A Welcome Reminder of Forgotten Romantics at the English Music Festival


 English Music Festival 2014 – Day 2, Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire


Cooke, Bridge, Rosenthal, Farrar, Gurney,Duncan Honeybourne (piano), Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on-Thames, 24.5.2014 (RB)


Forgotten Romantics


Greville Cooke: Cormorant Crag; High Marley Rest; Whispering Willows
Frank Bridge: Sonata
Archy Rosenthal: Three Irish Pastels
Greville Cooke: Gothic Prelude
Ernest Farrar: Miniature Suite
Greville Cooke: Reef’s End
Ivor Gurney: Five Western Watercolours
Archy Rosenthal: Variations on the Nursery-Rhyme Hush-a-bye, Baby

Duncan Honeybourne‘s spirit of endeavour is a good match for the EMF. His Saturday morning piano recital in the Abbey introduced us to the music of English composer Greville Cooke alongside that of Archy Rosenthal (1874-1947), Ernest Farrar (killed in the last year of the Great War) and Ivor Gurney. While Honeybourne is technically not the first with Cooke – there are some examples from Philip Sear on You-Tube (Reef’s End and High Marley Rest) – he is the first to revive Cooke with such utter dedication, insight and thorough immersion in the subject.  His focus on Cooke is both resolute and shows brilliant panache. He wrote the programme note for the concert and also the booklet essay for the EMR CD mentioned below. Cooke’s shade, if he has one, must surely be proud – pride is certainly in order.

Mr Honeybourne’s EM Records CD (EMR CD022) of Cooke works coupled with solo pieces by Holst and RVW will at last afford us permanent access to Cooke’s sturdy flamboyance, dramatic fantasy and winsomely pensive musing. He also had a humorous side, as his Bargain Basement suite shows. However at this concert the audience experienced five pieces that have more in common with the stormy and poetic Rachmaninov of the Études-Tableaux and the meadows and woodland introspection of Ireland and Moeran. There are a few pastoral idylls here and the impression of lush meadows and hazy horizons can be heard in High Marley Rest and Whispering Willows, the latter dedicated to another but much more prolific British romantic, York Bowen.  These were all spectacularly put across by Mr Honeybourne who I had heard at a wonderful all-Cooke lecture recital in Leominster on 27 April 2014. On that occasion the piano – a fine instrument set in the acoustically admirable context of the classically decorated Lion Ballroom – sounded even better than the Abbey’s piano which in any event had to contend with the imposing stony spaces and vaulted ceiling of the church. Mr Honeybourne is a natural, knowledgeable and engaging communicator who addresses his audience between the solos. When this quality is coupled with pianism of rarefied emotions and storming virtuosity we know we are in the presence of a young pianist of whom we will hear a great deal more. Concert promoters and record companies should be seeking him out. I only hope that he will not lose his willingness to explore.

For all that Cormorant Crag is based on a derring-do novel about smugglers, the title is all we need. Waves crash in and thunder on wrack-strewn rocks. It’s a similar mix for the Gothic Prelude which the pianist introduced as likely to remind us of film music.Cooke defies expectations associated with a gentle churchman – he pursued a distinguished career in the clergy of the Church of England. Instead we are treated to tempestuous emotions, black depths with quick natural transitions from gentle and lucid to crashing cliff-scapes. There are other dimensions to Cooke. He was a pupil of Tobias Matthay whose Surrey Hills home is referenced in High Marley Rest. This momentarily recalls Delius and Scott but rises to some majesty. There is a touch of Amberley Wild Brooks about it also and if so then Cormorant Crag is the equivalent of the Ireland Ballade.

The Frank Bridge Sonata was dedicated to his pupil, Ernest Farrar, killed in the Great War. Once such a rarity, it occupied a position of eminence closing the first half of the concert. The single largest span in the concert paralleled the language of the same composer’s Oration and Phantasm. Honeybourne’s was a great performance. The work’s complexities and dark arbours were relentlessly explored. Every chord was relished in its weighting, sustaining and blend.

After the interval, apart from the other Cooke items, came Rosenthal’s Three Irish Pastels with an Irish curve and song. Here is simplicity of speech without being simple-minded; music that is both catchy and lucid. The Farrar Miniature Suite was also in three movements. It has a playful skip in the step and the music feels freed of cares. There’s none of the dissonance of the Bridge: echoes of an innocent age. Gurney’s Five Western Watercolours are fairly well known – at least in this company. Again the language links with the innocence of the Farrar and Rosenthal works. The fourth picks up on serenading aspects of the Gurney songs such as Epitaph while others have a kinship with the piano line in Hawk and Buckle. The generously timed concert ended with more Rosenthal who had been an assistant to Godowsky. Here was a late work written as a birthday present for his grandson, Mark who was present to acknowledge the applause. The Variations on the Nursery-Rhyme Hush-a-bye, Baby might suggest something trite but in fact from that banal little tune Rosenthal spins an impressively decorative piece. Here is the Straussian grand manner decked out in Godowskian luxuriance. This time there’s no Irishry. It’s all very romantic and virtuosic. This exciting and resourceful piece would work well alongside Godowsky’s own works and the grand piano fantasies of Ronald Stevenson.

Where next Mr Honeybourne? Do have a look at the preludes and other solo piano music of Roger Sacheverell Coke. We know from last year’s EMF and another EMR CD (review) that Festival is far from allergic to Coke. Well, if not the Coke Preludes, then perhaps we may hear this pianist as soloist in the second or third of R.S. Coke’s piano concertos? They enjoyed several broadcasts in the 1930s.

Rob Barnett


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