Piano Sonatas nos. 1 and 3 – Piano Sonata no. 2 (II Adagio) – Five Preludes – Autumn

George Rowley piano

NAXOS 8.574479

Gurney’s piano music has been slow to emerge on CD. Alan Gravill’s 1990 disc for Gamut (his only commercial issue before his untimely death) included nine Preludes, with further premières appearing on Mark Bebbington’s excellent recording for Somm in 2004.

George Rowley, a pupil of Bebbington, plays the published five Preludes with fluidity and understanding. However, the chief interest of this disc arises from three piano sonatas, partially incomplete but never before heard. 

It was not until the publication of Philip Lancaster’s comprehensive worklist in 2006 (The Ivor Gurney Society Journal, vol. 12) that these pieces were able to be placed in context. Before this scholars had been reliant on brief allusions to their complex gestation in Gurney’s correspondence. 

Autumn was the only one of two Poems (originally called Moods of Nature) to be completed), and the dark Third Sonata with a Beethovenian second movement proved ‘a hard and futile grind.’ The one fully-completed movement of the Second Sonata from 1919 (‘…work goes not well – a piano sonata has proved more difficult than is pleasant’) is a deeply affecting song without words. It is most probably a tribute steeped in sorrow (as Gurney might have said) to his recently deceased supporter Margaret Hunt, the violinist who was also the dedicatee of his First Sonata.

The First Sonata is the earliest piece overall here. Brahmsian in scope, Schubertian in restlessness, it dates from 1910 when Gurney was in the final months of his apprenticeship under Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral. It is likely to be one of the first works perused by Stanford when Gurney took up his composition scholarship at the RCM the following year. In this work, especially towards the ends of the first two movements, some of Gurney’s characteristic impulsiveness and apparently ambiguous constructs of form and tonality may be noted. Although there are plenty of moments in Gurney’s songs where similar charges may be levelled, such traits are more evident on a larger scale. 

The pervasive perception that his material was assembled so shakily that it was about to fragment under its own white-hot impetus is, perhaps, the cause of many supreme technicians from Stanford (who termed him ‘unteachable’) to Britten, misunderstanding or eschewing Gurney’s work. However, in his well-paced accounts, with momentum, linear projection, and beauty of tone in abundance, Rowley makes an excellent case of persuading the listener of the music’s cohesive qualities. As a result, these revelatory works speak powerfully of a troubled genius working at great intensity. This is an essential purchase, and given the bargain price of Naxos, why hesitate? 

Review by Andrew Plant