FERGUSON Piano Sonata in F minor. Discovery. Five Bagatelles. Partita for Two Pianos

FERGUSON Piano Sonata in F minor. DiscoveryFive BagatellesPartita for Two Pianos – Raphael Terroni, Vadim Peaceman (pns); Phillida Bannister (contralto) – NAXOS 8.572289 (60:11)

Howard Ferguson (1908-1999) was an English composer and musicologist, born in Ireland. Though he lived a long life, his composing career was rather brief, lasting less than 30 years, and resulting in only about 20 works. My prior exposure to his music was limited to an excellent early violin sonata recorded by Jascha Heifetz. Ferguson was a contemporary and close friend of Gerald Finzi. But while Finzi’s music was identifiably English to the bone, clearly descended from the lineage of Sir Edward Elgar, Ferguson’s inhabits a more international neo-romanticism.

The most imposing of the four works presented here is the Piano Sonata in F minor, completed in 1940, and written in response to the sudden death of Ferguson’s teacher and mentor Harold Samuel. Introduced by Myra Hess, it is a dramatic and turbulent work, its opening movement setting much the same tone of emotional duress as, say, the opening of the Barber sonata, not to mention many lesser-known American neo-romantic piano sonatas of the sturm und drang variety. Its second movement draws upon a poignant lyricism reminiscent of Finzi, although it meanders a bit as it develops. The finale returns to the discontent of the opening, concluding without a sense of emotional resolution. Like all the music offered here, the sonata is a solid, sincere effort, with potent ideas, but falls just short of achieving true excellence. There is a sense of straining for tragic profundity, limited by a reliance on conventional romantic piano figurations and standard gestures that are not employed arrestingly enough to fulfill the intended level of expressive intensity. Pianist Raphael Terroni makes a strong case for the work, as he does for each of the pieces represented here.

The other large-scale work is the Partita for Two Pianos, completed in 1936. This is a romantic expansion of the Baroque suite concept, blended with the concept of a four-movement sonata. For example, the first movement is both a French Overture and a sonata-allegro movement. The slow movement, in essence a sarabande, projects a lovely lyricism. Again this is a competently wrought work of authentic musical sensibility, but it fails to sustain interest throughout, digressing into passages of routine elaboration. There is also a version of the work scored for orchestra. In this performance, pianist Raphael Terroni is joined by Vadim Peaceman. The performance is generally good, although coordination between the two is imprecise enough that one never forgets one is listening to two pianos.

Ferguson’s Five Bagatelles are somewhat more substantial than the title may imply. This group of pieces from 1944 was also championed by Myra Hess. The opening section is quite compelling—surprisingly so. The four subsequent pieces are gracious morsels, but again there is excessive reliance on routine figurations.

Discovery is Ferguson’s only song cycle, a group of  five short settings of poetry by the short-lived writer and painter Denton Welch. Composed in 1951 for contralto and piano, the cycle was championed by Kathleen Ferrier. Again the music is sincerely expressive, but fails to take flight. The performance of  contralto Phillida Bannister can be termed only adequate.

In conclusion, this new release rates a “B-plus” on all fronts—presentable performances of pleasant music that falls short of scaling the heights. I would recommend it to those with a comprehensive interest in English music of the 20th century.