The forgetfulness of the Australian musical establishment where major Australian composers are concerned is a permanent irritation, but George Frederick Boyle spent most of his life in Europe and America and built a huge career while alive, yet his work is just as neglected there.Timothy Young has begun his well-deserved rehabilitation of Boyle with a CD of three major piano works, in truly excellent and ideally recorded performances.
The largest work here is the Piano Sonata of 1925, a work of Rachmaninovian scale and sweep.It begins with a fifteen-minute Moderato movement that, for all its felicities, never quite achieves the grandeur it promises. Like Rachmaninov also, is the minimal nature of his thematic material, presumably designed for maximum elaboration. Unlike Rachmaninov is the rather uninspired figuration that fails to have one hanging on Boyle’s every note. The following Andante pensieroso is cut from very similar cloth to the first movement, and at an uncontrasting tempo; even the final movement, an Allegro ma non troppo, never really cuts loose. The core problem the piece has is that despite its undeniable charm and resonance the listener—or, at least, this listener—isn’t very engaged in its rather undistinctive discourse. The slightly earlier Ballade of 1921 that opens the CD contains some truly lovely moments, and being a single movement Boyle is able to incorporate more internal contrast; it lingers in the mind more powerfully than the Sonata. The CD ends with Timothy Young’s lovely performance of the Five Piano Pieces, also of 1921. These have a degree of the same problem as the Sonata, but showcase Boyle’s imagination in a more picturesque setting and are notably more interesting.
The question as to why his work has fallen by the wayside is partly answered by the CD itself. Boyle’s musical language is rather more provincial to its own time that that of either Busoni or Rachmaninov. Indeed, the comparison is not really a fair one—Boyle’s music is probably closer to Medtner, or Josef Marx, composers to whom history has also not been kind. His harmonies are often more Hollywood than Berlin, and can be a tad hackneyed; the rhythmic life of his work is sometimes mesmerically undistinctive. His figurations can be unremarkable, with a lot of samey scales and arpeggios, and there is not really much variety of tempo, at least on this CD. In fact, Boyle’s music often resembles John Ireland’s early output. To my ears, there also seems rather a lot of aimless virtuoso meandering, and a lack of either drama or dynamic contrast—no real pianissimi, for instance. But, for all that, his music is certainly as worthwhile as much that gets performed in our postmodern era, and I applaude Timothy Young for his excellent performances of these large, pianistically challenging pieces. What we need now (it’s a shame that reviews of this kind of repertoire revival so often end with this sentence) is a comparably excellent recording of his, by all accounts, outstanding Piano Concerto.