply attractive and enjoyable works proud (the two Quintets languished unplayed for the best part of a century, and this may be the premiere recording of Op 1) in affectionate performances that revel in Coleridge-Taylor's idiomatic and challenging writing. The recording is warm but texturally crystal-clear. Highly recommended' (BBC Music Magazine)
'[Piano Quintet in G minor]… Well-crafted, with piquant harmonies (the pianist, not incidentally, is the outstanding Ian Brown who brings added class to everything he touches) … The Clarinet Quintet in F sharp minor commands the listener's full attention. Richard Holsford, the eloquent soloist, is heard at his best in the beautiful second-movement Larghetto' (Classic FM Magazine)
'There is enough mastery here and in the later Ballade for violin and piano to make highly rewarding listening. The Nash Ensemble's performances, as one would expect, are devoted and full of insight' (Daily Telegraph)
'Suave musicianship and sonic warmth … The Nash Ensemble offers a vital and intellectually stimulating accounts of these rarities and their devotion repays the listener’s curiosity many times over. The playing is fresh and vibrant, not to mention poised and erudite … not as much as a single note will disappoint' (Fanfare, USA)
'The composer's lyrical gift, rhythmic energy, and skilful use of colour and harmony are the work of a master … The Nash Ensemble does great justice to this music, with polished yet vigorous playing and superb musicianship' (American Record Guide)
'Le Nash Ensemble met beaucoup d’ardeur à défendre cette très belle musique, qui n’avait pour l’instant jamais fait l’objet d’enregistrements connus. La sonorité est ronde et pleine, le travail effectué sur la partition intelligent. Ce disque ne dépareillera aucune collection et peut même constituer la première pièce de la discographie d’un amateur de musique de chambre en herbe. Autrement dit, il ne s’agit pas de bouder son plaisir' (ClassiqueInfo-disque.com)
Allegro con moto [8'48]
Ballade in C minor Op 73 [13'00]
Allegro energico [9'34]
Larghetto affettuoso [6'28]
Scherzo: Allegro leggiero [6'49]
In this delightful disc, chamber music rarities by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor are performed by The Nash Ensemble. The early Piano Quintet shows the precocious development of the young composer, already demonstrating the flair for melody and inexhaustible spontaneity that would become a hallmark of his later works. The astonishing Clarinet Quintet is a work of remarkable subtlety and sophistication, rhythmically exuberant and complex, and uses the ensemble in an integrated way that demonstrates the composer’s utter mastery of the genre. This is music of deep sensibility that deserves to be better known.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born on 15 August 1875 in Holborn, central London. The first musically significant event in his life occurred when, at the age of about five, he was given a quarter-size violin by the person believed to be his maternal grandfather. The element of doubt arises from the fact that the precise identity of the child’s mother was intentionally obscured by the family because she and the father, Dr Daniel Hughes Taylor, were not married. Indeed, Dr Taylor had returned to his home country of Sierra Leone probably even before his son was born. Young Samuel’s mother subsequently married railway worker George Evans and the family moved to Croydon. Especially given the attitudes and prejudices that prevailed in 1880, the fact that George Evans took on an unmarried mother with a mixed-race child says much about the man.
It turned out that the little boy had a startling natural aptitude for the violin. Having been taken under the wing of local violinist Joseph Beckwith and later supported by Colonel Herbert Walters, Coleridge-Taylor’s talent developed rapidly and remarkably. Walters sponsored his entry to the Royal College of Music in 1890 as a violin student of Henry Holmes. But his abilities were not restricted to playing the violin: his interest in composition was developing and in 1891 he wrote an anthem, In thee, O Lord, which was immediately published by Novello. At the suggestion of Walters, it was arranged that Coleridge-Taylor would study composition seriously under Charles Villiers Stanford; he quickly won the first in a succession of composition scholarships.
Coleridge-Taylor possessed both prodigious talent and refined musical taste; it is worth observing that Stanford regarded him as one of his two most brilliant students, the other being Coleridge-Taylor’s friend William Yeates Hurlstone, who died at the age of thirty in 1906. Talented though Hurlstone undoubtedly was, Coleridge-Taylor’s gifts—especially his flair for melody—were of a higher order altogether. Stanford’s assessment of Coleridge-Taylor’s abilities represents no mean accolade when one considers that he also taught, among many others, Arthur Bliss, Frank Bridge, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, E J Moeran and Ralph Vaughan Williams. One rather touching illustration of Stanford’s regard for his favourite protégé is his contribution to Coleridge-Taylor’s college report at the end of the Easter term of 1895, in which he wrote under the column headings respectively: Regularity and Punctuality—‘Invariable’; Industry—‘Indefatigable’; and Progress—‘Indisputable’!
The Piano Quintet received its first public performance in Croydon on 9 October 1893 in a concert devoted entirely to Coleridge-Taylor’s works. After this premiere, it is probable that the Piano Quintet was not played again for more than a century. Conscious that it contained some first-rate material which might languish in oblivion, Coleridge-Taylor reused two of its themes: the second subject of the first movement forms an episode of the African Dance Op 58 No 3, for violin and piano (1904); and the trio of the Scherzo reappears in the ‘Valse de la Reine’, the third in the sequence of Characteristic Waltzes Op 22 for orchestra (1898).
Coleridge-Taylor freely acknowledged his favourite composer to be Dvorák, who was in turn a devotee of Schubert, whose inexhaustible spontaneity Coleridge-Taylor almost matched. The influence of both these composers is apparent in the two early works on this disc; more impressively, individual characteristics of Coleridge-Taylor’s mature style are already apparent: attractive and original melodies, strong rhythms and irregular phrase-lengths, and an ear sensitive to variety in tone-colour and dynamics are all in evidence, as are a gift for piquant harmony and bold key-changes allied to a sure grasp of structure. That the Piano Quintet was composed by an eighteen-year-old is remarkable. Understandably, the critic of the Croydon Advertiser used the word ‘astonishing’ in his review of the 1893 concert.
The first movement has an assertive principal subject played by all the strings in octaves with an almost orchestral sonority; the second subject, in the relative major key of B flat, is introduced by the piano and while its shape and apparent simplicity might be Schubertian (as is its momentary diversion to C flat major), it represents an early flowering of Coleridge-Taylor’s own exceptional melodic talent.
The Larghetto, in E flat major, begins serenely with a reflective cello solo gently woven around by languid piano tracery; with the entry of the other strings the tonality hovers beguilingly between the home key of E flat major, G major, and E major. A forceful, rhetorical episode emerges, the strings in octaves declaiming powerful incantations over widely leaping sforzando chords in the piano. The opening mood of tranquillity is restored in the coda and extended by means of a long tonic pedal supporting delicate piano arabesques and sustained string chords.
The first half of the Scherzo has a driving energy which all but overspills in the second half: chains of syncopations, alarming (but perfectly controlled) tonal swerves, contrapuntal forays which are interrupted before they have a chance to make progress, and juxtapositions of extreme dynamics leave one grateful for the respite offered by the trio.
The mood of the finale is initially much darker than those of the earlier movements: textures are more spare and lines more angular. The second subject has a positively sinister aspect: its dominant minor mode, its instrumentation (viola leading, thick chords in the lower registers of the piano, seemingly disembodied violin scales)—even the harmony has an eerie, unsettling quality. After the exposition repeat, perhaps concerned that the atmosphere has become too oppressive, the composer suddenly effects a transformation to something altogether sunnier: instead of a development section he gives us a perky fugato setting off in D major, the subject of which is a variant of the trio melody from the third movement—an early example of his gift for clever thematic metamorphosis.
The recapitulation is telescoped, the composer dispensing with that baleful second subject until the coda, where it is briefly developed as the basis of an exciting ‘alla breve’ final run-in which resolves triumphantly in the major mode. The score of the Piano Quintet was published in 2002 by Patrick Meadows at Soundpost.org; the composer’s autograph was also consulted during the sessions for this recording.
Astonishingly accomplished as the Piano Quintet may be, the Clarinet Quintet is an even greater achievement. Its composition was prompted by Stanford’s comment to the effect that after Brahms produced his Clarinet Quintet no one would be able to compose another that did not show Brahms’s influence. Coleridge-Taylor took this as a challenge and Stanford, on examining the result, remarked, ‘you’ve done it, me boy!’. He might have gone on to observe that, in the character of the thematic material and in the ways in which it is developed, the influence of Dvorák is unmistakable.
Stanford showed the piece to Joachim, who played it over with colleagues in Berlin in 1897, and it was offered to the firm of Breitkopf & Härtel for publication. Had they issued it, the composer’s career might have followed a very different path. Ever afterwards, Coleridge-Taylor nurtured the hope that he might achieve success in Germany to match that which he had realized in the USA on his three visits there between 1904 and 1910. He taught himself German to a good standard and had agreed to conduct his Violin Concerto in Berlin in 1913. Sadly, this was an engagement which he did not live to fulfil; Coleridge-Taylor died of pneumonia on 1 September 1912.
The tempo direction of first movement, Allegro energico, encapsulates the mood. The principal subject is launched by a forceful, thrusting figure on the cello’s C string accompanied by syncopated viola and pizzicato violins; the 6/4 metre allows Coleridge-Taylor an almost infinite variety of rhythmic freedoms and flexibilities which are in evidence from the outset. That this is a true ensemble piece and not just a vehicle for virtuoso display by the clarinet is also immediately clear—the soloist sometimes fulfils a subsidiary role in the texture, filling in the harmony or doubling string lines at the octave. Indeed, the second subject is not played in full by the clarinet until the recapitulation.
The Larghetto affettuoso (in B major) is beautiful, open-air music, the principal theme having the qualities of an idealized folk song. It provides a fine example of the composer’s love for irregular phrase-lengths, its two elements being respectively five and four bars long. The music’s tender character is enhanced by the muting of the accompanying violins (and, in the recapitulation, the viola too). A subsequent appearance of the theme on the upper strings of the cello is ravishing, and equally exquisite is the descant of the first violin which floats, pianissimo, high above the clarinet’s final reprise of it. The movement concludes with a brief cadenza-like parlando passage for the solo instrument and a final, gentle descent into a sweet repose. This is music of the deepest sensibility.
The Scherzo has a double time-signature—3/4 9/8—and at the heart of the movement is the interplay between the division of the beat into twos and threes (even within the bar). The rhythmic exuberance does not stop there, however: themes seem to stutter and sudden dynamic contrasts constantly delight. The gentler trio is based on another appealing melody which shows the influence of Dvorák.
The finale, Allegro agitato, begins with a driving rhythmic germ leavened by a Scotch snap which recurs melodically in the second strain of the principal subject and which assumes increasing significance as the movement progresses. The second subject unfolds and extends in a continuous stream until the development section proper begins; it does so with the principal subject in an unabashed G minor—a bold harmonic stroke in a movement in F sharp minor, and one typical of Coleridge-Taylor. A moment of stasis ushers in a fond reminiscence of the Larghetto, after which the coda, marked Vivace and now in F sharp major, whips up excitement in a manner which may bring to mind the end of Dvorák’s ‘American’ Quartet.
The Clarinet Quintet demonstrates beyond any doubt that Coleridge-Taylor was a gifted composer of chamber music. The thematic references between the movements give rise to a structure of remarkable subtlety and sophistication which arises from real inspiration, not mere artifice. Reviews of the London premiere in 1895, of performances in the USA in 1974 (after its eventual publication by Musica Rara) and, indeed, of The Nash Ensemble’s recital at Wigmore Hall in London in December 2006, come to much the same conclusion—that this is the work of a finished master, not of a student. The copyright was eventually assigned to Breitkopf & Härtel in 2000; as with the Piano Quintet, a copy of the composer’s autograph of the Clarinet Quintet was studied in preparation for this recording, which accounts for some slight variants from the Breitkopf & Härtel edition.
From 1896 the awakening of Coleridge-Taylor to his African heritage made an increasing impact on his music: he had been deeply moved by the spirituals of the African-American ‘Fisk Jubilee Singers’ who had recently toured England. At about the same time he met the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and settings of some of Dunbar’s poetry were his earliest compositions to be inspired by his race. Notwithstanding the duality of his racial heritage, Coleridge-Taylor regarded himself unequivocally as a black man. In advance of his first proposed trip to the USA, he wrote in a letter to Andrew Hilyer, the treasurer of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society of Washington DC: ‘I am a great believer in my race, and I never lose an opportunity of letting my white friends here know it.’ African-Americans naturally took Coleridge-Taylor to their hearts, representing as he did the embodiment of what black people could achieve if not actively prevented from fulfilling their potential.
Sir Edward Elgar also played a generous part in the development of Coleridge-Taylor’s career. In response to a request that he write an orchestral piece for the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1898, Elgar wrote: ‘I am sorry I am too busy to do it. I wish, wish, wish you would ask Coleridge-Taylor to do it. He still wants recognition, and he is far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men. Please don’t let your committee throw away the chance of doing a good act.’ The outcome was Coleridge-Taylor’s beautiful and dramatic Ballade in A minor; after he conducted the first performance on 12 September 1898 he received a standing ovation from both orchestra and audience.
For a shrewd and apposite assessment of the young Coleridge-Taylor, we can turn to Sir Arthur Sullivan, who attended the first performance in November 1898 of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast—the work which has ensured the immortality of Coleridge-Taylor’s name. According to Coleridge-Taylor’s daughter Avril, Sullivan had said: ‘I’m always an ill man now, my boy, but I’m coming to hear your music tonight, even if I have to be carried.’ Afterwards, he recorded in his diary: ‘Much impressed by the lad’s genius. He is a composer, not a music-maker.’
The success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was sensational and life-changing: almost overnight it made its composer famous throughout the English-speaking world and it initiated a sequence of commissions from the many annual festivals of choral and orchestral music which were then such a feature of British musical life. Although Coleridge-Taylor had regarded the Wedding Feast as a ‘one-off’, by 1900 he had completed second and third parts—The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha’s Departure. Many more choral and orchestral commissions were to be executed in the succeeding years.
Coleridge-Taylor wrote no chamber music after 1896 and, sadly, his final essay in the genre, a string quartet in D minor, is lost. Aside from the choral and orchestral festival commissions and incidental music for the theatre, he concentrated his compositional efforts for the most part on music for which he could secure a quick financial return such as duos for violin and piano, solo songs, part-songs and piano suites. Also, after 1899, in order to support his new wife and growing family, he was obliged to devote himself excessively to teaching, conducting and adjudicating. Indeed, overwork undoubtedly contributed to his tragically early death. As he often remarked with a wry smile, had he not sold the rights of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast to Novello for fifteen guineas he would have been a wealthy man, rather than a somewhat impecunious one.
One of the larger-scale duos for violin and piano is the Ballade in C minor, which was written for the Russian-born violinist Michael Zacherewitsch (1879–1953), who gave the first performance with the composer at the piano in Leeds in October 1907. At only twelve years of age, Zacherewitsch had made a triumphant debut playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto, conducted by its composer. So impressed was Tchaikovsky that he got up a subscription to send Zacherewitsch to Prague, where he studied with Ševcík. In 1903 Zacherewitsch gave his first recital in London, in advance of a tour of England. He returned often, becoming a British citizen in 1915. His playing was compared by some to that of Wieniawski in its panache and elegance.
Coleridge-Taylor openly admired Tchaikovsky’s manner and the Ballade has passionate traits which sound distinctly Slavic (reminiscent more of the melancholic Rachmaninov than of Tchaikovsky, perhaps), but whether this was a conscious tribute to Zacherewitsch’s national origins is a matter of conjecture. It is rhapsodic in form, developing from a motto theme announced by the violin over rich, dark arpeggios from the piano. Numerous variations of tempo and metre eventually culminate in a fervent and impassioned climax, the piece concluding with a bravura coda in a brilliant C major.
Lionel Harrison © 2007