Sunday, 5 August 2007

Hidden Treasure (from 20th July)

British Piano Music of the last 100 years - the longest solo recital I've ever given! Like all the best pastimes, it was a game of two halves. There were four works by living composers, three of whom were in the audience, which was a great honour for me. These three works were world premieres, and one composer is a student of mine (piano, not composition, needless to say!) so all in all it was a grand night.

Nicholas Britton (b.1979) Piano Sonata: a piece in two movements

The first movement of this work, written when the composer was just 17, recalls sonata form (exposition-development-recapitulation), the mainstay of art music from Haydn to Brahms and beyond. The distant, non-committal first theme is replaced by a second, cool and aloof. The middle section erupts into Bacchic revelry – but all the music ideas in this tightly-knit work are based on those of the exposition, including those of the coda, which comes to a weary resting point. The second movement is a rondo (ABACAD…) woven from the same tension between energy and resignation. In the light of this, it is up to each individual listener to interpret the ambiguous ending, which descends from E to E through a series of perfect fourths.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) Three-Fours (Valse Suite), Op. 71, Nos 1, 5 & 3

His songs and smaller instrumental works were all the rage in the early part of the century, but all went quiet until Classic FM rediscovered and popularised Coleridge-Taylor’s violin concerto a few years ago. His father, from Sierra Leone, had faced insurmountable prejudice in starting his medical career in England, but young Samuel was perhaps too successful: extensive concert tours and a professorship at Trinity College London contributed to his early death from exhaustion. This set of waltzes reveals the hand of a fine pianist with a real gift for melody. The first is very ambiguous in mood and tonality until the helter-skelter final few lines. A majestic E flat major is the key of the fifth, a broad romance. The third, in D minor, full of insistent repetition, somehow manages to be fast, angry and noble all at the same time. Its middle section is constructed out of leaping chords and is perhaps the only part of the Suite actually suitable for dancing.

Mark Roberts (b.1990) Dreaming

This is tonight’s second work by a 17-year old composer. Mark is a student at Hills Rd VI Form College in Cambridge and as his piano teacher I was lucky enough to see it take shape earlier in the year. After a gentle, impressionistic introduction (Freely flowing: “mist”) the main theme is stated in F minor over a moving accompaniment (Flowing, warm; “stirring”) and re-stated by the left hand at half speed (Relaxed, expressive; “moving”). After some rhapsodic passages reminiscent of the late romantics, the theme returns in quiet triumph in F major. The work has a moody jazz inflection throughout and is bursting with juicy harmony in sixths and sevenths.

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) Howells’ Clavichord

Between 1941 and 1961 Howells wrote two large books of pieces ‘for clavichord or piano’, each one dedicated to a different musical friend and all in the style of the English keyboard anthologies of the Elizabethan Age. Although Britain is not the first place you think of in connection with piano music (and some of tonight’s pieces were hard to track down) there is a distinguished tradition of keyboard writing from the Tudor period onwards worth further exploration. Goff’s Fireside is for the clavichord maker Thomas Goff. Dyson’s Delight, silky and smooth, has nothing to do with vacuum cleaners, but is dedicated to the composer Sir George Dyson. Sir Ernest Bullock, organist of Westminster Abbey is honoured in the frenetic EB’s Fanfarando, and my selection closes with Ralph’s Pavane, which is very much in the style of Vaughan Williams himself.

Eric Coates (1886-1957) London Suite

This is simple, unpretentious light music at its best, and it is unmistakeably English. It was composed in 1933 by the man best known for his “Dambusters” March, who, like Coleridge-Taylor, was the son of a doctor. The opening Tarantella (Covent Garden) drives forward through the busy, colourful market. Westminster is a chordal meditation, occasionally reminiscent of Elgar, who was a great champion of Coates’ music. Listen out for the bells at the end, which are in fact native to a church in Cambridge, and were only imported into London! The third movement of the suite, Knightsbridge (March), became popular as the theme tune to BBC radio’s ‘In Town Tonight’. Please feel free to sing along or dance in the aisle.

R. Caroline Bosanquet (b.1940) Suite for Piano 2006

Caroline Bosanquet, who hails from Bangor, was Senior Lecturer at Anglia Polytechnic University for more than 30 years. Having studied piano and cello at the Royal Academy of music she built her career on the cello and has published numerous pieces for her instrument, several articles and a book, The Secret Life of Cello Strings. This suite was completed last year, with minor revisions earlier this week.! It is a series of miniatures designed to explore the different moods and techniques of the piano, almost as if the instrument were a paintbox. There is wonderful attention to detail in the Prelude: A Short Conversation, which soon gives way to a Wild Dance. The solemn Sarabande, which plays on the blend of major and minor flavours, is the emotional centre of the work. Counterpoint is the hallmark of The Chase. The two hands race round after each other in ever decreasing circles, occasionally stopping to enjoy some thumping, an extended lyrical moment and some of the conversation from the first piece before vanishing off into the distance.

Dorothy Pilling (1910?-2000?) Vignettes

A former student of the composer at the Royal School of Music in Manchester, wrote that she was ‘an iron-haired, ramrod-stiff battleaxe with an encyclopaedic knowledge of harmony and the history of western classical music. She brooked neither argument from, nor discussion with her students. Her lectures on history and “musical appreciation” were mercilessly tedious but laden with factual info for anybody who could stay awake for long enough to listen. This unapproachable old boot would do absolutely anything for any student who plucked up the courage to approach her; nothing was too much trouble.’ What a tribute! Another student of hers was a relative of mine, who kindly gave me this autographed score, which languished in the cupboard until I rediscovered it on my quest for British piano music. The set opens with an Idyll, something of a ‘salon’ piece, enlivened by surprising harmonies and a splendid canon in the slower middle section in which the left hand echoes the melody of the right as it climbs to the climax. Mirages is altogether more serious, almost ponderous if not given a light touch. Promenade brings some humour to the proceedings by invoking the bustling, yet terribly genteel world of Jeeves & Wooster and Lord Peter Wimsey. But these works date from 1957, not 1927. Was Pilling striving to recapture the England that had passed away?

Edmund Bloxam (b.1983) Melodien 1

The composer writes… Melody is something that dominates all of music. This piece is some reflections upon what melody actually is. It shifts in and out of focus through a variety of means, sometimes through spacing in time, sometimes spacing in harmony, sometimes simply space. Its final appearance, now as a complete entity, acts like an ‘Ode to Joy’, but finds its own simplicity and closed position in time like a restrictive jacket, so it aggressively throws it off and embraces multifarious sound. Edmund is finishing a Masters degree in Composition at Bristol University and has given several concerts here in Cambridge of new music mingled with the piano works of Edvard Grieg.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) In Smyrna & Skizze

These are rare pianistic gems from a composer much better known for his bombastic marches and sumptuous orchestral writing. Skizze was published in 1903 in an obscure German periodical, dedicated to a great champion of Elgar’s music on the continent, Professor Julius Buths. Never standing still, it is a perfectly formed miniature, sharing the advanced harmonic language of Elgar’s largest work, The Apostles, which was completed in the same year. In Smyrna followed in 1905, inspired by a visit to a Turkish mosque made during an intoxicating Mediterranean cruise. Although coloured by ‘oriental’ touches, it is unmistakeably the product of Edwardian England.

Richard Addinsell (1904-1977) Warsaw Concerto

The film Dangerous Moonlight, about a Polish pianist/pilot who joins the RAF during the Second World War, was a patriotic romance that suited the needs and mood of audiences of 1941. The centrepiece of its score has stood the test of time rather more successfully. Its enduring popularity lies in the fundamental quality of the material such that it transcends mere pastiche. It actually feels more Russian than Polish – Rachmaninov, not Chopin – but I’m not complaining as it’s a joy to perform. The arrangement for solo piano (from the original piano/orchestral version) is by Henry Geehl and dates from 1942, by which time the work was so popular that it had been released in nine instrumental versions, including organ and piano accordion. Hmm…