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Piers Lane brings all his pianistic panache to this splendidly eclectic recital of works from the 1700s to 2019, in a programme exploring very different aspects of the dance.
When I was about twelve years of age, I discovered Baroque keyboard gems in Schirmer’s two volumes of Early Keyboard Music edited by Louis Oesterle (1854-1932). I was particularly taken by Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Air tendre, with a Courante connecting it to a three-part set—Allemande, Sarabande et Gigue—arranged to create an overall suite in E minor. I started my first-ever full-length recital with the suite, following it with the Sonata in B minor by Franz Liszt. I received a somewhat condescending review for the programme from a Melbourne critic, who suggested that when Mr Lane was a little older, he’d realize one doesn’t juxtapose an inconsequential suite by an early French opera composer with the monumental Liszt sonata. To be fair to him, I had followed the sonata with two Rachmaninov preludes, all before the intermission—not something I would deem artistically satisfying these days, but imagine my sense of justification when one of the first recitals I attended at London’s Wigmore Hall (it must have been 1979) was Shura Cherkassky playing my Lully and the Liszt sonata as a first half! Imagine, too, my surprise when I discovered rather recently that the five Baroque dance movements were not by Lully at all—they’d been misattributed by Oesterle and were actually by John Loeillet, born in Ghent (in the Spanish Netherlands at the time) as Jean Baptiste Loeillet, but known as ‘the London Loeillet’ after his move to the English capital and to avoid confusion with his first cousin, the composer Jean Baptiste Loeillet of Ghent! To muddy the waters even more, his surname was occasionally published as ‘Lully’ or ‘Lullie’, though he was entirely unrelated to the Italian-born French opera composer. While not as prolific nor as historically important as the French Lully, the London Loeillet was no slouch: he was an adept performer on the recorder, flute (the transverse version he helped popularize in England), oboe and harpsichord, was published by John Walsh in London, and was responsible for presenting Arcangelo Corelli’s twelve Concerti grossi to London audiences. He published thirteen pieces as three ‘Lessons for the Harpsichord or Spinet’. The Air tendre (‘Slow Aire’ in the English publication) is the second piece in Lesson 1, the Courante (‘Corant’) the third, the Allemande (‘Almand’) the first. The Sarabande is the third piece of Lesson 2, but transposed from D major to C major, and the Gigue (‘Jigg’) the fifth piece of Lesson 1.
I first came to the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski through his works for violin and piano: the enchanting Fontaine d’Aréthuse from the three Mythes (Op 30) and the haunting Nocturne and Tarantella (Op 28) hooked me in, to revel in piano pieces like the early Études (Op 4), the dense yet miraculously diaphanous textures of the Métopes (Op 29) and the sensuous virtuosity of the Masques (Op 34). Szymanowski was born into an illustrious and artistic family on 3 October 1882 in the village of Tymoszówka, now in Cherkasy Oblast, Ukraine. He commenced music studies with his father, but from 1901 attended the State Conservatory in Warsaw, an institution he himself directed from 1926 to 1930. He was a bit of a nomad by nature and travelled widely in Europe (he founded the Young Polish Composers’ Publishing Company in Berlin, 1905-12), North Africa, the Middle East and the United States, at the same time absorbing such diverse influences as Islamic culture, ancient Greek drama and philosophy. After treatment in Davos for a virulent form of tuberculosis, he settled in Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains in the early 1930s and his composing soon reflected the inspiration of Polish folk music and in particular the music of the Polish Highlanders, the Gorals. He wrote: ‘My discovery of the essential beauty of Goral music, dance and architecture is a very personal one; much of this beauty I have absorbed into my innermost soul.’ This resulted in, among other works, many mazurkas for the piano, including the Op 50 set of twenty, the first four of them dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, the legendary Polish-American pianist and bon viveur, for many the greatest-ever Chopin player. Speaking of Szymanowski’s early works, Rubinstein said: ‘His style owed much to Chopin, his form had something of Scriabin, but there was already the stamp of a powerful, original personality to be felt in the line of his melody and in his daring and original modulations.’ Wagner and Strauss, Debussy and Ravel all went into the brew that is true Szymanowski, but the distinctive ingredient, as with Chopin, was the culture of his native land. The two mazurkas I play here are intended to be performed together—Szymanowski connects them with the word ‘enchaînez’. The distinctive winding melody of the first, with its bass pedal point sounding nearly all the way, its rubato and mystical decorative melismas in outer sections, and its more active and chromatic middle section, contrasts perfectly with the insistent rhythms of its faster, more angular partner, marked ‘Rubasznie’—brusquely.
One of my postgraduate professors at the Royal College of Music was the much-loved South African pianist Yonty Solomon (1937-2008), himself one of the few students of the revered British pianist Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965), who, with the help of her dear friend the Irish composer-pianist Howard Ferguson (1908-1999), founded, programmed, performed in and directed the extraordinary wartime series of lunchtime concerts that took place every weekday from October 1939 to April 1946 at the National Gallery in London. In 2006 my friend Carmel Hart came up with the idea of celebrating those concerts in their original venue, Room 36—the Barry Rooms—under the glass dome on the second floor of the Gallery, and asked me to help programme and organize the event. I ended up directing what became the annual Myra Hess Day until 2014, and was able to programme many remarkable concerts over the years, including Yonty’s final performance (Bach’s Goldberg Variations), the legendary violinist Ida Haendel, who had played in the original wartime concerts, and the Contiguglia brothers, who had been students of Dame Myra herself. I also commissioned the show Admission: One Shilling, in which Dame Patricia Routledge voiced Hess’s words and thoughts while I played ten pieces or movements from her programmes. We have performed that work over ninety times in various countries. I also once replicated Dame Myra’s first lunchtime programme at the Gallery and it included her selection of thirteen of Franz Schubert’s hundreds of brief dance movements, many of them just two lines long, all of them imbued with his inimitable magic.
Another of Yonty Solomon’s students at the Royal College of Music was my dear friend Timothy Murray, who also studied piano with Peter Wallfisch and composition with Anthony Milner and John Lambert. He is listed here as T K Murray to differentiate him from the other British composer Timothy Murray, born in 1977! After Yonty passed away, Tim wrote an elegy for piano and string orchestra, Landscape in memoriam Yonty Solomon (2009), which I premiered in London and also performed with the Camerata of St John’s in Australia. The violinist Jack Liebeck and I premiered Lullaby at the Wigmore Hall, and with cellist Louise Hopkins I recorded Play Acting and Rannoch Moor on a disc of Tim’s chamber music with piano. I really owe him a great debt of gratitude too, because for years I called on him to arrange works of my choice to end the final gala concerts in the annual Australian Festival of Chamber Music, which I directed in Townsville, North Queensland, from 2007 to 2017. The arrangements had to include all of the players still standing at the end of the ten-day festival. Recorder and harpsichord are not perhaps the instruments that would spring instantly to mind for an arrangement of the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’—making that work takes a special sort of talent! But Tim does have a very special talent, and his Danse barbaro, while undoubtedly conjuring the spirit of Bartók’s Allegro barbaro and arabesques akin to Debussy’s, speaks with a distinctive voice and an innate understanding of keyboard technique. The piece is dedicated to Tim’s partner, the Australian pianist and teacher Grant Mead, and was premiered by me at the Wigmore Hall in 2022.
I have known Robert Constable for decades, firstly as director of the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music in Australia (where I performed many times and gave the first-ever concert on an Australian Stuart & Sons piano), then as director of the schools of music at both Auckland and Canterbury (Christchurch) universities in New Zealand, and more recently as the curator of a series of concerts in his home, Serenata, in Kangaroo Valley, south-west of Sydney. Robert has a special and rare talent: he has improvised to silent films for the past twenty-five years, always in a 1920s style to match the action on screen. This Slinky foxtrot ‘Nocturne’ is music for an imaginary 1920s film scene. Says Robert:
I composed the piece for my friend and colleague, the Australian concert pianist Piers Lane AO. Just prior to commencing work on the piece, Piers and I had talked about encores to fit specific recital occasions. Like all my silent-film music, this piece started life as an improvisation at the piano. Having established the basic ideas under my fingers, I then polished the music into a stand-alone piece away from the instrument. Since writing this work for Piers in 2019 I have gone on to produce concert versions of the musical ideas from my silent-film improvisations. These new concert pieces are based on themes that have stuck in my head for twenty or more years. The imaginary scene I had in mind for A slinky foxtrot ‘Nocturne’ was of an elegantly dressed and amorous couple. They have been out enjoying themselves all night and have ended up in a nightclub at 2am; alone on a dimly lit dance floor they create a slow, graceful and beguiling ‘slinky foxtrot’. This is music of the night, hence the word ‘nocturne’ in the title.
Franz Liszt’s Tarantella, on the other hand, doesn’t feel anything like intimate night music for a pair of lovers. Composed in 1859, it comes from the suite of three pieces Venezia e Napoli (S162), published as a supplement to the second book of the Années de pèlerinage: Italy (S161). Its ‘presto e canzone napolitana’ are based on a tarantella published by Guillaume Louis Cottrau (1797-1847) as part of his Passatempi musicali, from which sprang much of the popularity of the Neapolitan love song form. It is the second version of No 4 of Liszt’s original Venezia e Napoli, S159 (there called ‘Tarantelles napolitaines’). The tarantella folk dances derive their collective name from Taranto in the Puglia region of Italy and are perhaps the form of traditional southern Italian music most exploited by composers, their fast-moving tempi allowing for virtuosic thrills and spills, as immediately evident in Liszt’s G minor dance. Though it commences in rather minatory fashion at the bottom of the piano and boasts a devilish repeated-note opening theme, it doesn’t plumb the depths of many of the Années de pèlerinage pieces, nor even of a work like the Totentanz (S126i, a paraphrase on the Dies irae), but it excites and entertains with a glittering display of pianistic possibilities, alternating between 6/8 and 2/4, captivating with lyrical coloratura decorations and all the fun and games a pianist of Liszt’s stature could so effortlessly conjure.
I have never met Mark Saya in person, but we were virtually introduced through a mutual acquaintance in 2009 and I have enjoyed corresponding with him and exploring and performing his piano works ever since. I included his Barcarolles (a beautiful and intriguing combination of Offenbach and Chopin) on the first Piers Lane goes to town recording and was delighted when he dedicated Habaneras (subtitled ‘An operatic paraphrase’) to me in 2012. As with Barcarolles, the composer wittily and voluptuously combines motifs from disparate works to weave a tapestry both colourful and evocative, languorous and spirited by turns. The Cuban/Spanish dance title derives from Bizet’s ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’, Carmen’s Act 1 aria, and the ambience is undeniably heightened through the intermingling of Debussy’s Spanish-inspired ‘La soirée dans Grenade’ from Estampes and ‘La sérénade intérrompue’ from Book I of the Préludes. Since 1992 Mark Saya has taught theory and composition at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. This is the first recorded performance of Habaneras.
Isaac Albéniz’s (1860-1909) Seguidillas is the fifth and final piece of the Cantos de España (‘Songs of Spain’), Op 232, published in its final form in 1898. Córdoba and Seguidillas were added in 1894 to a previously published set of three, containing Asturias, Oriental and Sous le palmier. The seguidilla is a dance or song form of four to seven verses inflected with flamenco rhythm. The piece is redolent of the Spain that Albéniz was to capture so vividly and individually in the complex pieces of the suite Iberia, composed in the last four years of his life. By contrast, the F sharp major Seguidillas is straightforward in form and style, but its colours and rhythms caught my teenage imagination and I still find it tellingly evocative. I remember one Boxing Day being invited by the composer Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) to perform for his guests, mainly local villagers, in his stately home outside Edinburgh. He had also invited a flamenco troupe from Madrid, and standing close by while they strutted their stuff, stamping passionately or flinging themselves fearlessly across the polished wooden floors, left an indelible impression.
The British composer Alan Charlton (1970-2018) is somebody I should love to have known. He was a close friend of my recording producer Rachel Smith. In the long interim between sessions for this album, Rachel wondered if I might commission a new piece by Alan. She was keen to encourage him at a rather desolate time—he was dying of neuroendocrine cancer. I didn’t know his work, but said I’d be delighted to consider something, if it fitted in with the general direction of this album—it had to be based on the dance and short! I was immediately taken by the piece he produced in 2017 under great physical duress. He revised it slightly in February 2018 and died in Brussels on 7 September that same year. I feel humbled and privileged to be the dedicatee of the Fantasie-Mazurka. It speaks with an individual and lyrical voice, its dissonances and modulations darkly colourful, drone basses and characteristic rhythms belying its origins in the Polish dance familiarized by Chopin and Syzmanowski, but exploring something beyond, its evanescent ending inextricably linked to the composer’s fate.
Leopold Godowsky was born in Žasliai (nestled between Vilnius and Kaunas), Lithuania, in 1870. He couldn’t remember if he’d had any piano lessons as an infant, but by the age of five (like Camille Saint-Saëns) was already composing and performing. He started touring from the age of nine, had some lessons in Berlin, then made his American debut in Boston at the age of fourteen and continued to give concerts in the States and Canada, returning to Europe in 1887 for engagements in Paris and London, when he was in fact mentored and befriended by Saint-Saëns. At twenty he returned to New York to begin teaching, married at twenty-one and became a citizen of the United States the next day: not a man to waste time! At thirty he based himself in Berlin, touring to perform and teach, but nine years later took over Ferruccio Busoni’s masterclasses at the Vienna Academy of Music. Busoni (1866-1924) declared that he and Godowsky were the first composers since Liszt to add anything of significance to keyboard writing. The Great War drove Godowsky back to the States, though he continued to enjoy a worldwide playing career until a stroke during a recording session in London in 1930 cut short his public performing life. Luminaries like Rachmaninov and Hofmann declared him the greatest pianist of them all, the ‘Buddha of the Piano’, the ‘Pianist of Pianists’, his technical equipment and understanding second to none. His works include a massive five-movement Piano Sonata in E minor (1911); the innovative Java Suite (1925), written after a visit to Indonesia and exposure to gamelan music; a gigantic Passacaglia (1927) containing forty-four variations, a cadenza and fugue on the opening of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony; plus, most renowned by far, the supremely difficult fifty-three Studies on Chopin’s Études (1894-1914). He made numerous arrangements of other composers’ music, and Schubert’s incidental ballet music to Rosamunde, D797 (1823), was given his special contrapuntal and chromatic treatment in 1922, though with a far lighter touch than many of the Chopin arrangements.
Benjamin Godard’s delicious Mazurka No 2 in B flat major, Op 54, is dedicated to Anna Yesipova (1851-1914), the brilliant Russian pianist admired by Tchaikovsky and Liszt, and whose students included names like Serge Prokofiev, Leff Pouishnoff, Maria Yudina and Leo Ornstein. There is an extant acoustic recording of her playing Godard’s Gavotte in G major from an Edison cylinder made in 1898. Godard himself was born in Paris the same year Chopin died there (1849). He was Jewish, a violinist and a prolific composer. Regarded at his best in smaller works like the second mazurka, he nonetheless composed five symphonies (the Symphonie légendaire from 1886 considered the best of them), eight operas (Jocelyn the best-remembered, partly for its ‘Berceuse’), two piano concertos, a violin concerto, four sonatas for violin and piano, two piano trios, more than 100 songs—the list goes on, and he died at the tender age of forty-five!
I have often played Une tabatière à musique (‘A musical snuffbox’) by Anatol Liadov (1855-1914) as an encore in recitals, but also his comic song I danced with a mosquito, fourth of the eight orchestral Russian folk songs, Op 58, here arranged for piano. The orchestral strings can sound particularly annoying and mosquito-like in the trills, but perhaps the piano eventually swats the thing better! The piece should not be confused with Liadov’s Dance of the mosquito.
Billy Mayerl (1902-1959) was a great favourite in our household when I was growing up in Brisbane. My father used to play Marigold (1927) to us, or Song of the fir tree or Autumn crocus, and the gentle syncopations and attractive tunes proved irresistible. Railroad rhythm, published in 1938, steps things up a notch in tempo and pianistic challenge. Mayerl’s imagination is striking—the bells and whistles, wheels on tracks, the huffing and puffing and clangour of train travel all ring out delightfully from these pages. Mayerl was a complete natural! Born in Tottenham Court Road, right by London’s West End Theatreland, he won a scholarship to study at the Trinity College of Music while still a young boy and soon after performed Grieg’s piano concerto at the Queen’s Hall. As a young teenager, he played in dance bands and accompanied silent films, and a little later was the pianist in the prestigious hotel Savoy Havana Band. His recordings and broadcasts brought him ready renown, and in 1925 he gave the British premiere of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue, his ‘lightning fingers’ filmed by slow-motion camera. He wrote for revues all over the country and composed musicals for which he formed a twenty-six piece orchestra. In 1926, with great enterprise, he went into business and started a ‘Correspondence Course in Modern Syncopation’, which proved popular and became a worldwide affair with more than 30,000 subscribers. The war interrupted proceedings and momentum was never fully regained. It finally closed in 1957, two years before Mayerl’s premature death. During the war he led his own band in a radio programme, Music While You Work. Designed to support wartime factory workers, the programme’s enduring popularity ensured its continuance for a further twenty years. Mayerl’s prolific and delightful, if somewhat eccentric, oeuvre seems to be undergoing a richly deserved revival.
Aged seventeen, I commenced a four-year degree course at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in my hometown of Brisbane, studying piano under one of the most enchanting, if redoubtable, figures in my life—Nancy Weir, a child prodigy from country Victoria, who found herself, through a surprising series of events, studying under the great Artur Schnabel as a young teenager in early 1930s Berlin, and later at the Royal Academy of Music in London. As an adult, she had extraordinary musical profundity, but at the same time, as the child of an Irish publican, a love from infancy of sometimes rather risqué bar tunes and all sorts of popular ditties and novelty piano pieces. On a board in her studio was a photo of her with Una Winifred Atwell (the ‘Queen of the Ivories’ and, like Nancy, a student of the Royal Academy who recorded Grieg’s A minor concerto and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue alongside all her boogie-woogie hits), the pair of them smiling widely and quite obviously delighted to be playing duets together. I never met the Trinidadian Atwell, though from the early 1970s until her death in 1983 she lived in Sydney. With fifteen major-hit singles and over twenty million record sales, she was the most popular female entertainer in the UK and Australasia in the 1950s. Her repertoire of ragtime, boogie-woogie and other popular light classics hit the spot: she topped the charts with Let’s have another party (a first for a black person and the only female instrumentalist to attain that position) and was the first UK-based artist to sell four million singles. One of the most successful of these was the Black and white rag, published by George Botsford in 1908, first recorded by the Victor Orchestra the following year, and only the third ragtime piece to sell over a million copies of sheet music. In 1941 a recording by pianist Wally Rose revived interest in the piece, and then in 1952 Atwell’s recording went gold with a million sales; her honky-tonk playing, often on a dodgy upright piano (‘my other piano’) bought by her husband and manager Lew Levisohn from a Battersea junk shop for fifty shillings, became the stuff of legend and household fame. The music was later used as the theme tune for the BBC’s snooker show Pot Black and in 1985 for the computer game Repton. Atwell’s version extends the original to the upper reaches of the instrument.
The waltz La tartine de beurre, K Anh.284n—or Das Butterbrot (‘Bread and butter’), alternatively named Valse à un doigt (‘Waltz on one finger’) or Tempo di valse—is probably not by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at all, and may or may not be by his father Leopold. Will we ever know? Legend had it that Mozart composed it at five years of age. It is also possible it comes from Henry Charles Litolff, who supposedly first published it in Brunswick. Whoever wrote the piece had a witty mind, enjoying the conceit of spreading butter on bread through using one finger to glissando the octave scales, all under the veneer of an elegant little Classical waltz. Of course, the piece is in C major, so there are no pesky bumps into black keys. The whole of the right-hand part may be played using one finger, though usually pianists don’t take the singular approach that far, restricting it just to the sliding scales.
If this album is all about dance music of one type or another, Byron Adams’s … la tristesse amoureuse de la nuit is about the dance that didn’t happen! It’s the second piece of Illuminations, a suite for piano composed in 2008, taking its name and inspiration from the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). Drenched in voluptuous melancholy, it’s as if a jilted lover sits at a piano to improvise and rhapsodize over what might have been. Left-hand chords like guitar strums underpin the outer sections, and directions in the music suggest narrative and atmosphere: ‘dark and moody’, ‘violent, sensual’, ‘refulgent’, ‘desolate’. Illuminations is dedicated to the eminent pianist Armen Guzelimian. Byron Adams recently retired as Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of California, Riverside. I have known him for decades, partly through mutual friends, and since 2007 as scholar-in-residence or on the programme committee for the Bard Music Festival in New York. As a musicologist he specializes in British and French music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His extensive output ranges from solo organ and piano works, through chamber and vocal music, to full-scale choral and orchestral works. His music is always tonal, melodic, contrapuntal, rhythmically alert, adapting traditional techniques—and never outstaying its welcome!
This programme is bookended by the Baroque. Well, kind of! Julian Jacobson (pianist and chamber musician extraordinaire, professor at the Royal College of Music and, at the time of writing, about to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday by, for the fourth time in his life, performing all of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas from memory in one day from 9am through to 10pm) has taken a highly original approach to arranging Bach. I find his point of view noble, searching, full of love and honour, but some may find his counterpoint and chromaticisms challenging! I should let Julian explain himself:
My free adaptation of Bach’s Sarabande arose from my lifelong love of the cello suites and my wish to express a favourite movement through the very different prism of the modern piano. Accordingly, the first statement of each half of the binary structure is almost exactly as Bach left it. Whereas the repeat, while maintaining the structure without deviation, is reimagined in a freer, more pianistic and harmonically enriched style—however, returning to pure Bach for the final cadence.
The sixth suite, being written for a now obsolete five-string instrument, is notoriously difficult and I did not want to make it too easy for pianists with their two hands and ten fingers. The ‘Bach’ parts are therefore given almost entirely to the left hand, which has the added advantage that the melodic line is played largely by the pianist’s powerfully singing left thumb.
My adaptation is dedicated to Piers Lane, who invited me to give the premiere in London’s National Gallery in 2008. It is published by Bardic Edition.
Piers Lane © 2023