Cecil Coles, Gustav Holst piano music. James Willshire. © 2021 Delphian Records Ltd

CD Spotlight

Technical Brilliance

James Willshire plays piano music by Cecil Coles and Gustav Holst, heard by GERALD FENECH

'James Willshire is renowned for his virtuosity and intelligence of his keyboard mastery, and all this is on display in this recital.'


In the archives of the National Library of Scotland there is a mud- and blood-stained musical score. It is a movement from Cecil Coles' orchestral suite Behind the Lines. At the bottom of the title page, in Gustav Holst's handwriting, there are these words: 'This score is a copy of the first movement of the Suite which the composer sent to me about Xmas 1917. It is supposed that the other movements were destroyed by a shell during the retreat in March 1918. Cecil Coles died of wounds April 28th 1918 in France. G T Holst' For record purposes, Coles in fact died on 26 April 1918.

Listen — Coles: Allegro (Sonata in C minor)
(track 13, 0:00-1:00) ℗ 2021 Delphian Records Ltd :

Holst had first met the young Scottish composer with his genuine love and talent for music, combined with his never failing geniality, enthusiasm and energy, in 1907. Cecil Coles had turned up at Morley College at the point Holst was trying hard to raise standards, and a musician like Coles was what he needed. With this knowledge available about what the two composers meant to each other, it really makes sense to pair them together in this recital of some of their piano works.

Listen — Coles: Triste et Gai
(track 22, 0:23-1:17) ℗ 2021 Delphian Records Ltd :

This survey of Coles' works for the keyboard reveals a composer finding his voice in pre-war Britain, France and Germany, a poignant and distinctive mixture of happy-sad, as perceptively described by Nigel Osborne in his booklet notes. After the war, Holst's own style shows him returning to the fascination with folk music with 'fresh ears of the utmost clarity' and harmonic experiments that are very much akin to the Bartókian sound world. Indeed, this programme culminates in a thrilling performance of Iain Farrington's new arrangement of one of Holst's orchestral masterpieces, a bleak, ambitious depiction of Thomas Hardy's impenetrable, untameable Egdon Heath. This very special music, saturated with technical challenges, is not only extremely rewarding, but even more, it is a fitting tribute to the younger man by the older master.

Listen — Holst, arranged by Iain Farrington: Egdon Heath
(track 29, 11:13-12:11) ℗ 2021 Delphian Records Ltd :

Indeed, on the score of Holst's Ode to Death (1919), to words by Walt Whitman - a work intended as a universal requiem for all of the dead of the First World War - the composer's dedication reads simply 'to Cecil Coles and the fallen'.

James Willshire is renowned for his virtuosity and intelligence of his keyboard mastery, and all this is on display in this recital. His technical brilliance is awesome, and his approach to these very rare pieces cannot be commended highly enough. British piano music is still a relative rarity in today's concert halls around Europe, so this issue is indeed timely. Hopefully, it can stir more interest in this treasure trove of a repertoire that has many riches in store for those interested in its exploration.

Copyright © 5 May 2021 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta







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