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Hyperion Records

CDA67827 - Dale: Piano Music
The Icknield Way (1912) by Spencer Frederick Gore (1878-1914)
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: Various dates
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: June 2011
Total duration: 65 minutes 8 seconds


'Here is a disc to warm the hearts and minds of those who treasure romantic nostalgia … Benjamin Dale's hugely ambitious and unwieldy Piano Sonata is assuredly not for lovers of economy … it is doubtful that [the sonata] has ever been played with a more shining commitment than by Danny Driver. His performance ranges from thundering rhetoric to a whispering poetic delicacy … a pianist of such magical warmth and finesse … Hyperion's sound and presentation are as immaculate as ever … this issue is as moving as it is superlative' (Gramophone)

'Danny Driver's stylish and immaculate playing makes an outstanding case for some technically demanding music. One for English music aficionados' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Shades of Liszt and Wagner haunt the Piano Sonata completed in 1905 by the English composer Benjamin Dale, but this is more to do with matters of harmony, texture and the odd reminiscence than with any wholesale aping. Danny Driver’s superb performance shows a confident composer, imaginative in sustaining a span of 45 minutes' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Driver brings a stunning brilliance … with a performance of this calibre, a brilliant recording quality from Hyperion and an unjustly neglected work, I can't but nominate this release in any case' (International Record Review)

'Driver posssesses an unerring sense of direction, while enabling the music to sound almost improvised. The grandeur of the finale is perfeclty conveyed. Competition comes from Paul Jacobs (Continuum) and Mark Bebbington (Somm). Neither version boasts the excellent of Hyperion's recording. Driver is the most exciting of the players, too … a fabulous performance' (International Piano)

'Danny Driver [is] technically superb, he has the gift of innate musicanship that illuminates the music's every twist and turn' (Yorkshire Post)

'Danny Driver rises seemingly effortlessly to the fearsome challenges of the piece and produces a performance highlighting the shape of the work' (Audiophile)

Piano Music
Slow movement, Scherzo and Finale
Humoresque  [3'03]
Nocturne  [5'20]
Scherzo: Finale  [2'58]

The monumental Piano Sonata in D minor was composed by a young Benjamin Dale while he was still a student at the Royal Academy of Music. Dale’s contemporaries included the burgeoning composer-pianists Arnold Bax and York Bowen. Dale dedicated the sonata to his close friend Bowen, who gave the premiere of the work at the Academy in February 1905 and astonished listeners with its daring structural originality and thematic integrity and its breathtaking tonal colours. The elaborate form encompasses an impressive amalgamation of the traditional slow movement, scherzo and finale into an inventive set of variations. Also featured are Dale’s charming Prunella and Night Fancies in which Dale explores impressionistic colourings. Rather aptly, the final work on the disc is the first recording of York Bowen’s Miniature Suite in C major, the 'Humoresque' of which is dedicated reciprocally to Dale.

His expressive sensibility and remarkable dexterity make young British pianist Danny Driver the ideal advocate for this repertoire. His landmark interpretations of the Bowen Sonatas were met with huge critical acclaim and Driver performs this incredibly virtuosic music with apparent ease, passion and lyricism. This disc of eclectic and intricate piano music will surely enhance his reputation as one of Britain’s finest pianists.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The late-nineteenth-century European status quo in music was coloured by factions of either a Brahmsian or a Lisztian and Wagnerian tendency. As Lewis Foreman observed in his definitive biography of Arnold Bax, in the first years of the twentieth century this divergence was still epitomized in London by comparable relations between the Royal Academy of Music, founded in 1822, and its junior cousin, the Royal College of Music in South Kensington. Broadly speaking, the College espoused Brahms, while the Academy (based then in Tenterden Street, off Oxford Street) leaned in a more Wagnerian direction.

Looking back to the turn of the twentieth century, one notices how several of the Academy’s most brilliant students had yet to discover their defining paths, and therefore how a certain ambivalence hung over their aspirations: pianists, composers, or both in equal measure? Among them were Arnold Bax, Benjamin Dale (who arrived on the same day in 1900, aged only fifteen) and York (originally Edwin Yorke) Bowen. Bax had yet to find his distinctive musical voice, but was already displaying that order of pianistic gift which is a happy means to a compositional end: his ability to sight read—and effectively to recreate—orchestral scoring at the keyboard was the stuff of legend, but he was destined for few concert appearances in later life and his pianistic profile was low beside that of the composer-pianist Bowen, the rising star of his student generation. Bowen’s compositional star began to wane early, however, as the wider European musical establishment came to terms with Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (1913).

Bowen had trained as a pianist under Alfred Izard at Blackheath Conservatory before taking up a scholarship at the RAM in 1898 and passing into the hands of Tobias Matthay. Despite his famous eccentricity Matthay (1858– 1945) was one of the most prestigious teachers of his day, his pupils including Bax, Felix Swinstead, Irene Scharrer, Harold Craxton, Myra Hess, Eileen Joyce and Moura Lympany. Matthay’s pedigree extended directly back to William Sterndale Bennett (1816–1875), with whom he had studied composition at the RAM (he studied the piano with William Dorrell). Having himself begun teaching in his mid-teens, Matthay had developed an intense pedagogic interest in the foreign luminaries giving recitals in London through the 1880s and 1890s. These included Hans von Bülow and also Anton Rubinstein, of whom Matthay made a particular study.

Compositionally Rubinstein represented a vapid and uneasy alliance of Mendelssohnian retrospection with a piano technique equipped for something altogether more advanced. However, his importance as a virtuoso to Matthay may have augmented an already strong vein of sympathy at the RAM with the works of certain Russians, particularly Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, the latter a stickler for polyphonic clarity in playing. In his study The Art of Piano Playing the Russian pianist Heinrich Neuhaus later made perceptive mention of Glazunov, ‘whose piano music I term “three-handed”, since it is full of sustained tenuto basses in octaves while both hands are busy in the upper registers … The same is frequently found in … any piano music which recalls to a greater or lesser degree an excellent transcription of an orchestral score’. Influences of this order are intermittently apparent in the rhetoric and physical deployment of works by the RAM’s burgeoning composer-pianists. This applies variably to Bowen, himself destined for a distinguished teaching career at the Academy, but also to the young man who had arrived alongside Bax, Benjamin James Dale.

Dale had been born in London on 17 July 1885, growing up in comfortable circumstances. He and Bowen rapidly became inseparable. Bowen’s pupil and biographer Monica Watson has reported how the two spent ‘many hours at the opera together … listening to Wagner and so moved that they walked the streets together [for] hours afterwards’. What Dale might have become remains a fascinating question, but contrasts a shade depressingly with what actually ensued. At the outbreak of the Great War he had the misfortune or misjudgement to be on holiday at Ingolstadt, where he was intercepted and taken with his fellow composers Edgar Bainton and Frederick Keel to Ruhleben internment camp outside Berlin. Later he was held on a Dutch farm under less stringent conditions, but it is difficult to avoid wondering whether the whole experience contributed to a decline in health following his repatriation in March 1918, and to a restricted compositional output.

Dale eventually returned to the professorship of harmony at the RAM which he had initially taken up in 1909. He examined for the Associated Board (ABRSM) in Australia and New Zealand in 1919–20. He was appointed Warden at the Academy in 1936, in the same year beginning a period of service to the BBC Music Advisory Panel which ceased with his death from a heart attack on 30 July 1943. This occurred after rehearsals for his orchestral poem, The Flowing Tide, for which he had made the first sketches in Brussels in 1924. Dale married twice, the second time very happily, and a sympathetic article on The Flowing Tide by Christopher Foreman in 2002 suggested that Dale had fully recovered from his internment experience, composing with renewed purpose and spirit in his final years.

It is perhaps in keeping with Dale’s curious and largely obscure biography that the emergence of his Piano Sonata in D minor, too, was subject to ups and downs. Begun in 1902 under the allegedly laissez-faire tutorial guidance of Frederick Corder, it was heard in incomplete form both before and after achieving a first performance in toto. Its first movement was played at the Academy by Bowen, its dedicatee, in February 1905, some five months before completion of the whole piece. Bowen performed the entire Sonata the following November, when its astonishing precocity and structural integrity became clear. Corder noted:

Its merits were so apparent to his [Dale’s] fellow-musicians that they felt the imperative necessity of having it published … At last, owing to … quite a group of unusually talented young men just then with works of a similar tendency, the Society of British Composers was formed, with the intention of doing for England what Belaieff had done for Russia—undertaking the publication of high-class music of a non-commercial kind, [since] sale of such music could only prove remunerative after a long time, if at all.

This marked the inception of the so-called ‘Charles Avison Edition’ under the aegis of Breitkopf & Härtel. Later the imprint passed to Cary and, lastly, Novello. Avison issued Dale’s Sonata in 1906, the year in which the pianist Mark Hambourg organized a competition to identify outstanding new works which he would then play. This attracted some sixty entrants and Dale’s Sonata emerged the winner; but Hambourg, a pianist viewed somewhat askance by less flamboyant self-publicists in the profession, fought shy of the daunting outer movements, playing only the central variations and reportedly taking liberties even with these. Taken by surprise, the composer declined to join Hambourg on stage. Nonetheless, in addition to Bowen’s advocacy the Sonata was taken up by such pianists as Benno Moiseiwitsch, Moura Lympany, Myra Hess and Irene Scharrer (in the last three cases one notes the dynastic link back to Matthay and the RAM). By the 1930s it had largely faded from view; what we might see post hoc as a kind of Edwardian opulence would have sat uncomfortably within the inter-war ‘Age of Anxiety’ and in the cold light of all that followed. Not until the freshly pioneering advocacy of Peter Jacobs with Continuum Records in 1992 did the Sonata make a significant reappearance.

Commentators have stressed the forbidding technical challenges of this eclectic music. While seldom if ever testing the outer limits of virtuosity, it operates at a consistent level of intricacy which imposes its own demands upon stamina and concentration. Although some of its climactic moments reflect the Neuhaus aperçu quoted earlier, frequently the swirling arpeggiation and rich variety of gesture imply an attempted pianistic parallel to Wagnerian and Straussian orchestration, thus carrying the illusion of symphonic transcription to new places. At the same time, as with Bowen, a certain artless candour about salient musical subjects and secondary elements (such as the interrelated fanfare figures heard in both outer movements) suggests shrewdly selective awareness of the four ambitious sonatas by the American composer Edward MacDowell, written between 1891 and 1900.

In Dale’s case, sure-footed keyboard invention is matched by a strikingly far-sighted command of large-scale design. The danger inherent in such tonally discursive music, full of Straussian pivotings, modulations and semitonal sidesteps, is that beneath them the central supporting pillars of diatonic thinking and sonata key relationships will collapse or simply become undetectable. Much depends on the pianist’s capacity to maintain forward propulsion even when textures are so replete as to insist on slowing the pace of events. Nonetheless, Dale maintains a steely grip on cyclical organization, embedding motifs which are readily recognizable upon their recurrence in later variations or movements. The opening two notes, leaping up from fifth to tonic of the D minor scale, later generate a quasi-Brucknerian dotted idea, heard at intervals and coming into its own in the first movement’s tempestuous closing bars; this then reappears prominently in variation 5, a scherzo placed (like the variations as a whole) in G sharp minor so that the motif articulates the furthest available tonality from the work’s sovereign key. In amended form it reappears back in D minor in the closing bars of the work, as a funereal drumbeat.

Dale’s idea of a set of variations embracing several enclosed genre pieces was one used with success by Glazunov in his first Piano Concerto (albeit some years later, in 1911), where the last of the variations is a ‘finale’ that reprises elements of the first movement while also serving as a climactic, extended ‘coda’. Glazunov, working symphonically but also within the balletic tradition, integrated variations into a number of works, as did Scriabin in his Piano Concerto and, somewhat later, Medtner in the first and third of his. Dale’s resourcefulness appears to grow as his variations progress, hinting at a balletic subtext in variations 3 and 6 but offsetting these with some weighty slow meditations and two quicksilver scherzos (variations 5 and 7). The former of this pair nods at Chopin and Saint-Saëns; the latter extends into a solemn Andante via a prominent transformation of the Sonata’s opening theme. Here the composer’s complex tonal scheme is perceptibly indebted to Liszt, while the music itself seems to look back to the emotional language of Schumann’s C major Fantasy, as well as to Wagner’s Liebestod and even sideways at Elgar, whose symphonies and concertos still lay ahead of him: for Dale seems to anticipate as much as he emulates.

The Andante launches the last of the variations, the finale of the work as a whole. More formidable in its demands but achieving an intermittent lightness of touch that binds it to its predecessors, this rondo-based music revisits and recasts many ideas from earlier in the Sonata, burning itself out finally in a furious upwards burst of arpeggiation before a sombre epilogue restores D minor. If the debt to Liszt’s B minor Sonata is plain here, so too is the unflagging inventiveness of a young composer still processing and integrating his organic sonata material right to the final bar (where an overt tribute to Liszt’s Sonata is surely intended).

By contrast, Prunella belongs in the same category as Frank Bridge’s Rosemary, being a sepia-tinted, wistful idyll whose simple opening bears passing resemblance to that of the once-celebrated Minuet in G (also Dale’s chosen key) by Paderewski. One moment in the initial theme appears also to hint at the second subject in the finale of Paderewski’s A minor Piano Concerto, as do two of the variations in Dale’s Sonata. As a piano solo, Prunella was published by Stainer & Bell in 1923. It had originated as a piece for violin and piano during Dale’s time at the internment camp at Ruhleben, a fact which might invite us to glimpse deeper shadows in its hushed nostalgia.

Night Fancies was published by Ricordi in 1909. Its subtitle, ‘Impromptu’, is vindicated by an initial sense of rapt improvisation and a quality of Innigkeit again comparable with Schumann—notwithstanding one melodic twist which recurrently but, doubtless, unconsciously recalls Yum-Yum’s alliance with the moon in The Mikado. This music rises to a more expansive climax than Prunella, while its bell-like sonorities hint at a closer engagement with incipient Impressionism than anything heard so far. The central passage, a mercurially chromatic scherzo, again invites comparison with the early maturity of Bridge. Tchaikovsky is said to have commented that, for the composer, every piece becomes a dress rehearsal for the next; and here one senses that the composer of the D minor Sonata knew how to exploit an embarras de richesse. A reprise of the opening section again rises to a broad climax before the music sinks poignantly to rest in its home key, D flat major.

Keenly interested in Debussy and Ravel as well as in Russian influences and, one suspects, the outputs of such composers as MacDowell and Grieg, York Bowen forged a personal language subtly distinct from that of Dale. His pianism, well able to convey muscularity or delicate finesse according to need, contributed to an overall fluency and enhances the impression in his work of expansive substance. Yet often his individual sonata movements are surprisingly compact. Bowen retained a conventionally Classical conception of form and, despite an apparently Romantic rhetoric and the outward textural ebb and flow in his music, maintains a certain consistency of emotional temperature. Arguably his work articulates more a sheer love of music, and of the dependably Platonic spiritual consolations of creativity, than it does an expression of self, in all the contradictory moods and passions that might entail. In this respect, as in formal and dramatic terms, it sits at a certain distance from the structural and dramatic complexity of Dale.

Bowen’s disarmingly attractive Miniature Suite in C major of 1904, the first of four written during his early years of relative celebrity, remained unpublished until issued by the Anglo-French Music Company in 1919. The ‘English Rachmaninov’ sobriquet with which Bowen was saddled later is especially inappropriate to these three urbane movements, whose pianistic dress recalls first the valse caprice idiom of Johann Strauss-transcribers such as Tausig and Schulz-Evler, then the nocturne and Liebestraum manner of Chopin and Liszt. The title Humoresque would have been no less suitable for the finale, a light-fingered toccatina which, pianissimo, accelerates towards the end before vanishing as abruptly as a conjuror’s handkerchief.

While the mature Bowen found it easy to pour out urbane, well crafted music, largely unchanged from the Miniature Suite (the opening Humoresque is one of several pieces dedicated reciprocally to Dale), the massiveness of Dale’s artistic ambitions and ideals perhaps came to weigh too heavily upon him. This set a psychological barrier for many years between him and their realization, where before had sat only the untrammelled confidence of youth. Looking back in 2000 at a concerto composed in 1943, the American composer Lukas Foss professed himself astonished to see how much he had made Hindemith’s technique his own rather than slavishly imitating: ‘I am reminded of what Beethoven said: “I could do things then that later I had to learn how to do.”’ In Bowen’s case, one is perhaps reminded more of the devastating way in which Berlioz framed a similar proposition at the expense of the young Saint-Saëns: ‘He lacks inexperience.’

Francis Pott © 2011

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