Ivor Gurney Piano Sonatas Tell a Story

This release presents a selection of piano music by Ivor Gurney. Some of the music was composed immediately before the First World War. The rest soon after. Heard together, they tell a story. 

Ivor Gurney was one of the most promising composers of his generation. But that was the generation that went off to fight World War I. Gurney had suffered from bipolar disorder since his teens. 

During the war, he was on the front lines, where he was both wounded and gassed. He likely suffered PTSD on top of his disorder. In any case, Gurney was institutionalized in 1922 at age 32. 

Gurney was both a poet and composer. He continued to write verse until he died in 1937. But he stopped composing around 1929. 

Gurney’s pre-war output includes a poem for piano and the Piano Sonata No. 1. His early style mixed late-Romantic Brahms with British folk harmonies and modes. The Poem for Piano, “Autumn” has an elegiac quality. Here the “Englishness” of the melodic turns and harmonies are readily apparent.

The first piano sonata of 1910 demonstrates Gurney’s ability to handle large forms. This three-movement work is well-crafted. The structure of the sonata is there. Although it’s been modified to accommodate modal and non-traditional harmonies. 

From Gurney’s early post-war output are two other piano sonatas, and his Five Preludes. The preludes are a little deceptive. They’re a sparkling set of miniature gems. George Rowley gives them a spirited performance. But they seem to come from a different place than Gurney’s pre-war works. 

Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 were both started in 1919. The third sonata is a more complex work than the first. And it has a different character. Even at its liveliest, there’s a sense of serious purpose here. 

Gurney never completed his second sonata. The second movement stands as a torso that hints of potential. It’s a beautiful, somber work, and does quite well as a stand-alone piece. 

George Rowley plays with insight and sympathy. He’s adept at bringing out both the optimism of the early works and the pessimism of the post-war ones. 

Only a small fraction of Gurney’s music has been recorded. This is a welcome addition to that slender catalog.   

Ivor Gurney: Piano Sonatas
George Rowley, piano
Naxos 8.574479

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