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Algernon Ashton: Piano Music, Vol. 1

Ashton / Grimwood
Release Date: 02/08/2011 
Label:  Toccata Classics   Catalog #: 63   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Algernon Ashton
Performer:  Daniel Grimwood
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 14 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

A. ASHTON Piano Sonatas: No. 4 in d, Op. 164; No. 8 in F, Op. 174. Nocturne and Menuet, Op. 39. Four Bagatelles, Op. 79 Daniel Grimwood (pn) TOCCATA 0063 (74:25)

I have already raved about the virtues of the music of Algernon Ashton (1859-1937) previously in this journal ( Read more style="font-style:italic">Fanfare 34:1, a twofer of mainly piano sonatas played by Leslie De’Ath on Dutton). I was sent a copy of the first volume of Ashton’s music for cello and piano (Toccata 0143) in the same package as the Grimwood, but this has already been reviewed (again, positively) by my colleague Maria Nockin in Fanfare 36:5 and so is set aside here.

Inevitably, comparisons will center on Grimwood and De’Ath for this review for the two sonatas and the Nocturne and Menuet , although it is worthwhile mentioning that Grimwood includes two pieces not on De’Ath (opp. 39 and 79); conversely De’Ath includes the four Clavierstück of op. 72 as well as the Fifth and Sixth sonatas. Both discs include sterling insert notes. De’Ath writes his own, while Grimwood enlists the services of Malcolm Macdonald (an expert on English music and editor of the Cambridge University Press journal Tempo ).

The Nocturne and Menuet was published in 1888. Macdonald rightly identifies late Brahms in the beautifully harmonious Nocturne. If this piece is charming, the ensuing Menuet is even more so, starting as pastiche baroquerie before lighting on robust Brahmsian terrain. Both players come out superbly; in the end, it is the Menuet that enables a preference to emerge. It is Grimwood who finds the charm here (without demeaning the music) and who is the more intrinsically musical of the two players.

Grimwood places the Bagatelles in between the sonatas, as a kind of extended intermezzo. The strategy works perfectly in a straight listening of the disc. Printed in Leipzig in 1892, all of them contain hints of the same referencing of baroque gestures and forms of the Menuet above. They are tiny (the longest is 2:15) yet each is gem-like. Grimwood’s control of texture is especially apparent in the second ( Andante cantabile ), where the sustaining pedal is used just the right amount, with detail perfectly preserved. Larghetto con gran espressione might seem a touch steep for a piece only 2:12; indeed, the piece sits on the fence between charm and depth. All is shaped with the utmost care by Grimwood; a toccata, deftly dispatched, closes the group.

We hear the Eighth Sonata, which is possibly Ashton’s last surviving composition, first in Grimwood’s program. Grimwood’s view is open, almost Spring like; De’Ath takes a slower line, emphasizes warmth more and, in comparison with Grimwood, sounds almost ponderous. (Grimwood is 7:36 against De’Ath’s 9:49). It is Grimwood, also, that best brings off the tolling bell effects of the second movement ( Lento: con gran espressione ). He keeps the music flowing, while respecting the Lento indication. Grimwood is much more exciting in his grittily determined scherzo (once more, De’Ath is somewhat staid in comparison); the finale finds Grimwood emphasizing the music’s Brahmsian traits to better effect; De’Ath is more careful here and threatens to lose the thread at several points.

The Fourth Sonata, not published until 1952 (in Berlin), is, as Macdonald presciently points out, eminently Schubertian in bent (and, as the music’s excitement intensifies, Macdonald’s reference is to Erlkönig ). Here, De’Ath is less fluid than Grimwood, but arguably more exciting. The first movement of this sonata is an impressive structure, and later includes some identifiably Brahmsian bass jumps. Grimwood again triumphs in the Largo assai , where his lyricism and perfectly projected melodies are most satisfying. De’Ath, unfortunately, is prone to lose the sense of line. Honors are more evenly distributed in the virtuoso finale (presumably the virtuoso element was the determining factor in placing this movement last on the disc).

Interested readers may wish to know that a search on Google Books will bring forth an interesting chapter on Ashton’s piano sonatas (1890-1910) from a book entitled The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 by Lisa Hardy, which may aid in enhancing appreciation of these gems. It may even encourage the purchase of the present disc. I do hope so.

FANFARE: Colin Clarke
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Works on This Recording

Nocturne & Menuet, for piano, Op. 39 by Algernon Ashton
Performer:  Daniel Grimwood (Piano)
Period: Post-Romantic 
Venue:  Old Granary Studio, Beccles, Suffolk 
Length: 10 Minutes 3 Secs. 
Piano Sonata No. 8 in F major, Op. 174 by Algernon Ashton
Performer:  Daniel Grimwood (Piano)
Period: Post-Romantic 
Venue:  Old Granary Studio, Beccles, Suffolk 
Length: 25 Minutes 30 Secs. 
Bagatellen (4), for piano, Op. 79 by Algernon Ashton
Performer:  Daniel Grimwood (Piano)
Venue:  Old Granary Studio, Beccles, Suffolk 
Length: 7 Minutes 24 Secs. 
Piano Sonata No. 4 in D minor, Op. 164 by Algernon Ashton
Performer:  Daniel Grimwood (Piano)
Period: Post-Romantic 
Venue:  Old Granary Studio, Beccles, Suffolk 
Length: 29 Minutes 23 Secs. 

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