Coles • Holst
Coles: Variations on an Original Theme; Sketches; Valse in D etc; Holst: Toccata; Two Pieces for Piano; Egdon Heath etc
James Willshire (piano)
Delphian DCD34209 68:46 mins
How wonderful it is to hear this music given a real performance rather than the usual dutiful playthrough. Holst’s Toccata, often despatched with hard efficiency, is here transformed into a sparkling showpiece, and even the dated modernism of his 1920s folksong arrangements is given a delicate charm. I’m less certain that listeners will gain much from the piano arrangement of Egdon Heath, an already skeletal work which, more than The Planets, owes much of its effect to subtle orchestral colours.
Cecil Coles, a friend of Holst’s killed in the First World War, appears here through several student works as a budding composer of some promise, with occasional hints of eccentricity. Beethoven is the most obvious influence, whether the two sets of variations, or the incomplete Piano Sonata modelled after the Pathétique. Yet, rather like Ives or Grainger, Coles also dabbled in music of a less elevated and frankly popular style: Trianon Gavotte is effectively a music hall-style song; and the ‘Chanson’ Triste et gai, after the first minute of apparently despondent gloom, suddenly decides to cheer up with a rendition of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ – made funnier by James Willshire’s courteous and musicianly treatment of the entire piece. Most characteristic are the Five Sketches, which though clearly rooted in Victorian music – whether Schumann or Sullivan – show individuality in their unpredictable harmonic progressions.
None of this music quite reveals the genius we now mourn, yet Willshire gives compelling accounts throughout – he is most definitely a pianist who deserves to be more widely heard and known.