Simon Callaghan piano


Since the days of Percy Grainger, Scott’s piano sonatas have fallen from the repertory, although with four earlier recordings the original version of this 1908 work has at least a fair presence on disc. 

At over 13 minutes the first movement is a substantial accomplishment; like a carefully nourished hothouse vine, filigree tendrils curve back around and under themselves while the mood veers restlessly between sombre, tranquil and quietly ecstatic. However, the endlessly shifting time-signatures, and reliance on brief evolving motifs, make it a challenge to elucidate. After several hearings some landmark moments have landed, but for me the final effect still remains enigmatic.

The second movement is more – though still not very – straightforward. I would be tempted to call it Baxian, but while the piano writing is happily less clotted than Bax, the mood and intention are also less clear cut. Scott may have meant to channel his flow of (external?) inspiration directly, but to the uninitiated the result can sound formless. The music passes almost without notice into the sprightlier third movement, but after an initial burst of vigour, the music relapses into largely languorous contemplation – or lassitude, if less sympathetic.

The last movement opens with a fugal figure, which jars after so much romantic efflorescence; however, what follows is no academic fugue, and soon we are plunged back into a thicket of decorative notes, which somehow achieve a rather abrupt and conventionally grand ending. The notes mention Messiaen and Sorabji as reference points, and Scott’s teacher, Iwan Knorr, apparently designated this movement ‘a masterpiece’, so who am I to demur?

In the mammoth Cyril Scott Companion Scott specialist Leslie De’Ath explores the differences between the two versions of the Sonata in head-spinning detail: the conclusion of various writers seems to be that this revision is at once simpler and more complex! One day when I’m feeling much stronger I will sit down for a compare and contrast listening session.

Of the two short pieces At Dawn is straightforward to a fault; a simple refrain simply repeated. The wistful Pierrot Triste suggests the melancholy behind the clown’s mask. It was a modest hit for the composer. 

At 39 minutes this disc seems neither fish nor fowl in marketing terms. However, since so few buy physical product these days perhaps that does not matter. No praise can be high enough for either Callaghan’s dazzling pianism, nor his adventurous programming. While the recording is as good as ever from this eminent label, this is a disc to which I will (have to) return, and it is strongly recommended to the patient and dedicated.

Review by Kevin Mandry