GMCD 7353 – Music by Armstron Gibbs (1889-1960)

Robert Atchison (violin), Olga Dudnik (piano)

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Fanfare Magazine September – October 2011

Violinist Robert Atchison and pianist Olga Dudnik have assembled a program of works for violin and piano, some of them from widely scattered sources, by British composer Armstrong Gibbs. Their program opens with Three Pieces (Gossamer, March Wind, and Silent Pool) that feature repeated phrases and congenial harmonies. Atchison and Dudnik seem most sympathetic to the composer’s combination of straightforward simplicity and harmonic subtlety; Atchison produces an insinuating tone from his instrument that allows the duo to communicate the delicacy of Gibbs’s musical sensibility.
Atchison suggests in his booklet notes that “most violinists” should take up the three-movement Lyric Sonata, which he suggests to be the equal of Edward Elgar’s and William Walton’s violin sonatas. The ardor of the duo’s advocacy makes as strong a case for the sonata as do the program notes. The sonata seems to be spun from a fiber that effectively binds together its discursive musical argument. Nevertheless, its first movement, Easy Flowing, should hardly ever disturb a listener’s equanimity. The Molto andante quasi lento that follows seems even more richly suggestive, although the warmth of its violin part, realized in Atchison’s performance with sweeping portamentos that heighten its emotional effect, also contains moments of more straightforward expressivity. The finale follows hard on, giving the first hints of rhythmic vigor; repetitions similar to those featured in the Three Pieces still play a significant role before the performers crank the music up to its conclusion.
Gibbs’s one-movement Fantasy, an early work (from 1915, according to Atchison’s notes), seems more impetuous from the beginning, and its language sounds more direct, with impassioned dialogue that the performers realize with affecting urgency and Dudnik, especially, with commanding authority. The three-movement First Sonata, again according to the notes, comes from 1918; never published, the manuscript bears, in the first movement, markings by Gibbs’s teacher, Ralph Vaughan Williams. While that first movement sounds tougher than anything that precedes it on the program, the performers bring to it the same refined and somewhat diffuse lyricism, if not the same serenity, that marked their reading of the Lyric Sonata, which Atchison assigns to 1928. The slow movement of the First Sonata, with its folklike allusions, returns to the softer side of Gibbs’s musical personality; the finale also makes what sound like folk-inspired melodic turns and builds to an energetic conclusion.
Atchison relates how Michael Pilkington reconstructed the piano part of the unpublished Almayne (after being unable to find a piano part from a supposed trio version) from the published arrangement for string orchestra. Its irresistible melodic appeal and directness of expression make it, even at 5:27 (in this reading), a worthy candidate for programming as a redolent miniature.
The Suite, which the notes assign to 1942, bearing a dedication to and premiere by violinist Adila Fachiri (sister of Jelly d’Aranyi and therefore grand-niece of Joseph Joachim), begins with a Prelude that combines Baroque-like statement with more modern rhythmic accentuation, though Atchison soars unabashedly in the middle section. The Rigaudon that follows vigorously explores the dance’s rhythmic patterns. After a heartfelt Slow Tune, a haunting Carol leads to the Coranto that brings the suite as well as the program to a satisfying conclusion.
Since, as the notes make clear, all the works on the program come from the period from 1915 to 1942, it’s striking how insulated Gibbs appears to have been from the influences that goaded Bela Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg forward. Those responding more readily to atmospheric allusions rather than to spiky assertions may find Gibbs more highly attractive than do those eager to explore principally the main line of musical developments in the first half of the 20th century. Strongly recommended for its sympathetic performances, its lively (clean yet reverberant) recorded sound, and its richly poetic musical language (idiomatic writing for violin seems here only a secondary consideration) to the latter kinds of listeners and collectors.
Robert Maxham

International Record Review March 2011

There has been a gradual revival of interest in the English composer Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960), long remembered after his death merely as a composer of light music and a well-loved teacher at the Royal College of Music. Marco Polo recorded his First and Third Symphonies, Dutton the choral Second, Odysseus, and his Oboe Concerto, reviewed in the last issue; Hyperion has issued a fine selection of his songs (reviewed in May 2003) and a CD of his works for string orchestra. Now Guild presents us with the complete works for violin and piano.
It’s very pleasant, very assured music, beautifully written for the two instruments, which should appeal to all lovers of English music in the general vein of John Ireland, Roger Quilter or the early Frank Bridge. The two sonatas are obviously the major pieces here. Unlike the other works on the disc, Sonata No. 1 in E major (1918) was never published and, indeed, was long missing until Robert Atchison and Olga Dudnik tracked down the manuscript in the LISA. Apparently Gibbs showed the work to Vaughan Williams (with whom he studied composition for a year as a mature student in 1919), and the MS carries many of the older man’s markings and suggestions. It opens with a distinctive, rather sinister loping piano ostinato that carries the violin’s main melody but soon moves to a lyric second subject redolent of Gibbs’s gifts as a song composer. This beautifully proportioned first movement is followed by a slow movement whose outer sections sound as if they could very well have originated in a song – the violin’s line seems to cry out to have words put to it – but has an effective and violinistic central development, and a rollicking finale in sublimated folk-dance style.
Gibbs’s only other violin sonata, the unnumbered Lyric Sonata of 1928, is probably the jewel of the recital, its three movements giving an effect of romantic spontaneity while exploring a much wider range of colour and harmony than the Sonata in E. In his booklet note Atchison claims it as ‘an equal to the Elgar or Walton sonatas’. I’m not sure I would place it so high, but it’s an intensely attractive piece and I was glad to make its acquaintance.
As for the remaining pieces on the programme, the Op. 5 Phantasy of 1915 is a stirring late-romantic effusion, and the Three Pieces of 1923, which have poetic titles – ‘Gossamer’, ‘March Wind’ and ‘The Silent Pool’ – are fresh, delightful miniatures: one could easily imagine any one of them as an encore piece. Readers who possess the Hyperion disc of Gibbs’s string-orchestra works will already have encountered the Almayne (1932), though apparently the violin-piano form was the original version. Based on a seventeenth-century English air, it is a surprisingly tender and expressive essay in archaism. Gibbs pursued that vein further in the last of his violin works, the Suite, Op. 101, composed in 1942 for no less an artist than Adila Fachiri. Of its five movements, four rework Renaissance dance rhythms rather in the manner of an English Le Tombeau de Couperin, but they are set around a central `Slow Tune’ which is the most substantial and most heartfelt-sounding movement, a fine example of Gibbs’s lyric gifts.
No real revelations here, I feel, but Atchison and Dudnik are first-rate advocates for these unfailingly pleasant works. Atchison has a constantly beautiful tone which is ideally matched to Gibbs’s melodic inspiration. Guild’s recording is warm and ideally balanced.
Calum MacDonald February 2011


Impressionistisches aus England

Der britische Komponist Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960) ist hierzulande relativ unbekannt. Nichtsdestotrotz bietet die vorliegende CD aus dem Hause Guild mit den ‚Complete works for violin and piano‘ allerlei Hörenswertes, das vor allem – aber nicht ausschließlich – den Liebhaber von Violin-Kammermusik erfreuen dürfte. Der Geiger Robert Atchison und seine Klavierpartnerin Olga Dudnik geben sich redlich Mühe, die insgesamt sechs Kompositionen, entstanden zwischen 1915 und 1942, auf bestmögliche Weise zum Klingen zu bringen. Das Ergebnis ist rundum überzeugend, auch wenn sich die eine oder andere Passage findet, die weitaus mehr klangliches Raffinement verdient hätte. Was beim Hörer auf jeden Fall ankommt, ist der Ernst, mit dem beide Musiker die Kompositionen umsetzen. Er spricht auch aus Atchisons kurzem Booklet-Text, der leider nur rudimentäre Informationen beinhaltet und den Zuhörer mit vielen offenen Fragen zurücklässt. Hier wäre ein substanziellerer Textkommentar sehr zu wünschen gewesen, auch um die historische Position von Gibbs besser verstehen zu können.


Das Besondere an den hier versammelten Kompositionen ist ihre Affinität zu einer vom musikalischen Impressionismus beeinflussten Ausdruckswelt: Gerade in den früheren Werken finden sich Passagen, die an die Klangwelten von Komponisten wie Eric Satie und Claude Debussy erinnern, während etwa die zur gleichen Zeit entstandene Musik von Zeitgenossen wie Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius oder Arnold Bax ganz andere Töne anschlägt. Es ist der Primat des Melodischen, das – häufig sehr lyrisch aufgefasst – in dieser Kammermusik im Vordergrund steht, in den reizvollen Stimmungsbildern der ‘Three Pieces’ (1923) gar in eine großflächig angelegte pastorale Stimmung mündend. Zu Recht bedauert Atchison, dass den Werken von Seiten der geigenden Zunft viel zu wenig Aufmerksamkeit gewidmet wird. Der beste Beleg für ihre Qualität ist indes die außergewöhnlich schöne ‘Lyric Sonata’ (1928), nach der ‘Sonata No. 1 in E’ (1918) das zweite Werk dieser Gattung. Doch auch die leicht ungestüme ‘Phantasy’ op. 5 (1915), das ‘Almayne’ (1932), eine ganz dem Gesang verpflichtete Bearbeitung einer volkstümlichen Melodie mit Variationen, und die deutlich an barocken Vorbildern orientierte fünfsätzige Suite op. 101 (1942) haben viele Reize.

Möglichkeiten subtilerer Gestaltung

Atchinsons Vortrag überzeugt durch viele Abstufungen, auch wenn die Musik durchaus noch stärkere klangfarbliche Abstufungen vertragen hätte. So bleibt auch das Zusammenspiel mit Dudnik manchmal hinter den Möglichkeiten der Musik zurück: Mehr Nuancen hätte man sich vom Akkordspiel der Pianistin gewünscht, einen zarteren, vielleicht auch geheimnisvolleren Zugang zu den darüber liegen melodischen Linien vom Violinisten, ein wenig mehr Aufmerksamkeit für unscheinbare Details von beiden. Dort etwa, wo sich, wie in der ‘Phantasy’ oder der ‘Lyric Sonata’, ständig die Stimmungen ändern, hätten sich Übergänge fließender gestalten lassen, hätte die eine oder andere agogische Verzögerung die Wirkung unterstützen können. Und gelegentlich hält sich Atchison bei der Wiedergabe der verschwenderischen Melodien auch zu stark zurück, lässt eine gewisse Emphase vermisse, die hier sicherlich gut hingepasst hätte. Ansonsten ist das Zusammenspiel sehr überzeugend und technisch sauber, in der von kontrapunktischen Satztechniken durchzogenen »Suite« gar besonders transparent. So hat die Platte auf jeden Fall viele Reize: Nicht zuletzt stellt sie einen wichtigen diskografischen Beitrag dar, der vielleicht dazu anregen mögen, der Musik von Gibbs mehr Aufmerksamkeit zu schenken.

MusicWeb International February 2011

Say the name Armstrong Gibbs – he didn’t like his given first name Cecil – to most even well-informed music-lovers and the only piece you are likely to have mentioned is the slow waltz Dusk. Fair enough, it is a meltingly beautiful piece lifted from a high quality orchestral suite Fancy Dress but this really is just a small part of the picture even within the context of the suite which remains all but unknown. As with many composers burdened with the success of a single work this tells a fraction of the whole story. Recent years have seen gaps in the Gibbs’ recorded oeuvre steadily filled in but the field of his chamber music has remained under-represented. Hence the appearance of this disc containing the complete works for violin and piano is all the more welcome. Particularly when the performers here have a proven track record of commitment to the Armstrong Gibbs cause – they are two-thirds of the London Piano Trio whose recording of the complete trios was well received on this site recently. Violinist Robert Atchison has also been appointed the artistic director of the Armstrong Gibbs Festival in the composer’s home village of Danbury, Essex. So it is probably fair to think that these players know as much as any currently performing about this music.
I have to admit to having rather a soft spot for Armstrong Gibbs’ music although in all honesty I’m not sure I would ever say he is one of the great lost masters of the English Musical Renaissance – there is little of the revelation of the recent Arnell symphonies although much pleasure is to be had. Gibbs’ Third Symphony The Westmorland written in direct response to the tragic loss of his son killed in action during the War contains for me his deepest and most compelling music. Yet much of the rest is marked by real craft and no little melodic gift. These are much in evidence on this disc rising on occasion to moments of considerable musical power and conviction. And conviction is a word that certainly applies to the performances too. Atchison plays with passion and technical security although as recorded the sound he makes is not as purely sweet and lyrical as some players. Pianist Olga Dudnik is fully equal to her role which – excepting the Sonatas – is more of an accompanying rather than equal musical partner. The engineering is good without being as good as some of the Potton Hall recordings I have heard from other sources – personally I would have preferred a fraction more air around the instruments and more weight from the piano. But that is a question of taste not that the recording here lacks anything as such.
The music presented here falls quite neatly into the central third of Gibbs’ life between 1915 and 1942. The disc opens with the Three Pieces from 1923. Robert Atchison supplies a brief but enthusiastic liner-note and is more taken with these simple pieces than I. They belong to that large body or works whose provenance hovers between the salon, the tea room and the music lesson. Their simple picturesque character is reflected in the titles; Gossamer, March Wind and The Silent Pool. In performance I am sure Atchison is absolutely right to choose a style free from any kind of mannered or arch phrasing or musical point-making. However, Gibbs lacks the extraordinary gift of an Elgar to write miniatures which somehow breathe the same air as the greater works. No doubt grateful to play and certainly well crafted they remain very minor examples of their creator’s art. Of the three works the final The Silent Pool is the most distinctive with an appealingly languorous lilt which the players capture with apt simplicity.
Atchison believes the Lyric Sonata Op.63 from 1928 to be the equal of the Walton or Elgar Sonatas. I am not sure that it stands that degree of elevated comparison but for sure it is a delightful and immediately rewarding piece. Singing lyricism is the key. The first movement gradually unfurls to a climax of considerable power before breaking into a more urgent passage. But this mood passes quickly and the singing nature of the movement prevails. In all of the bigger works recorded here the closest resemblance is that of Moeran. It is music that edges towards the chromaticism of Bax without quite the emotional range or turbulent landscape. Conversely, I am sure many listeners will find the simplicity here something of a relief in comparison to Baxian convolutions. The finale in particular has the pounding offbeat dancing feel of a Moeran-style celtic jig. In almost all of these works Gibbs avoids the use of much double-stopping which serves to emphasise the linear style of his writing.
The Phantasy Op.5 which is programmed here to separate the two sonatas is another confident concentrated work. Written in 1915 I assume the title was chosen to reflect the popularity of the ‘several movements in one’ format promoted by the Cobbett Chamber Music prize. Curiously this is the work here that sounds most Elgarian. I say curiously because the phantasy form was one towards which Elgar was never drawn. But Gibbs’ writing – again essentially linear and lyrical has an urgency that recalls the older composer. To the ear alone is sounds basically monothematic but without the development/alteration of the basic material which the term phantasy would strictly imply. Aside from the sonatas this is the boldest most muscular music on this disc. Which brings me to the Sonata in E. Great credit to the performers for unearthing this rare and impressive work. Never published, the manuscript was tracked down to the USA and performing editions were created for this recording – as they were also for the Phantasy, Suite and Almayne. A particular part of the fascination is that this work was written while Gibbs was under the tutelage of Vaughan Williams and the manuscript shows the teacher’s markings and positive comments. But this is far from being a student work and at no point does it become a sycophantic homage to the senior musician. Indeed, it is the work I enjoyed most on the whole disc. The very opening with the piano providing an open chorded ostinato has instant appeal – strangely pre-echoing the very opening of Elgar’s Symphony No.3. The lyrical second subject is on more familiar Gibbsian territory. Gibbs is never a composer who is going to storm the citadels of harmonic modernity. Atchison feels the first movement in particular shows the influence of RVW but I would have to disagree. Aside from the almost modal opening and an occasional folk-song inflection I would say there is nothing of Vaughan Williams here at all. One little mystery, if the work was written in 1918 as the liner states how could it have been under Vaughan Williams’ tutelage since he was still on active service in France and Salonika? Perhaps his help came prior to the 1921 first performance. The central slow movement – Andante molto espressivo – is another fine example of Gibbs’ gift for writing disarmingly simple nature evocations. Again there is an occasional celtic twist to the melodic outline that reminds me of Moeran with some of the keyboard counterpoint sounding like John Ireland in pastoral mood. The emotional range of this movement is not great but in a curious way its deliberate modesty adds to its appeal. Again the performance benefits from a similarly sincere and unmannered approach. The spritely finale is bright eyed and good natured, indeed the whole work seems totally immune to what one assumes must have been a dark prevailing national mood as the Great War lumbered to its close. Perhaps this last movement, the shortest of the three seems too brief and insubstantial to balance the rest of the work and the rhetoric of the very ending; strong piano chords against scalic violin work seems somewhat tacked on and abrupt. But without a doubt this is a work that deserves to be heard and I hope that with the creation of a performing edition it will now be published so that other violinists can add it to their repertoire.
The Almayne which follows again makes virtues of the simple and lyrical. Collectors might well know this through the string orchestra version played by the Guildhall Strings on Hyperion. This works shows as well as any the pure craftsmanship that Gibbs has. He takes a 17th Century English air and subjects it to a series of simple but beautiful variations. Utterly lacking in display or any kind of attention seeking you can’t imagine this appearing in many concert programmes or indeed anywhere except on the lists of the Associated Board. But that would be our loss as this superbly poised performance shows. Indeed this single short piece encapsulates all the virtues of composer, performers and production in a delightful five minutes. A Classic FM work if ever there was.
The form of the baroque dance suite seems to have appealed to composers again and again from Parry to Grieg. Gibbs’ foray into the form follows the accepted pattern; here we have five movements using ‘old’ dance names as titles with the central Slow Tune providing the emotional heart of the work. More melancholy than some of his other slow movements it has to be said that stylistically and harmonically it seems rather at odds with the lighter faux-baroqueries of the outer movements. The work as a whole was written during Gibbs’ wartime sojourn in the Lake District but the year before the personal upheaval of the death of his son so the mood is still relatively sunny. The fourth movement Carol is one final example of this peculiarly English penchant for gently wistful nostalgia. Gibbs is one of the finest exponents of this but there are many other English composers – Alec Rowley and Robin Milford are just two masters of this deceptively simple style – who have yet to be fully explored let alone appreciated. The final Coranto is energetically enjoyable and brings the disc to a happy close even if it lacks the personality of much of the other music presented here.
So a treasure trove for those who enjoy the lyrical English pastoral tradition. A well-filled disc produced with real care and love by all those involved – right down to a beautiful watercolour of Danbury – Gibbs’ long-time home and final resting-place – on the cover. As mentioned above there is much other English music for violin and piano out there waiting to be rediscovered and reassessed. On the strength of this disc the duo of Robert Atchison and Olga Dudnik would prove to be insightful and reliable guides – more please.
Nick Barnard
So a treasure trove for those who enjoy the lyrical English pastoral tradition.

MusicWeb International Thursday September 23 2010

This is the latest in a developing line of Guild discs. The other two are both Tovey collections: String Quartet and Aria and Variations (Tippett) on GMCD7346 and Piano Trio, Piano Quartet, Sonata Eroica (London Piano Trio, Robert Atchison and Ormesby Ensemble) on GMCD 7352. Robert Atchison’s translucent bone-china tone is fine, fragile and sweet with a touch of tartness amid the silver. He is complemented by the sensitive and attentive Ukrainian pianist Olga Dudnik. Their strengths play well with the lyrical understatement and yieldingly enthralling modesty of Gibbs’ music.
The Three Pieces are masterfully light of heart, touching, not at all superficial and not salon music in any way. Gossamer is wonderfully memorable for its fairy bell ostinato and March Wind is surprisingly reflective given its title. A lovely and loveable piece of at times lively pastoral lyricism. Gibbs ends boldly with more pastel shaded invention in Silent Pool – a touch of Ireland in its temperament but a less subtle less congealed harmonic weave. Sybil Eaton premiered the Finzi Violin Concerto and championed the Holbrooke concerto as well as the first sonata by Howells. She is the dedicatee of the singing Lyric Sonata – fleet-footed and alive with nourishment for the heart. One wonders if Moeran ever heard this sonata for its spirit might well have possessed the Moeran Violin Concerto. The Phantasy is suitably rhapsodic. The Sonata in E minor – lost until very recently – is graceful but strikes its roots back into the same territory as the violin sonatas by Dunhill, Rootham and Ireland 2. The outer movements have the jaunty sanguine rusticism of Vaughan Williams. The Almayne is a tender and lissom work which in its fragile bloom is redolent of Finzi’s Introit. The latest work here is the five movement Suite with its sequence of Bachian titled and fragranced movements: not neo-classical – closer to capering and meditative Capriol than Pulcinella. The notes are in English and German. The notes are by Robert Atchison himself and they are a model of succinct expression. Only pedants will do more than groan at the persistent misuse of “it’s” and the misspelling of “Aeolian”. In every important musical respect this is a triumph. I do hope that Atchison and Dudnik will look out the three violin sonatas of Josef Holbrooke. The Second is a version of The Grasshopper Violin Concerto – itself to be released by CPO in 2011. This is a lovely disc which will appeal to anyone who has any feeling for Delius or pastoral Finzi or Milford or RVW in Lark Ascending mode.
Rob Barnett