Audio sample: Toccata, op. 127 no 4
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Total time: 75 minutes 5 seconds
6 Pieces, op. 140
1. Rêverie (4’25”) 2. Capriccio (4’27”) 3. Scherzo (1’50”) 4. Ballade (5’40”) 5. Impromptu (2’48”) 6. Romance (6’01”)
3 Traumbilder, op. 83
7. Elegie (3’37”) 8. Intermezzo (2’30”) 9. Ballade (2’42”)
5 Piano Pieces, op. 127
10. Elegie (3’02”) 11. Humoreske (2’25”) 12. Romanze (5’38”) 13. Toccata (2’15”) 14. Berceuse (4’14”)
7 Pieces, op. 125
15. Capriccio (2’51”) 16. Idylle (3’41”) 17. Cavatine (3’13”) 18. Intermezzo (3’06”) 19. Silhouette (2’10”) 20. Nocturne (5’16”) 21. Impromptu (2’58”)
Our thanks to Peter Cook for supplying scores of these rare works.
While some aspects of Algernon Ashton’s life have been unearthed in recent years, and important releases on other labels have begun to reevaluate his piano works, much remains enigmatic. Born in Durham, where his father was a lay clerk at the cathedral, his family moved to Leipzig when Algernon was aged four. It was there that he completed his musical education, studying (on the recommendation of Moscheles) during 1875-79 at the Leipzig Conservatoire with Salamon Jadassohn, Carl Reinecke (see previous RDR releases) and Ernst Richter; this was followed by a year in Frankfurt with Raff and Iwan Knorr.
In 1882, his studies complete, Ashton returned to England, settling in London. Three years later, he was appointed professor of piano at the then newly-chartered Royal College of Music, where his pupils included William Yeates Hurlstone and William Alwyn. Here he remained for thirty-five years, retiring aged 60 but continuing to teach pupils privately.
Here the enigma of Ashton begins. Outwardly, his life would appear to have been one of steadfast teaching activity, doubtless enough for many of his contemporaries. But there were two other aspects to his output. One, the musical, consisted of an enormous output of published and unpublished works, many now lost, that came to include twenty-four piano sonatas and string quartets in all the keys, five symphonies, concerti for piano and violin and many piano works in shorter forms and songs. It is these latter that have mostly survived. The other aspect of his work (which gives a clue to his personality and which brought him some measure of fame before the general public) was as a voluminous writer of letters to the newspapers, on a wide range of subjects from the profound to the trivial. He became known for correcting aspects of biographical information, and particularly matters concerning graves and cemeteries, on which his knowledge was encyclopaedic, and his letters were published in several anthologies.
Ashton seems to have been – rather like his predecessor Alkan, with whom he shares several traits – compulsively creative, even given the relative indifference of English public reception, such that he could only find a publisher in Germany. Music and written material poured from him at white heat, with most of his works dating from his first forty years. One might expect from this a degree of prolixity or trivial statement, but not a bit of it. Ashton is a highly original composer and as for the relatively small number of his works currently available to examine, there is not a dud among them.
Mentioning Alkan brings two notable qualities of Ashton’s music to the fore. One is its extreme technical difficulty. While Ashton is rarely entirely outlandish or exotic in his demands on the pianist, he is uniformly severe, with the writing often cruelly exposed and leaving nowhere to hide any deficiency. If he wrote for his own performance, as seems likely, he must have been a truly astonishing pianist on the level of his more famous contemporaries. The other quality is Ashton’s intense intellectual command of his material. Like Alkan, he is motivically obsessive at times (see the Silhouette from op 125 for a good example of how the same material can be viewed from slightly different angles), but Ashton is far more influenced by the musical language of Brahms and is thus more retrospective than forward-looking for his era. Yet his music is still as English-sounding as it could be, and the blandness of the titles that the shorter pieces bear is deceptive.
This retrospective trait combines with a set of characteristics that we would perhaps cite as a stereotype of Ashton’s northern stock. His music is tough, wiry, emotionally sincere and at times extremely pessimistic, and in its plainness of utterance lacks any hint of the cheapness or sentimentality sometimes associated with his era. This, perhaps, is the key to Ashton’s personality; that he was in essence an idealist and was unconcerned with any form of acclaim save on his own terms. Others such as Rutland Boughton and Harold Truscott have pleaded his case earnestly, noting that while wholly unacknowledged publically, his compositional style was in fact extremely influential. The works on this disc add to his known legacy and further support his claim to distinction.