I remember a shrewd critic, some decades ago, surmising that the best finds in Cyril Scott were probably to be made in his voluminous chamber music. There is support for this in the three CDs of this music that Dutton have issued, which contain three most impressive works - the first two string quarters and the Sonata Lirica for violin and piano. Are the works on this new CD of equal quality?
The longest work on this CD is the half-hour First Piano Trio of 1920. It is highly representative of the `first' Cyril Scott, who won a European reputation as the English modernist of his generation, until musical fashion changed abruptly in the mid-1920s and his work began to sound out of date. For a modern listener the strong point of the work is the free rhythm (generated by expanding and contracting motifs), which creates a wonderful sense of floating, of a continuous surge, rising and falling. Notable too is the brilliance of the piano writing (reminiscent of the Piano Concerto) and the imaginative string textures. The weak point of the work (to my ears) is the harmony: beautiful in a rather impersonal way, it lacks expressivity and all sense of direction, with the result that the piece never seems to get anywhere; the climaxes are emphatic, but not clinching. In the greatest possible contrast to this sprawling work is the Second Piano Trio of around 1950 (and also on this CD), which is a model of compactness and has a more astringent harmony, though it is a weakness in all three of Scott's piano trios that the cellist follows the violinist too closely.
In this respect the Clarinet Trio of 1955 (also on this CD) is more inventive, since the great difference between the clarinet and the cello stimulated Scott to set up a real dialogue between them, while the piano part is equally distinctive. This work is a perfect example of Scott's late manner - with its whimsical, insecure lines and ever-changing harmonies, reflecting better than any music I know the actual pattern of human consciousness, with its zig-zag course and alternation between reminiscence and self-assertion.
The fourth main work in this recital is another late work, the Clarinet Quintet, which, like the Clarinet Trio, has only just been published (by Peters) but has received a number of performances over the last fifty years. As compact as the Second Piano Trio, it immediately seizes the listener's attention with its singular directness of expression. Scott had been written off as a past number by most critics as early as 1930, but it was the post-war Scott who finally achieved a wholly personal style, unlike anything else in music. This I would call the `second' Cyril Scott. This CD provides a perfect opportunity to decide whether you prefer his early music, written in the period of his fame, or his late music, written in the period of his neglect.
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