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Hyperion Records

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The Icknield Way (1912) by Spencer Frederick Gore (1878-1914)
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67827
Recording details: July 2010
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: June 2011
Total duration: 42 minutes 2 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 Sonata in D minor
begun in 1902; completed mid 1905; dedicated to York Bowen, who gave the first complete performance the following November

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Dale’s Piano Sonata in D minor was 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).

from notes by Francis Pott © 2011

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