Pictures of Light. Music by William Baines. © 2022 Divine Art Ltd / Diversions LLC

CD Spotlight

Enraptured Spirituality

ROBERT McCARNEY listens to music by William Baines

'... a very welcome CD ...'


The music of William Baines (1899-1922) is in some ways like his life; fleeting, evanescent, enigmatic, shadowy, suggestive, full of tenderness and longing that vanishes into the brightening air just when it seems to be going somewhere and leaves one wishing there was so much more of it. Listening to these piano pieces one may think at times of Ravel or Debussy or Scriabin or Stanchinsky - another precocious promise extinguished at a despairingly young age - but ultimately it is the uniqueness of Baines' idiom that stands out time after time. The fact that he managed to achieve such individuality in his teens and early twenties just heightens the impression that he was completely sui generis and a complete genius. With the possible exception of Cyril Scott or Frank Bridge I can't think of a single English composer that sounded anything like Baines at this time.

This music's individual voice owes much to its very specific muse. Not for Baines the rough and tumble of Greek mythology or Shakespearean stirrings or the good news of Christianity that inspired so many of his peers. Baines found inspiration in his locality and the way in which nature played her song and weaved her wonder in his northern sky and along his North sea coastline. I knew that Baines was a Yorkshireman but it was only when reading the notes that accompany this CD that I was made aware that he was born in Horbury just outside of Wakefield. Learning this I couldn't help but think of another musical son of Wakefield who likewise is woefully unrecognised and underappreciated: Bill Nelson. One of Nelson's greatest numbers was called Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape, a title which encapsulates very well all of Baines' output and could have served perfectly as the title of this CD. The fact that he was born as one century ended and another was beginning may go some way to explaining the liminal character of so much of his sound and soul.

Amongst all the bloated and overblown treatment that his compatriot Ralph Vaughan Williams is receiving this 2022, it is good to see that in the centenary of Baines' passing, somebody has seen fit to commemorate him with a new recording of some of his music. Indeed it was half a century ago to mark another milestone that Eric Parkin first made this music known to the record buying public when he recorded a lot of the same music that appears on this current CD for Lyrita back in 1971 and thus made his name synonymous with Baines'. As an aside I am glad to say that unlike Baines, Parkin lived a long life, passing away just before COVID-19 closed the world, at the age of ninety-five.

So for those of you who still cherish that Lyrita LP or its CD equivalent, is this present CD worth acquiring? In a word, yes, if for no other reason than this music deserves at least two recorded versions to contrast and compare. For those of you who missed that Parkin recording the first time around the positive recommendation for this CD can only be wholly enthusiastic. I must add though that this Divine Art recording does not surpass or supplant the Lyrita recording, half a century old as it is. Not for any failings in Duncan Honeybourne's playing but mostly for the piano tone or its recording here which has a gratingly brittle feel to it, especially in its highest register.

Listen — William Baines: Paradise Gardens
(dda 25234 track 1, 2:00-2:52) ℗ 2022 Divine Art Ltd / Diversions LLC :

The greatest attraction of this new Baines CD is that it contains music that I for one have not heard before including five of his songs. I am very glad to have been acquainted with these songs but sadly I can not say the same for the singing of Gordon Pullin, the tenor on this occasion. I think it is fair to say that his voice is now past its peak and has lost its rounded tone. Indeed he is clearly straining to reach the relevant pitch in certain instances and sustain it in others, which is not enjoyable to listen to.

Listen — William Baines: Fountains (Five Songs)
(dda 25234 track 21, 1:00-1:26) ℗ 2022 Divine Art Ltd / Diversions LLC :

The real discovery, joy and reason to obtain this CD are the Eight Preludes. Although not claimed as world premiere recordings I believe these are receiving their first commercial recording and are not to be confused with the set of Seven Preludes from 1919 recorded by Parkin. As often happens, in order for little known music to be made playable and audible, the work of many dedicated individuals behind the scenes is crucial. In this case Roger Carpenter, Baines' great champion after his untimely death who made sure his manuscripts didn't rot somewhere or float away into the North Sea and latterly pianist Robert Keys, who assembled this set as it was without performance instructions into something more approachable for curious musicians. Listen to Ebbing Tide, for example, absolutely quintessential Baines both in name and sound.

Listen — William Baines: Ebbing Tide (Eight Preludes)
(dda 25234 track 14, 0:00-0:48) ℗ 2022 Divine Art Ltd / Diversions LLC :

This CD ends with its longest single work, not written by Baines but inspired by him. It was composed by Robin Walker in 1999 - the cententary of Baines birth. In it the composer tries, in however nebulous a form, to do justice to Baines' enraptured spirituality, his totally visceral response to the natural world heightened and suffused as it inevitably was by that powerfully mysterious, magical mix of innocence and experience that is adolescence and young adulthood, especially as lived and felt and suffered by those which such a susceptible sensibility as William Baines. In this respect I found the piece a very fine tribute from one Yorkshireman to another.

Listen — Robin Walker: At the Grave of William Baines
(dda 25234 track 26, 12:27-13:26) ℗ 2022 Divine Art Ltd / Diversions LLC :

Apart from these new pieces - at least for me - many of the old favourites are also here especially Silverpoints, Tides and the above sampled Paradise Gardens. The booklet, which includes very informative notes, also contains a couple of very fine illustrations by Richard Bell of places of immense importance to Baines - most notably Flamborough Head.

Listen — William Baines: Goodnight to Flamboro' (Tides)
(dda 25234 track 8, 2:50-3:50) ℗ 2022 Divine Art Ltd / Diversions LLC :

All in all, notwithstanding some of the negatives I have mentioned, this is a very welcome CD and I recommend it to anyone who may be even slightly interested or curious. Like far too many of his generation who were sent to suffer and die ingloriously and senselessly, a fact which Remembrance memorials and activities do their best to completely ignore, William Baines was sent to war and within weeks was sent home with septic poisoning from which he never fully recovered. Another profoundly sensitive soul who suffered due to Europe's second cataclysm of the twentieth century said: 'Wahr spricht, wer Schatten spricht'. I think William Baines understood this and so maybe will anyone who listens to this CD.

Copyright © 12 November 2022 Robert McCarney,
León, Spain






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