Peter Graham Woolf on Dunelm CD DRD0238 (Peter Jacobs)
This quickly released live recording from Dunelm is an important social document, one which also makes widely available a thoroughly enjoyable piano recital, impeccably played by Peter Jacobs, famous champion of British music.
Living composers from the West Country, in their 20s to 70s, are featured, interspersed with three groups of Preludes by the Gloucester-born Ivor Gurney. Richard Cardon (aka Sulyen Caradon) provides notes which tell a fascinating story of lives in music and the formation of a composers' alliance in the area (one of twelve similar groups in UK, would you guess? - "composing is a lonely occupation").
Most of the Severnside composers are, or have been, engaged in music professionally, but Raymond Warren's might be the only name known to many readers of Musical Pointers. This piano recital, Severnside Composers Alliance's inaugural concert, was delayed 'because of unsuccessful attempts to get it into a concert series somewhere'; shame upon those who refused to become involved!
The music is nearly all 'accessible contemporary', without any of it simplistic or minimal. Richard Barnard's Irish folk tune 'hidden between layers of melody and pulse' is the most radical piece. Geoffrey Self's Sonatina, written for a clavichord that he'd built in the '70s, is unashamedly derivative, 'what used to be called "light music"'. Susan Coppard, who'd long 'doubled as a professional accordion player and Town Clerk of Bradford on Avon' has a pleasant piece composed at Canford Summer School upon 'the most outlandish mode she could devise'. The well-filled CD finishes with two movements (only) of Raymond Warren's sonata, its Monody a fine example of a fascinating genre (do you know Alain's Sonatine Monodique?).
I look forward to playing the Self sonatina on my clavichord and Warren's sonata (all three movements!) on the piano.
Do buy this admirable CD, which boasts fine recorded sound and attractively illustrated presentation by Jim Pattison, instead of loading your shelves with yet more standard repertoire from the latest hyped young contender to get the publicity and advertising.
Peter Graham Woolf on Dunelm CD DRD0243 (Steven Kings and Christopher Northam)
A second CD from the Severnside Composers' Alliance has a recital by two local pianists, Steven Kings and Christopher Northam, taken live from another concert in Bristol. Most successful are Bedford's Hoquetus David, a welcome reminder of Birtwistle's curating of the best ever South Bank summer festival; Changes by John Pitts with its 'scary' 14 against 15 counting managed heroically; Lutoslawski's Paganini Variations despatched with verve and aplomb and, especially welcome, a section of Robin Holloway's Gilded Goldbergs, which left me wanting to hear the whole. That excerpt might better have been placed first on the track listing instead of the tricky Martinu pieces which need electricity at a higher voltage to come off.
John France on Dunelm CD DRD0238 (Peter Jacobs)
This is an interesting programme although I must be honest and state straightaway that the most impressive part of this CD is the recording of the 11 Preludes by Ivor Gurney. Well at least ten preludes – the eleventh is a ‘fragment.’
The rest of the CD consists of a variety of adventures by composers who are alive and well and working in the ambit of the River Severn. The youngest of these composers is just nudging thirty whilst the eldest is well past his three score and ten.
Geoffrey Self is the only one of these Severnside Composers of whom I had heard before reviewing this CD. In the programme notes he claims that the Sonatina 1 is ‘light music.’ Perhaps he and I have different concepts of what light music is. This is certainly not Eric Coates or Robert Farnon – it is much more like Walter Leigh’s Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings – a point noted by Colin Scott-Sutherland in his review.... This is an extremely attractive work that deserves its place in the repertoire. I especially liked the slow Elegy – which to me is not 'light’ but actually ‘reflective’; apart from the Gurney Preludes, the best thing on this CD!
Jolyon Laycock studied with Cornelius Cardrew and Roger Smalley in the 1970s. I cannot say that the prelude L’Abri Pataud impresses me; it seems to ramble without coming to any conclusion.
Richard Barnard is the youngest composer represented. Amongst other things he teaches composition at Bristol Cathedral School and plays in a band called ‘Goldfunk’. The piece presented here is the slightly Debussy-esque ‘On Erin’s Shore’. The programme notes state that the tune is ‘hidden between various layers of melody and pulse, creating a fragmentary, brittle and dream-like atmosphere’. Who knows? However it is a nice piece that does not deserve to be lost in the mists of time. Stephen Kings’ ‘Fingers Pointing to the Moon’ is a very different proposition. The work has a somewhat ambitious aim – to get to grips with mankind’s futile attempts to describe God. It is the longest single piece on the CD – however I am not sure it is the best. It all sounds a little contrived and what it gains in its tight compositional structure it loses in its lack of lyricism; very much like music I had to listen to in cartloads back in the seventies.
Susan Coppard’s work is described by the composer herself as ‘Bach in an Israeli Madhouse’. It is part hora, apparently and part fugue - it is hardly a masterpiece and I feel that it lives up to its origins as a compositional exercise at Canford! And a hora is a traditional round dance from Romania or Israel, in case anyone was wondering. Why a ‘madhouse?’ I do not know – I can only assume that it is some kind of political point that should have been unpacked in the programme notes.
John Pitts’ music reminds me of Herbert Howells’ Lambert’s Clavichord; not in idiom so much as his ‘picking up’ an older style of keyboard composition and re-presenting it for our times. One ‘Aire’ and two ‘Fantasys’ are given here. The former relying on ‘tune’ whilst the latter owes more to ‘pattern’. Fantasy 5 is based on a prelude by Bach. This is lovely music to listen to and shows a deep absorption of earlier styles but with a large degree of originality added for good measure.
... [James Patten's] Nocturne No.3 is an exploration into the effects of ‘overtone – produced by striking a low note while holding others silently’. No.4 is a rumination on the progress of two sets of chords made up of 4ths. This one is certainly rather lovely. But the first did not move me in the least. Curiously, the 3rd Nocturne opens with six seconds of silence – how do I know when it has started and/or when to begin counting?
The Dorian Dirge by Sulyen Caradon (real name Richard Carder) is just that – a bit like chewing toffee. The interest, supposedly is in the bass, In spite of the fact that it was written for a musician who died in tragic circumstances, it fails do anything for me other than be thankful Ivor Gurney’s beautiful Prelude in C minor is next in the batting order.
Raymond Warren’s contribution is unfortunate. There are only two movements of a three movement Sonata presented here. Whatever happened to the middle movement? I am sure it has been omitted for space reasons. But I am afraid I would have dumped one or two (or more) of the other works on this CD to give Mr Warren full credit. The Sonata is hardly new; it was composed for the 1977 Cardiff Festival. But it is full of interest and colour and vitality – even if the invention fails a little from time to time.
I am not convinced that Peter Jacob was right in scattering the Gurney Preludes throughout the programmes. It is to these works that I will turn again and again – so I will have to programme my CD player to give them to me in order!
This is not the time to rehearse the tragic life of Ivor Gurney, however it is important to recall that Gurney is best remembered for his songs and his poetry rather than his instrumental music or even his lost(?) Symphony. Gurney produced many works for chamber groups and instrumentalists but apparently did not have a great mastery of ‘sonata’ form and the music tended to ‘lose direction.’ What we have in these Preludes is a fine example of his skill at writing for the piano – which of course is always self evident in the accompaniment to his songs. These are typical examples of post-Great War ‘Georgian’ music. However they are not redolent of Englishry or pastoralism. It is not easy to say that these works sound like this or that composer. If I had to plump for a name to give the potential listener some kind of clue it would have to be York Bowen; I suppose I make this comparison more to emphasise the European rather than the English dimension of these Preludes.
Peter Jacob has provided the last few bars to the second prelude of the third set, as Gurney had left it incomplete at the time of his death. The music was derived from the composer’s song Heart’s Pain.
Generally speaking this is a nice CD to have. In some ways the music is variable. The playing however is committed and the sound quality is excellent.
As I have indicated, the main event is the sequence of Gurney Preludes. However it is always interesting to hear works from composers who are less often heard than perhaps they deserve. Let us hope that this will not be a one-off CD from the Severnside Composer’s Alliance and that we will be hearing more from (some) of these composers.
Aside from the Gurney the highlights for me are the Self, the Warren and the Pitts!
Colin Scott-Sutherland on Dunelm CD DRD0238 (Peter Jacobs)
As with artists and painters, the banding together of a group of creative minds, linked in spirit rather than expression, has some justification, even if only to maintain the philosophy of "united we stand……"
Here the unifying element is the proximity of the river Severn which brings together on its banks, this diversity of composers ranging from the Georgian Ivor Gurney, who died in 1937, to the youngest of the set, the 28 year old Richard Barnard.
The honours are in one sense equally divided – with a dozen or so compositions by contemporary utterance sharing the space, though not the time, with around a dozen pieces by Gurney.
Nevertheless it is difficult to equate the philosophy of Gurney (who wrote "Autumn is the strongest in memory (1) of all the seasons. To think of Autumn is to be smitten through most powerfully by an F sharp minor chord that stops the breath and wrings heart with unmeasurable power………(2)) with the trenchant armoury of contemporary sounds from younger men whose tutelage included such thinkers as Cardew, Keller and Tippett.
Yet Peter Jacobs is to be congratulated for the careful programming – for somehow or another he has inserted the Gurney Preludes into the recital so that the shock of transition is less that one might have expected. Especially is this true of the ‘Fragment’ which, though Brahmsian, sounds quite modern – and Jolyon Laycock’s "L’Abri Pataud" which, (tho’ inspired by a French shrine) seems to echo the meanderings of the river – takes over from the D major Prelude without jarring – just as does the unfinished F sharp Prelude (almost a first try at the D flat) (that dedicated to Mrs Chapman and probably the finest of all the Preludes) moves to the opening of Raymond Warren’s "Monody".
These beautiful and evocative pieces of Gurney are nevertheless strange bedfellows for the other pieces on the disc. Gurney’s piano solo piano writing has been dismissed as feeble by the received opinion of the 1960s/1970s by those insensitive to the powerful spiritual impulses that affected the creative output of post-Great War energies in this country pieces are not simply delicate pastorals but have a harrowing nostalgia nowhere more moving than in the aforementioned D flat Prelude (the 4th bar of which seems to me the essence of the Georgian temper.) Necessarily at odds with this, the philosophy of the younger men, far removed despite a second World Conflict from that of Gurney, has conflict, but little darkness.
The opening of the Sonatina of Geoffrey Self is cheerfully energetic – it reminded me of Walter Leigh, and curiously was originally conceived in terms of the clavichord. The unassuming slow movement with its Delian moments is followed by an attractive Rondo.
An Irish folksong, its opening bars suggestive of pibroch, is framed by "various layers of melody" and some menacing percussive interjections in Richard Barnard’s piece. This is followed by a set of six short pieces by Steven Kings, organised around the curious idea of God being represented by ‘pointing fingers trying to reach the moon’ – ending in a seventh slow set of variations, the obscure tonality and spacious registration suitably lunar.
Susan Coppard’s child-like ‘Round and around’ she describes, aptly, as "Bach in an Israeli madhouse". By contrast John Pitts’ selection from his decorative Aires and Fantasies is more companionable – the 2nd Fantasy (his No 5) based enigmatically on a Bach Prelude, with some rich and evocative chords. I would have liked to hear more of this music. The hesitation before the Nocturne by James Patten is, we are told part of the piece – six seconds of silence which, abruptly broken, explores somewhat abrasively the static harmonic effects of overtones above a single bass note - ending, or so it seems, with the six seconds silence repeated? The second Nocturne here (his No 4) is more conventional with repeated atmospheric chords broken only briefly. How it relates structurally (as we are told) to a Becket stage direction is neither explained nor immediately apparent.
The Dorian Dirge by Sulyen Caradon was written after the death of a friend and is solemnly expressive. This is followed by Raymond Warren’s almost birdsong-like first movement of a Piano Sonata – and the Chaconne being the last movement. It seems a pity that the intervening movement(s) were omitted, as this is attractive music.
The CD is by way of an inaugural recital (23.2.05) for the Severnside Composer’s Alliance which was formed in 2003. Further information can be had from their website – not all of them represented on this disc. It will be interesting to see how this project develops.
Philip Scowcroft on Dunelm CD DRD0243 (Steven Kings and Christopher Northam)
This is a recording of a live concert in May 2005, which was, and is, a rewarding mixture of music from the sixty years up to 2002.
If there is a theme running through much of the programme it is of variation form, mostly inspired by historical models. The finest item for me is Robin Holloway’s recomposition of Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations. The complete work takes 90 minutes as, more or less, does Bach’s original. To make things more ‘comfortable’ for a concert audience, Holloway has devised a Suite of eight of the first fifteen variations, preceded by Bach’s theme and capped by a shortened reprise of it. None of this departs too far from Bach but enough new and richly inventive material is added to make it so much more than a transcription.
To an extent the same is true of Lutoslawski’s version of Paganini’s Variations on that often-varied Caprice. This draws from these accomplished pianists their most virtuosic playing. David Bedford’s Hoquetus David takes its theme from the medieval church composer Machaut. A "hocket" has the theme broken into one- or two-bar sections. I liked its energy.
Jolyon Laycock’s piece would fare better with a less nonsensical title – possibly "Icebreaker Variations" as it was, before being re-jigged for two pianos, composed for the Icebreaker Band. I hope it does fare better as there is plenty to enjoy in variations ranging from the fiercely rugged to the fluently lyrical. The writing for duo is idiomatic.
For the rest, Martinu’s Dances are infectiously rhythmic, though I must admit that I found the dotted rhythms of the first a little relentless; the third, the longest, is the pick of them. John Pitts’ Changes is 3½ minutes of minimalism and its principal, indeed only, interest lies in a 15 quaver figure being set against another with 14: tricky, especially as this is the only piece here played by four hands on one piano. However all four hands do finish together.
Poulenc’s Élégie, from his later, "Romantic" period, is a delicious interlude, so much so that I was surprised I had not encountered it before.
Congratulations to the Severnside Composers’ Alliance for: (a) putting on such a stimulating programme and, (b) attracting an audience whose silence is exemplary.
The recording is equally so; it does not "get in the way of" appreciation of this relatively little-known music and one cannot ask for more than that.
Strongly recommended to enterprising listeners.
Ian Milnes on Dunelm CD DRD0243 (Steven Kings and Christopher Northam)
Music for two pianos is relatively rare, so it is good to be able to welcome a new CD of a live recital of music for this medium given to a capacity audience in the Bristol Music Club on 14 May 2005.
Steven Kings and Christopher Northam are outstanding pianists who work superbly together, making a most successful two-piano ensemble as well as being equally very comfortable in the only work included for piano duet – that by John Pitts.
The order of the programme holds one’s interest, with works by living composers set alongside fine works by long-established 20th century ones. The Three Czech Dances by Martinu are suitably contrasted, and the players provide a full range of attention to dynamics, with a driving momentum where needed in the outer dances, contrasting well with the slower central one. David Bedford’s Hoquetus David is a thrilling short piece - I wish it had been longer! - with brilliantly executed interplay between the pianists.
The only work for piano duet – four hands on one piano – is by John Pitts, the secretary of the Severnside Composers’ Alliance, and his short minimalist Changes is great fun, with players in such great command that quaver patterns of 14 against 15 sound to provide no difficulties – amazing!
The most substantial work on this CD is the Suite which Robin Holloway extracted from his complete (over 90 minutes) Gilded Goldbergs, a remarkably imaginative "recomposition" of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This Suite opens with the Aria and closes with a "nostalgic reprise" of it. The overall impact of the variations heard here is thoroughly entertaining, varied, enjoyable and uplifting, in a brilliant performance!
Then follows a "tour de force" of nearly 12 minutes by Jolyon Laycock in his Die A1 Sparrow (the title being an anagram), originating from a version for the band Icebreaker. The interlocking lines are brilliantly brought out in a virtuosic performance. A most effective contrast is provided by a lovely, atmospheric performance of Poulenc’s Élégie followed by yet more contrast in the final item – a brilliant performance of Lutoslawski’s brilliant Paganini Variations. My repeated use of the adjective "brilliant" here is quite deliberate!
The balance between the two pianos is splendidly recorded, full of clarity and much detail, though I would have liked a little more resonance – but this is a minor point!
The booklet is first-rate with interesting, comprehensive information (some by the composers themselves), profiles of the pianists and details of the Severnside Composers’ Alliance. Excellent photographs include an outstanding one of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Very well recommended.
Calum MacDonald on Dunelm CD DRD0238 (Peter Jacobs)
The Severnside Composers Alliance, like other such groups up and down the UK, is a loose association of West Country composers set up in 2003 to help promote their music. Its membership includes such well-known and comparatively senior figures as David Bedford, Adrian Beaumont, Raymond Warren and Graham Whettam, as well as several talented younger composers, encompassing a wide range of styles. These two discs, recorded live earlier this year at their inaugural piano recital and at a follow-up two-piano recital, clearly serve a promotional purpose, but - mingling the work of Alliance members with other repertoire - they are also interesting and thought-provoking programmes in themselves.
Peter Jacobs has long been a doughty champion of British music from the nineteenth century to the present day, with a fine technique and an innate sense of what his varied repertoire demands in the way of interpretation and emotional commitment. In his inaugural piano recital he chose to interleave the contemporary works with one of the Severn Valley's most famous voices, both as poet and composer - Ivor Gurney. In the course of the disc Jacobs gives us Gurney's complete Preludes of 1919-20, in a sequence that exhibits some divergences from their recent recording by Mark Bebbington, which I reviewed last April. While Bebbington plays them in a sequence numbered 1-9, with a premiere recording of the second version of Prelude No. 9 in D making the tenth item, Jacobs disperses them through the programme in the three 'sets' that Gurney seems to have had in mind. He too plays all nine completed Preludes, omitting the second version of No. 9. His 'No. 4 in D sharp minor', strangely, corresponds to Bebbington's 'No.8 in F sharp', and he has two bonuses: premiere recordings of a turbulent Fragment in F minor and Gurney's unfinished F sharp Prelude (the third in that key, written in a mental asylum in 1924), in a completion by Severnside Alliance member (and booklet note author) Richard Carder, thus making this issue a required purchase for dedicated Gurney enthusiasts.
Bebbington, more flexible in rhythm and nuance, profits from Somm's exceptionally fine recording, but Jacobs, if more straightforward in his projection of line, is no less sensitive to the varied atmospheres of these largely introspective pieces. The Dunelm recording has a narrower dynamic range, but a pleasant ambience.
To the contemporary works: Geoffrey Self, whom I knew previously only as the author of excellent books on Moeran and Butterworth, contributes a trim, rather neo-classical Sonatina, which contrasts nicely with the Messiaen-ish tintinnabulations of Jolyon Laycock (b.1946)'s prelude L'abri Pataud, inspired by a palaeolithic site in the Dordogne, and On Erin Shore, a sort of constructivist chorale prelude on an Irish folk-song by Richard Barnard (the youngest composer here, born in 1977). These comparatively modest pieces are offset by the longest work on the disc, Fingers Pointing to the Moon by Steven Kings (b.1962), an enigmatic, questing, sequence of six short movements which briefly spans a stylistic gamut from somewhere in the orbit of Webern to that of Nancarrow, pedal resonance evoking the night sky.
Bach stands behind two of the composers here - Susan Coppard's short Round and Around, based on 'the most outlandish scale she could devise', she calls 'part hora, part fugue', and it has been described as 'Bach in an Israeli madhouse'. Three pieces - an Aire and two Fantasies by John Pitts (b.1976) are intensely pleasant music with a serene rhythmic sense and a sure harmonic ear, Fantasy No. 5 being based on a Bach Prelude, but 're-written with different chordal implications'.
James Patten (b.1936) seems to be reinventing the night-music genre in his stark, rather bump-in-the-night Third and much gentler, chorale-like Fourth Nocturnes (composed as a pair in 1999), though I was reminded at times of Elliott Carter's Night Fantasies. Carder (b.1942), mentioned above, composes as Sulyen Caradon. His Dorian Dirge, in memory of bass player Paul Servis, who was killed in a car crash, 'can be played by any combination of instruments, or on the piano': it's a plangent kind of slow cakewalk on a jazzily syncopated, more or less dorian bass line.
Finally Raymond Warren's Monody and Chaconne are the first and last movements of a piano sonata which it would be worth hearing complete: they are related, the first consisting of a passionate, much-decorated single line, the Chaconne taking up some of its ideas in stricter dance form. There are perhaps echoes of Britten and Tippett (the latter was one of Warren's teachers), even of Alan Bush. At seven minutes plus, the Chaconne is the longest single movement on the disc, and though it's invidious to make comparisons in such a programme, solely on the evidence of the pieces presented here Warren emerges as the figure most capable of sustained organic invention. They are all fortunate to have been able to put their works into the hands of a pianist as capable as Jacobs, who faithfully reflects the many moods and idioms, and is equally responsive to the most static and spare textures and the most note-filled writing.