Belfast-born composer Howard Ferguson has been a good candidate for revival now that the modernist choke hold has been broken; his music has been little heard in recent decades, but between the world wars it was a common presence on concert programs in the British Isles. The Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 8, that opens this Naxos release was premiered and subsequently championed by no less than Myra Hess. Ferguson's music was, in the words of annotator Richard Whitehouse, "inherently yet never defensively conservative," and his response to contemporary trends took various forms including, in the end, silence; he stopped composing in 1959, although he lived for four decades after that. The four works recorded here differ from each other stylistically. The Piano Sonata, an intense work written after the death of Ferguson's mentor, pianist Howard Samuel, weaves elaborate motivic development into its Romantic and tonal language, suggesting perhaps what Brahms might have sounded like if he had lived 75 years later and been British. The Five Bagatelles, Op. 9, are perhaps the strongest pieces on the program. Based on five-note motifs suggested, perhaps as a sort of friendly challenge, by South African composer Arnold van Wyk, they are tight little lyric pieces, each about a minute long, without a hint of sentimentality. The Partita for two pianos, Op. 5b (the work also exists in an orchestral version), is a sort of fantasia on the Baroque dance movements the title suggests, and the song cycle Discovery, Op. 13 (for which no texts are provided, apparently even online, and in the readings by Phillida Bannister they're needed), moves in a more chromatic direction. Pianist Raphael Terroni, one of several young performers exploring the large corpus of British 20th century music, finds the tension and rigor beneath Ferguson's seemingly conventional surfaces.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 8|
|Discovery, Op. 13|
|Five Bagatelles, Op. 9|
|Partita for Two Pianos, Op. 5b|