This beautifully produced CD and booklet introduces us to what for most of us will be a new name, George Frederick Boyle. He was born in Australia but after studying with Busoni and touring the western world he ended up in America. There he taught and played, meeting the greats like Paderewski and Backhaus to whom he dedicated several works. The opening work on the CD, the Ballade, is dedicated to Leopold Godowsky whom I had thought the greatest virtuoso of the twentieth century having heard what he did in the re-arranging of Chopin’s Etudes.
This Ballade is an arresting piece, appearing somewhat sectionalised on first acquaintance and almost like a fantasia. Once heard a few times one finds that its themes recur and develop imaginatively and in a fascinating way. Even so, as Timothy Young’s notes stress, the piece is heard as “a unique improvisation”. There are frequent changes of tempo and textures “unique harmonies, dissonances and modulations”. So it’s quite apparent that in George Boyle we have an extraordinary musician - a superb pianist, technically and musically, but also a composer who knows exactly what he is doing and how to achieve it. Why, as a contemporary of Rachmaninov in an age of the Romantic virtuoso, is he such a recondite figure?
Part of the answer may lie in the fact that Boyle only occasionally seems to have visited Europe. Although his music is fascinating it is difficult to pin down a definitive style. The Ballade is emotionally searching and very chromatic but perhaps one has heard it all before.
The Sonata is a massive work of three movements. It is dedicated to the Australian virtuoso Ernest Hutcheson (d.1951) and consists of a lengthy Moderato un poco maestoso, followed by an Andante Pensieroso and finally an Allegro ma non troppo. This is where pianist Young really comes into his own with some powerful, yet also delicate and highly sensitive playing. It is an epic work in the full-blooded late-romantic style but showing some influences including Debussy - whose ‘Preludes’ Boyle had premiered in America - and Liszt in its drama and harmony. Apparently Boyle was renown as a great player of the extraordinary B minor Sonata. Boyle’s is an insiders’ piece. By that I mean a pianist’s sonata as it includes some effects that only a strong pianist could have realised. The first movement lasts longer than the other two put together, and at times it does ramble. It contains all of the motifs and themes found elsewhere and is a cyclic sonata. It’s worth getting to know the opening two subjects of the sonata form 1st movement fairly thoroughly. The “world-weary” second movement as, Young describes it, is in a clear ternary form. This leads into a “dance-like finale in B minor” (yes, that key again) which after a few, contrasting dreamy sections, culminates in “an exciting coda” which “brings the work to a convincing conclusion with the Maestoso theme (of the first movement) “entirely transformed”.
I couldn’t help but wonder how a composer of such astonishingly difficult music as the above would handle music with such a simple title as Five Piano Pieces and sections entitled Summer, Valsette, Minuet. The fact that these are dedicated to each of five talented pupils, one including Muriel Sprague, means that they are of varying difficulty. These are not the sorts of pieces you would find even for Grade VIII!
Whilst listening to the first, Summer I was gazing out onto a rare (for this summer) azure blue sky above my garden with not a breath of wind. I found this really impressionist score completely apt and enticingly lovely. The Valsette is charm itself, the Improvisation harmonically quite probing and free. The Minuet is delightfully dreamy but the final Songs of the Cascade, which is the most virtuosic, is a water fountain of thousands of notes creating a wonderland of rose-garden colours.
This piece and the CD as a whole have made me realise that Australians are even worse than we British at keeping their ‘lights under bushels’. It’s astonishing to think that for almost all of us this music will be utterly unknown and that these are world premiere recordings. The disc is glamorously presented in its cardboard case on firm and glossy paper with photographs of the composer and performer and two useful essays as well as a list of all of the benefactors to the CD company! The recording is superb and the performances miraculous, clear and a credit to the composer and to all concerned with the project.
Astonishing to think that for almost all of us this music will be utterly unknown.