Piano Quintet in C-minor
Piano Quintet in C-minor, Op.20
Piers Lane & Goldner String Quartet
Recorded 7-9 February 2019 at Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
Reviewed by: Ates Orga
Reviewed: September 2020
CD No: HYPERION CDA68296
Duration: 73 minutes
Baron Frédéric Alfred d’Erlanger (1868-1943) – “Baron Fred” to family and friends – was one of the great altruistic characters of pre-war London life. Born in Paris, British naturalised, the son of a Louisiana heiress and the German head of a French banking house, he was a noted patron of the arts associated with both Covent Garden and Beecham’s London Philharmonic. A staunch Catholic, he had interests in department stores in South America (including Harrods Buenos Aires) and railways in Rhodesia and South Africa. And he was a regarded pianist/improviser and admired composer, his output, from the 1890s to 1930s, ranging from the operatic to symphonic and choral. Among those who took up or recorded his works were Henry Wood (at the Proms, including the 1895 opening season), Boult, Barbirolli, Doráti, Moiseiwitsch, Sammons and Kreisler. In the ballet world he was associated with Nijinsky and Fokine. His only teacher, Anselm Ehmant in Paris, a family friend, schooled him well, passing on perhaps some of the advice Stephen Heller (from the Chopin/Liszt circle) had given him in 1859: “The artist with his most complicated creations, and precisely where he expresses the darkest moods, must use the simplest forms in order to give his thoughts clarity and understanding … arise, young artist, and throw yourself courageously into the sea of feelings, strengthen yourself through the masters, especially on Beethoven, and reject the old rubbish, old yellowed piano passages, old-fashioned modulations of bygone times … get away from your cozy fireside, and seek new horizons. It is the responsibility of youth not to guard itself too heavily against the storm of life”. The substance of the Times obituary (April 26th, 1943) focused on his musical achievement. “The amateur composer,” went the notice, “is a rarer phenomenon than the amateur performer and d’Erlanger was distinguished for the serious aim and the full professional competence of his work … a thorough-going Romantic [belonging to the] epoch of music that ended in 1914.”
Banker, philanthropist, connoisseur, he was a man born to wealth, culture and good manners. His second elder brother, an early proponent of the Channel Tunnel who with his wife hosted Diaghilev and Cecil Beaton among the multitude, lived in Byron’s house. Following the First World War he resided in Rutland Gate. He died in Claridges. An exotic streak ran through the dynasty. His younger sibling, François Rodolphe d’Erlanger, was a painter and orientalist who built a clifftop palace on the outskirts of Tunis (now the Centre des musiques arabes et méditerranéennes) and in 1932 co-organised the first International Congress of Arab Music in Cairo – in the event, sixty years later, my introduction to the d’Erlanger name (chapter two of Ruth F. Davis’s 2004 book Ma’luf: Reflections on the Arab Andalusian Music of Tunisia is indispensable reading).
Published by Simrock of Berlin, Brahms’s and Dvorák’s publishers, the Quintet (1901) was premiered in March 1902 at St James’s Piccadilly with a repeat performance at the new Bechstein Hall (Wigmore) a couple of weeks later. The reception was favourable. In 1929 Edwin Evans, writing in Cobbett’s, advised that “the absence of any suggestion of the portentous leaves an engaging intimacy, which makes it more agreeable to play than many quintets of the same rank but greater pretensions”. That said, speaking a 19th century language rooted in Germanic/Mendelssohnian sonata tradition (exposition repeat included, cf Dunhill) with Franco/European asides drawing on Saint-Saëns and others, it failed to draw a wider public.
These days, prejudiced possibly by the ‘amateur’ tag, and the thought of money and social influence maybe having curried favours and swayed artists, commentators tend to sit on the fence, some admiring d’Erlanger’s technical accomplishment, others finding his style formulaic with melodies weakly developed. A few years ago Jeremy Nicholas branded his “agreeably undemanding” orchestral music “somewhere between high-class Ketelbey and low-grade Elgar”. An accurate enough response timeline-wise but not an evaluation I’d want to apply to something like the 38-minute Quintet where the bones and muscles of the structure suggest a composer with not so much a short story as a serious novel in his system. The dramatized outer movements are in C-minor, with a lyrically lingering, beautifully turned Andante in E-flat (perhaps the gem of the work) and a bustling, rhythmically plangent 2/4 Scherzo in G-minor in between. Pianistically, you’d expect idiomatic writing – but the strings contribute no less vitally, with a strong melodic and colouristic presence. Assured pages, conversationally poised.
While d’Erlanger wined and dined power-brokers, Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946) – student of Stanford at the Royal College of Music, friend of John Ireland, first winner of the Tagore Medal – courted the Establishment via Eton, the RCM and the Royal Philharmonic Society and as a touring Empire examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music. An accessible unprovocative craftsman and educationalist entrenched in an English teaching tradition running from Prout through Steward Macpherson to as late as Arthur Hutchings (there are still some of the breed around), and an admirer of Sullivan and Elgar (he published books on both), he was, with Cobbett, a believer in the power, programming and practice of chamber music, which, in Lewis Foreman’s readable notes to this Hyperion release, he championed as the “orthodox” expression of his place and hour. “As companionable, healthy, and English as the South Downs on a sunny day” was how Marion Scott famously described his sizeable contribution to the genre – words penned at a time, the late 1920s, when the rurality of Guildford, Newlands Corner and the Hog’s Back was his home-spun habitat.
Sonorously laid out for the medium, the unpublished Piano Quintet (September 1904) was first performed at the Bechstein Hall in March 1905, with Parry in the audience. The outer movements are in ‘Leipzig’ sonata vein, competently cut and thematically contrasted, the stereotypically strong/weak ‘masculine’/‘feminine’ labels and cadences of English practice and terminology a century ago audibly present. A Scherzo (not so-called) and Elegy (effectively a set of variations on a viola theme in which, Foreman suggests, Lionel Tertis may “have had a hand” regarding scoring) are placed second and third. While its C-minor mood and theatre is here and there arguably more received than personally impelled, it all hangs together effectively and musically, a clearly determined young man at the helm.
Reflecting different strands of society, these Quintets of d’Erlanger and Dunhill let us glimpse an alternative side to Victorian/Edwardian musical life before the First World War – the sort of sounds that might have drifted out of Mayfair, Chelsea and Holland Park drawing rooms or down Wigmore Street on gas-lit evenings. Piers Lane, a natural chamber-music pianist, does a sterling job, sympathetic as always to the music and his colleagues, as decorative or declamatory as needed. Old sparring partners, his fellow Australians, the pre-eminent Goldner String Quartet, rise to the challenge with gusto and understanding, touches of fatigue in the Dunhill notwithstanding. Lovely viola and cello playing from Irina Morozova and Julian Smiles. Reliable sound engineering (Ben Connellan) – though I’d have welcomed a little more air and space around the strings.