William Hurlstone was born in London in 1876. His musical talent was evident from an early age and, at 18, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. There he studied piano with Algernon Ashton and composition with Stanford who declared him his best pupil. When he left the college, Hurlstone was forced to support his family by teaching, hack arranging and conducting but still found time to compose, producing a substantial quantity of work. He died aged only 30 in 1906, a victim of the bronchial asthma which had plagued him all his life. (It's odd that the photograph on the front of the booklet shows him holding a pipe.)
The earliest work on this disc is the piano concerto, a work which, I am sure, Stanford approved of. It dates from 1895. The concerto is a highly attractive, lyrical work which makes a welcome change from the usual barnstorming concertos of the period. Indeed, the entry of the soloist could hardly be more unassuming. The first movement of this four movement concerto is built on two lyrical melodies (the second of which, oddly for a concerto whose tonic is D, is in Bb major) and a couple of brief linking ideas which become prominent in the development section. The recapitulation simply omits the linking ideas.
The ensuing scherzo is unusual in having two trios, both mildly syncopated and equally melodious. The brief slow movement (or is it an introduction to the finale?) is for piano alone and is largely built on the first theme of the first movement. The main theme of the finale, a sonata structure, is also related to the concerto's opening idea. Its second theme is yet another lovely melody. The movement is then regularly structured. After a brief cadenza Hurlstone manages a quicker coda and the work ends as a Romantic concerto should. Although he is not absolutely note-perfect, Parkin's performance could hardly be more sympathetic.
The "Fantasie-Variations on a Swedish Air" date from 1903, just a few years after Elgar's "Enigma Variations", and is another fine work though, at least at a first hearing, it is less attractive than the concerto. It begins with a long introduction which presents recitative-like material. This will be combined with the Swedish tune in the variations. The tune uses the Aeolian mode and is easily assimilated. The first few variations are clearly related to the theme but it is not long before each variation's relationship with the tune is less clear. Harold Truscott, in the notes which come with these discs, describes this work as "what amounts to a one-movement symphony in the guise of variations" but there is still a sectional feel to the music and there is no real suggestion of extended passages corresponding to symphonic movements. The "Variations" lack the melodic richness and memorability of the concerto but do suggest that, had he lived, Hurlstone could have become a fine symphonist.
The Piano Trio dates from 1901. (The notes suggest that it was written shortly after the Piano Quartet but I think this is unlikely; it certainly sounds earlier.) It is as clearly structured as the concerto and almost as attractive melodically. The first movement is the usual sonata structure. The exposition is repeated. As in the concerto, the first movement's development section makes considerable use of transitional material. The slow movement is dominated by the opening piano melody, soon taken up and extended by the 'cello and later given to the violin. The scherzo is straightforward and includes a typically melodious trio while the finale is unusual in that it begins and ends in the tonic minor. Its splendid development section includes some impressive contrapuntal writing featuring both of the movement's main themes.
The Piano Quartet is a more elaborate work tonally as its opening, veering at once into the relative major, demonstrates. This is totally unlike the opening pages of either the concerto or the trio. There is, however, a lyrical second subject, in the unexpected key of Eb major. Again transitional material (in this case, a "scotch snap" figure) features prominently in the development section. The slow movement is built on another of Hurlstone's lovely lyrical melodies while the scherzo's syncopated main idea is also typical of the composer. The return of the scherzo deftly combines it with music from the trio. The finale opens by referring to the first movement's main idea but the contemplative mood is soon dispelled by the perky main theme. The quartet's dark opening idea is never far away but the work ends optimistically.
Because of its melodic richness it is the concerto I most often return to but all the works on these discs are worth getting to know. The performances are fine as is the recording.
Between the last years of the Nineteenth Century and the mid-point of the Twentieth, England was gifted a vast range of highly talented composers - only a few of which are known to the broader public. Among the virtual unknowns is the genius that was William Hurlstone.
Hurlstone compositional carrer was severely curtailed by the illness that would eventually kill him, and by the difficult financial circumstances of his family. He managed to complete only six works in his desperately short life, including this utter gem of a concerto. For me, the first movement of this piece is as fine as any piece of music written by any English composer. It is hauntingly melodic, lyrical, and will move any listener. To my ear, it is also a piece that belongs to an earlier era - for although written at the end of the Nineteenth Century, it has a certain quality of a work written maybe sixty or seventy years earlier. It is, however, utterly original and not derivative in any sense.
The recording is excellent and the other pieces on the disc are all engaging in their own way. But first and foremost, it is this pain concerto that will haunt you - utterly beautiful and an incredible work for a young man still in his teens. What a treasure we lost in this composer, but a least we have this concerto. You will never hear better from any other composer hailing from this country, not even the undoubted giants of Vaughan Williams and Elgar.