Reviews 2010 - Music of Cyril Scott

International Record Review

Cyril Scott Chamber Works New
Piano Trio No.1; Trio for clarinet, cello and piano;
Clarinet Quintet; Piano Trio 2;
Cornish Boat Song
Robert Plane (clarinet); Mia Cooper (violin);
David Adams (viola); Gould Piano Trio
Chandos CHAN10575

When I was sent a score of Cyril Scott’s Third Symphony in the 1980s, he was just a name. Apart from a handful of piano pieces, his music had largely been forgotten. Yet, in his youth – the years of his published Indiscretions – he was considered a pioneer; indeed, A. Eaglefield Hull opened his biography of Scott, published in 1919, with the words “The dominant feature of Cyril Scott’s music is its originality, that is to say, its modernity. He is an innovator.” Scott greatly admired the music of Debussy and Stravinsky, enjoyed their friendship and was regarded by some as being comparable to those great composers. The fickle finger of musical fashion and taste, however, was soon to consign the music of Scott to the dusty shelves of music publishers’ store-rooms until he was re-discovered in the 1990s. Now, thankfully, much of his music is available on CD and we can reassess his apparent modernism anew. 

In fact, as his Piano Trio No.1 - the earliest work on this fine CD having been composed in 1920 - shows, Scott was really a romantic with a taste for melodies based on the pentatonic and whole-tone scales, quirky harmonies based on chords built on fourths and flexible rhythms, marked by constantly changing time-signatures. If you listen to the Trio with an Innocent Ear, you may at first think that it’s by Faure or another French composer of that period. It’s a major four-movement work lasting just over half an hour and is given a powerful and persuasive performance by the Gould Piano Trio. Scott himself was a very fine pianist (though his great friend, Percy Grainger, gave the first performance of this work) and the piano-writing is very demanding. The other three major works come from later in Scott’s life. The Trio for clarinet, cello and piano was composed for a Scott Festival in New Zealand, where it was first performed in 1958. After a substantial first movement come two short movements: an Intermezzo and a Rondo capriccioso. Again the writing is fluent and idiomatic and, although the musical ideas are less memorable than in the Piano Trio, the piece never outstays its welcome. Both in this piece and in the Clarinet Quintet that follows, Robert Plane is an eloquent and impassioned clarinettist. The Quintet is in one movement and was composed in 1951. It was inspired by the playing of Gervase de Peyer who gave the first performance. A few years later, Scott revised the work and this is the version recorded here. The playing is full-blooded and committed and, as you listen to the music, you begin to realise that Scott had a distinctive and individual voice and that he was a composer of real imagination and merit. According to Lewis Foreman, in his excellent notes, the Second Piano Trio, published in 1951, never seems to have been performed. It’s a relatively short work in two sections, the first preceded by a slow introduction and the second rounded off by an imposing coda. The mood of the music is predominantly lyrical with the piano taking the lead in much of the musical argument. Throughout this disc, the playing of the Gould Piano Trio is highly impressive. They end the CD with a delightful short encore piece for piano trio, published in 1931, the Cornish Boat Song. Despite his friendship with Grainger, Scott always maintained that he eschewed folksongs, though he was not averse to using them on occasions as he did so marvellously in his Two Passacaglias on Irish tunes. Apparently, the companion-piece to the Cornish Boat Song, the Little Folk-Dance, can be downloaded free from the Chandos web-site. Do you really need a further incentive to buy this excellent CD?

Peter Marchbank


Review by "Uncle" Dave Lewis

This Chandos disc, Cyril Scott: Piano Trios, features the Gould Piano Trio and guests clarinetist Robert Plane, violinist Lucy Gould and violist David Adams in a miscellany of mostly later Scott works composed in the chamber medium. Although all of these works were published during Scott's lifetime only one has been recorded before, the Clarinet Quintet of 1951. As a general rule, Cyril Scott's post-1930 compositions are not as immediate nor seemingly as successful as those written before that date, and the Piano Trio No. 1, written in 1920, certainly fits the mold; it's a strongly impressionistic, yet quirky and original conception that utilizes some remarkable textures and effects of string scoring. However, the remaining music, written in the 1950s save the touching Cornish Boat Song (1931), is stronger than the "general rule" would suggest, particularly the Clarinet Quintet (1951), which is a darker, more rigorous piece than the Piano Trio No. 1, replete with a latter-day romantic atmosphere that is nevertheless unsentimental in the manner of early Schoenberg, even though we never associate Scott with expressionism. The performances are strong, well-rehearsed, and idiomatic; even if some of this isn't the cream of Scott's chamber crop, the way the Gould Piano Trio and its colleagues put it over you'd think this was his best. Chandos' recording is clear and direct, though a bit quiet, yet in this case one can turn it up within reason without fear of distortion or introducing additional noise.

Reviews from
Joseph Magil
American Record Guide, November 2010

I had never heard Cyril Scott’s violin sonatas before I got this to review. I knew only Fritz Kreisler’s haunting arrangement of Scott’s ‘Lotus Land’, and thought that these would be just as delightful. Scott’s long-form music is expertly composed, but I find that it lacks the intoxicating charm of a shorter work like ‘Lotus Land’. The influences of Debussy and Scriabin are clearly audible, and Scott’s great fluency in the language of harmony is always impressive; but while this music is very sensual, I find it hard to connect to it emotionally. As is so often the case with music of composers who came of age at the turn of the last century, there is a lack of distinctively shaped, contrasting themes. I suppose that’s the idea, though; everything flows into everything else. Very mystical.

Clare Howick and Sophia Rahman are first-rate interpreters and highly polished technicians. Howick plays a Stradivarius violin built in 1721. Excellent booklet notes as usual from Naxos, which doesn’t waste tons of paper on hype, as the major labels do now. If Cyril Scott’s violin music interests you, you couldn’t go wrong with this budget disc.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, October 2010

Cyril Scott (1879-1970) was an oddball without question—poet, painter, occultist, and prolific musician, he composed over four hundred works including four symphonies, three operas and concerti for piano, violin, cello, oboe and harpsichord. For the violin he wrote about 20 pieces including four sonatas, a Sonata Lirica and Sonata Melodica (heard here). His music was admired by many, including Percy Grainger, Debussy, Strauss, and Stravinsky. Elgar admitted that many of the modern harmonies found in the works of British composers at the time had been done first by Scott.

As a result his music is defiantly hard to peg—it does not sound stereotypically “British”; in fact, echoes of Debussy and even Scriabin, whose life fits Scott’s the best and whose music has the same sort of mystical quality to it, dominate in a non-obtrusive way. This music is no copycat of those two composers but the elements of each are so omnipresent that it is impossible to miss.

The first Violin Sonata (1908) is rhapsodic and grand in nature, yet one gets the feeling that the last movement is the beginning of another set of thoughts instead of the conclusion to ones already past. But even so the work is so engaging from bar to bar that it becomes an extraordinary enigma as to why it s not played more frequently. The same is said for the Third Sonata—though composed almost 50 years later it has an offbeat insouciance to it that paradoxically draws one deeply into the music.

Don’t let the title of the Sonata Melodica throw you off; this piece is every bit the bona fide sonata like the canonical four, and even its admittedly quirky melodic elements prove to be the glue that sticks with the unassuming listener.

Each of these works has much to commend them, and there seems to be a Scott revival underway at present, with the orchestral music appearing regularly on Chandos. It’s nice to see Naxos getting in on the action, especially when they are offering such gratifyingly engrossing performances as the ones we find here by young Clare Howick and partner Sophia Rahman, who have obviously discovered the secret to Scott’s success, rapturously captured at the Coombehurst Studio at Kingston University in the UK. Recommended!

John France
British Classical Music: The Land of Lost Content, October 2010

...the three Sonatas presented in this CD are all important contributions to the genre.

The First Sonata was composed in 1908 and was premiered in March of that year. It was dedicated to the composer Ethel Barns. This is a large four movement work that lasts for nearly half an hour. At the time of its performance it was regarded as extremely advanced and technically challenging. It is full of big themes that are marshalled with skill and power. Typically the shifting harmonies used in this work are gorgeous—some reviewers have suggested that parts of this work are ‘Delian’ in their mood.

The first movement is tightly controlled, in spite of often being rhapsodic in mood. The music is not written in a formal sonata-form as there is no recapitulation of the two main themes. In fact, after the development section the music moves immediately to a powerful and imposing coda.

The ‘andante mistico’ is exactly that: it is deliberately unfocused music that creates an impressionistic mood that captures the imagination in spite of the fact that it reminds the listener of a number of composers including Ravel, Ireland and Delius. Yet this is beautiful music that remains in the mind long after the work has concluded.

Eaglefield Hull has noted that the third movement, which is really the ‘scherzo’, has been likened to the ‘playfulness of monkeys in a tropical forest.’ It is not a metaphor that strikes me as being pertinent, save that it does highlight the total contrast between this music and the preceding ‘exotic melancholy’ of the second movement. However, monkeys or not, the ‘allegro molto scherzando’ is exhilarating and balances fine violin playing with piano writing that includes glissandi and spread chords. There is a reflective middle section that nods back to the previous movement; however this does not last long, before the exuberance returns and brings this short scherzo to a rollicking end.

The final movement is similar to the first in that it is composed in a modified sonata form: it has two contrasting themes and once again dispenses with a formal recapitulation. These subjects are developed with care and skill, providing music that never loses interest.

This Sonata is deeply felt and blends feelings of highly charged emotion with a sense of resignation. Somehow Cyril Scott has, in this Sonata managed to square that particular circle.

The second piece is subtitled Sonata Melodica. This three movement work was composed in 1950 and was first performed at the Music Teachers Association Concert in London the following year. The conventional wisdom appears to be that this is, by definition more relaxed than many of Scott’s chamber works. However, I have listened to it twice and I do not really feel that it is particularly less intense or involved than other works of this period. In fact, the melodic and harmonic resources used are both complex and at times aggressive. Yet, there are moments when a filigree of magic takes to the air. Certainly, the first movement, which is nearly as long as the second and third combined, manages to present a huge contrast in emotional resources. On face value the ‘adagio ma non troppo’ would seem to be reflective and ‘pensive’ but even here there are attempts to destroy the mood by the use of forceful piano chords that dispel the enchantment. However the serenity finally triumphs and brings the movement to a quiet close. This mood of tranquillity is shattered by the dynamic ‘allegro vigoroso’ that balances a well-crafted toccata-like melodic line with something a lot wilder and perhaps improvisatory. The conclusion of this movement and of the work is positive, but somewhat disturbing. The calm of the last bars of the adagio are not reiterated.

The latest piece on this CD is the Third Violin Sonata, written in 1955 when the composer was 76 years old. It certainly cannot be seen as the work of an elderly man at the end of his composing career. In fact Scott was to live and compose until he was nearly ninety years old.

From the opening unaccompanied violin statement this work unfolds its argument in a lyrical, but much more astringent manner than the previous two sonatas. The programme notes suggest that in spite of the first movement being signed ‘tranquillo’ the music gains a darker colouring and ‘expressive fervour’. Here and there pastoral phrases ease the tension but never entirely dissipate the concentration of the argument. The intensity is relaxed a little as the violin recollects earlier material, before bringing the movement to an ‘impassioned’ close.

The second movement, a ‘pastorale: andante amabile’ is described as ranking ‘amongst the most lilting and unaffected in all Scott’s chamber output.’ Certainly, this music is in total contrast to the previous movement. However, the musical material is not in any way ‘typically’ pastoral: this is not a sunny landscape in the Home Counties, but something just a little bleaker. In fact, this is deeply introspective music that haunts the listener.

The final Rondo Capriccioso is in complete contrast, yet this is not a jolly rondo that casts care to the winds. It is an intense piece that balances a vigorous tune with a ‘secondary theme [that] brings a measure of calm’ but never manages to raise the largely dark tones of this movement and work.

All the music on this CD is played with conviction and sympathy. To my knowledge, there are no other recordings of these three Sonatas available for comparison; however my impression is that these works are given an absolutely ideal performance.

The sleeve-notes are well written by Richard Whitehouse and provide sufficient information for listeners to appreciate the music. Apart from a few pages about the First Sonata by A. Eaglefield Hull in his 1918 study of the composer, there is virtually nothing written about these works: there is a need for a major study of the music of Cyril Scott. When this book is eventually written it will be discovered that Scott’s music developed in a very subtle but quite definite manner over the years of his composing life. There is also a tension between his art music and his more commercial pieces: there is a huge difference between the potboilers such as Rainbow Trout, Lotusland and the Irish Reel and the slow movement of the Third Violin Sonata. However, great as the differences may be, they are clearly by the same composer.

Finally, these three Sonatas are all important and rewarding pieces that deserve to be in the repertoire. I have a personal preference for the ‘capricious and ruminative’ First Sonata; however, the other later works are both absorbing and demanding. The Second is a little more ‘relaxed’ in mood whilst the last is ‘one of most inventive works from Scott’s later years’.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, October 2010

Debussy, whom Scott knew, and to whom he dedicated his Second Piano Suite, op.75, wrote, “Cyril Scott is one of the rarest artists of the present generation” and the Suite was well received when Scott gave the premiere in Paris. In 1918, Paul, Trench & Trubner published a biography of Scott by A Eaglefield Hull, which begins with the statement, “The dominant feature of Cyril Scott’s music is its originality, that is to say, its modernity. He is an innovator.” Later, “In studying Cyril Scott’s music we shall find there the key to his richly–endowed personality, a personality modern, intuitive, sensitive, complex, unified and sincere.” Big claims indeed. But did Scott deserve them?

Certainly, some of the big, early, scores are impressive but I cannot find the “modernity” or the voice of an “innovator”. Obviously my thoughts are coloured by my knowledge of what followed, but although the music is strong, and always interesting, whether it be a salon piece such as Lotus Land or his setting, for chorus and orchestra, of Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci (1916). It’s in his use of harmony where the interest lies. A friend of mine, on hearing Scott’s 3rd Piano Sonata for the first time, commented, “it’s amazing how he can keep going in such an idiom!” and there it is. Scott’s hidden depths are not always immediately apparent. One tends to take harmony for granted and listen to the top line—the tune—but here one must listen underneath the façade.

These three Violin Sonatas span Scott’s whole career. The 1st Sonata is a bold work, with a vigorous opening movement, full of a young man’s passion and fire, a slow movement of some restraint, a brief semi-playful scherzo and a finale of some melodic interest. Here is no enfant terrible, but a young composer flexing his compositional muscles and revelling in the combination of violin and piano. The other two Sonatas are from the latter part of Scott’s life and are more relaxed and approachable. Perhaps they aren’t quite as tightly constructed as the 1st Sonata, even though both have three movements as opposed to the earlier work’s four, but they do seem to be more fairly laid out for the two instruments. The melodic writing is more to the fore here and thus the works are easier to follow.

This is a valuable addition to the growing number of recordings of Scott’s music. Howick is a strong player, always in tune with the music she is playing and giving full blooded and romantic interpretations. Sophia Rahman is a splendid pianist and is a true duo partner in these works...very worthwhile issue.

Blair Sanderson, September 2010

The three violin sonatas on this CD date from the early and late phases of Cyril Scott’s long career as a composer, yet there is not a dramatic change in his style and expression between them, even though the Sonata No. 1 was written in 1908 and the Sonata Melodica and the Violin Sonata No. 3 were written in 1950 and 1955, respectively. The lyrical strain of Scott’s music is a constant element and a crucial connection between all three works, and their shared impressionistic harmonies, discursive developments, and ambiguous moods make them seem quite closely related, as does their idiosyncratic tonality. On this 2010 Naxos release, a strong feeling of continuity is maintained in the smooth and evenly controlled playing of violinist Clare Howick and pianist Sophia Rahman, who deliver the works with subtlety and a wide range of tones and sonorities that keep these sonatas interesting, even when they seem overwhelmed with their brooding emotions. The sound of this album is vibrant and clear, and every pitch is fully audible...

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2010

In the past few years I have reviewed a number of Cyril Scott discs on various labels, and have become increasingly aware of the sad neglect into which his music had plunged following his death in 1970. Born in 1879 in the musically unfashionable northern England, his ‘serious’ output did fall victim, even in his own lifetime, to his sizable output of salon music that lodged his name in that genre. Trained in Germany as part of the group that included Roger Quilter, Balfour Gardiner and Percy Grainger, his return to the UK was marked by favourable comments for his compositions. In the field of chamber music the works for violin and piano were an important sector and included four sonatas. So what should you expect? The harmonies come from the world of French Impressionists; the erotic language is taken from the school of the late romantics, and its strongly melodic input rejecting the language of the serialists. The two sonatas on the disc show how little his style changed through his life, the First coming from 1908 and the Third from 1955, their potent sensuality and intensity highlighted by Clare Howick’s very generous vibrato. They are both sizeable works, the piano part often an underpinning voice, but when allowed to speak, as in the solo opening to the second movement of the first sonata, it has that beautiful mysticism we find in Debussy. Sophia Rahman, one of the most highly regarded accompanists in the UK, is a most sensitive partner, and a highly nimble one in the scherzo of the first sonata. The Sonata Melodica, from 1950 is much in the same language, the 1721 Stradivarius singing elegantly throughout the disc.