Brighton Year-Round 2019
New Music Brighton presented a programme of pieces for Piano Trio, flute, violin, cello and solo piano by composers John Hawkins, William Johnston, Dudley Hyams, John Petley, Kevin Allen, Phil Baker, Jonathan Clark, Paul Gregory, Ric Graebner, Peter Copley, Ellie Blackshaw, Marion Maidment-Evans and Guy Richardson.
New Music Brighton’s core music-making usually combines a programme of members with several composers making their debut. So it proved unusually here. The new composers though, unlike the nine-year-old wunderkind two years ago, are people who’ve returned to composition since abandoning music sadly after their students days; and someone who’s been learning composition for four years. And thereby hangs a couple of fascinating tales.
This time NMB presented a repertoire of pieces for Piano Trio, flute, violin, cello and solo piano by composers John Hawkins, William Johnston, Dudley Hyams, John Petley, Kevin Allen, Phil Baker, Jonathan Clark, Paul Gregory, Ric Graebner, Peter Copley, Ellie Blackshaw, Marion Maidment-Evans and Guy Richardson.
John Hawkins’ Cortege? casts its interrogative for Ellie Blackshaw’s violin and Ric Graebner’s piano. Usually a processional piece as the name suggests, with a recognizable passacaglia-like repetition as the coffin processes, this piece skirts with an iridescence around the violin part, like a nimbus of commentary around the core rhythm carried by the piano. Like all the pieces here, you’d rather there was time to repeat it. With Hawkins (b.1949) studying under Elizabeth Luytens and Malcolm Williamson, you can hear distant tangs of each of their astringent lyricisms; but Hawkins developed his own path.
William Johnston’s attractive Three Short Pieces for solo piano, played by Kevin Allen are, as the composer says, undemanding. The rocking Andante is followed by the more predictably spiky Allegretto and finally an Andante marked poco lento. It picks up the melodic material in the first, combines the spiky elements faintly and produces an aerated, attractive finale. This is finely wrought post-tonal piano music, and in a period where the solo piano hasn’t established much in the way of new repertoire. Though studying at Cambridge and playing music, Johnston (b. 1953) is entirely self-taught, but clearly steeped in awareness of routes not taken.
Dudley Hyams (1942-98) was a member of NMB till his early death. Starting as a lawyer, he studied with Ric Graebner at Southampton and Sussex. His style is post-modernist: astringent, exploratory, though lyrical. He’s represented here by the solo violin piece played by Blackshaw, Arbor Low. Concerned with the intersection of eco and spiritual, it throws up a penumbra of musical foliage to move through 7 sections in closely-defined characters, a suite with differing tempi and an etch of something you need to return to.
John Petley born c. 1958, read music at Oxford and then when nothing opened up for him, abandoned composition and even music. Happily from December 2017 he’s retrace his compositional roots and her a theme for cello and piano which blossomed into the slow movement of a traditional Cello Sonata, the outer movements of which are just being completed.
It’s a memorable theme though entirely rewritten as the slow movement. Peter Copley and Graebner bring out the lyricism worthy of saw Howard Blake – it could almost be a cello sonata by him. And that’s not meant as back-handed. It’s a memorable theme and if the rest of the sonata lives up to it, then Petley should be heard anywhere where traditional contemporary music is played, which is increasingly the case.
Kevin Allen (b. 1944) like one or two others, hardly needs introduction. An internationally-sought soloist, he’s also reinvigorating his profile as a composer. His Viola Sonata was performed at the ISCM in 1971, and he’s recently completed a Flute Sonata (premiered at Sussex Musicians on September 28th). He’s written several other works, or as here returned to a set of three Blake songs from the late 1970s and arranged them for violin and piano which he and Blackshaw perform.
He asks us to guess the songs from Songs of Experience. It’s impossible. They are respectively ‘The Garden of Love’, ‘The Fly’ with its scurrying buzzy scherzo, and ‘Rose Thou Art Sick’ famously set by Britten. They’re almost aphoristic, like the latter two poems; and in this new arrangement both exhilarating and lucid. If the first doesn’t quite convey the shut-out of love by priests, only words could unlock that: it’s a brooding plangent piece. ‘The Fly’ is a lighter scherzo, conveying its impact through straightforward materials. ‘The Sick Rose’ thrubs with regrets, re-inventing the original brevity with torsion and cankering. And perhaps writhing.
Brighton-born and long-standing NMB member Phil Baker’s written a flexible additive sequences of Piano Pages on the advice of a friend. They’re rather like Beethoven’s Bagatelles or Prokofiev’s various selections (Sarcasms or Visions Fugitives). He gives himself the option of developing some later – a more informal version of say Boulez re-devising his early (1945) 12 Notations.
The second of these pieces is a Largo that fills quite a musical substance. It’s expressive and unlike larger-scale Baker works both dramatic and even emotive. As is the fourth, a Lento, again a work demanding a tuning-in to a more slowly-evolving rhythmic cell, a ruminant power. Not tonal exactly, these works enact a ghost of tonality through their progressive reinvention of base material.
Jonathan Clark studied harmony and coungterpont in the early 1980s, then composition proper a decade alter with Ric Graebner at Southampton. What his Two short Pieces for Pano Trio evince is a dramatic talent, with memorable chords flung down as a challenge, here played by Blackshaw, Copley and Graebner himself. This Prelude gives on to a two-part Intenso: Tranquillo which resolves this dramatic arc with a more inward-looking but still rippling section giving on to its release. A striking, compact work.
Paul Gregory’s legendary status as a Segovia-winning player has eclipsed his very real compositional voice. Co-founding NMB with Peter Copley, he started writing even more and this Adagio across a lake of green mirrors from 1995 was one of the first fruits, for solo flute, here played with authority by Marielle Way.
It’s the still point of the programme. Using an extended but not wild array of flute techniques, Way navigates the rippling of surfaces the flute uniquely evokes. There’s more though than such Takemitsu-like gestures. Gregory uses a tonal basis for his realtively modernist pressure, in a piece difficult to follow sectionally, it’s so hypnotic. Like a few other works here, it deserves repertoire status.
Phil Baker wrote three Laments From Aleppo for violin and piano, the Third being Maquam. Played by Blackshaw and Graebner, its tonal basis derives from a Syrian scale or the Maquam of the title.
It’s a three-fold structure starting with a melodic dialogue between the instruments, a duetting. The second is more confrontational ‘a tread of dissonant bass movement’ which is pretty ell what happens. The third develops the first, partly through the refractions of the second. It’s a fine work sidestepping the sonance and some of Baker’s language elsewhere: but several of his works achieve this creative unsettling.
Ric Graebner wrote his Ballade No. 1, played by Kevin Allen again, a response to 19th century models, not least Chopin and Brahms. Sectional without the tonal tensions inherent in sonata-form, it moves powerfully despite this to several climaxes. Famed for his electronic compositions like Venus in Landscape (available on CD) Graebner here allows his superfine compositional voice, layered and terraced as it is, a pianistic outcome. It’s deeply fascinating and unexpected.
Peter Copley the Hove-born RAM-educated cellist studied with Hans Keller no less. I wonder if the witty Keller would have liked the piece that followed. Copley, also co-founder of NMB was approached by two separate violinists in 1993 to write a solo piece. The result was The Violinist is Hanging on the Wall and this off-the-wall composition played with a grin by Blackshaw is about as mischievous as Eugene Ysaye’s Solo Violin Sonata No. 2 on speed. Ysaye wrote that work for his friend Jacques Thibaud as one of a set of six in 1923. Entitled ‘Obsession’ it starts scurrying off Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E and keeps sliding back.
Here though we get a range of solo quotes, based around a violinist’s nervous breakdown. Starting with the folk tune ‘The De’il amongst the Tailors’ as leitmotif it moves through a repertoire: The Lark Ascending peeks out, but there’s Bach and much more. Blackshaw rises cheerfully to the occasion here. It’s a vertiginous, light-seeming but airily profound work. And nearly causes the violinist to break down with laughter at the end. Blackshaw just avoided this.
Kevin Allen wrote his Prelude and Galliard in 2018-19, ad it premiered at SMC this March. So where do you start with this six-and-a-half minute, Webern-aphoristic, Berg-like paean to gallantry and passion. There’s Bach’s Prelude BWV998 for the first half, heralding a mini-suite for lute in three sections. This is a reflective 12-tone movement that allows itself the scope of Bach’s time-frame with musical cells that then get developed. It starts strikingly like Berg’s Piano Sonata, then moves into territory you’d recognize from Schoenberg’s Op 33. It lasts just under two minutes.
The more Elizabethan Galliard develops in three sections separated by brief allegro passages. There’s a striking declamatory chord developed along a language recognizably Schoenberg’s – especially in those allegro passages. In between there’s a crystalline surface interrupted by chords, never even hinting at clusters so much as a reminiscence, through the pianist medium of the opening at one pint of Berg’s Violin Concerto.
This gets banished in another allegro, far more dense, piling a scurrying, and very un-Viennese intensity (unless again you think of Berg’s operas). This seems the crux of the work, with a more reflective postlude. I’m reminded both of Berg’s Lyric Suite and Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony with its climax and falling away. But the pulse is too regular for the six-movement first (where adjoining movements get faster and slower respectively) and not shaped in seven sections for the latter either.
There’s a recording on the SMC website, thankfully. It’s endlessly rewarding, and like a decompression chamber, repeated listenings, even just two, will release the work’s power and cogency; and its intensity.
NMB Founder member Ellie Blackshaw has been hesitant in loosing her compositional voice, but this 2017 Piano Trio marks a more auspicious debut than she’d allow. Blackshaw plays the violin part, Copley returns as cellist and this time Graebner’s the pianist. It’s a fine essay in contrasts and based loosely on the originators’ initials (Adam Swayne was the original pianist) it’s also based on these three chords approaching and finally coming together in novel ways. The palimpsest of one chord is gently scumbled over, in a language both lucid and quietly entrancing. It’s both a quietly modernist but also approachable work.
Marion Maidment-Evans goes a massive step further in late-starting. Born in 1934, she began to compose…in 2015. She had studied piano with Dudley Hyams, but only recently took up composition with Julian Broughton. It’s he who gives the work its NMB premiere.
With her academic background, Maidment-Evans brings a sophisticated awareness of compositional possibility but refracted exactly through what she expresses in her pianism. Here in Homage to Hildegard, a three-movement suit of which we hear the first movement, Maidment-Evans responds to the fact and sonance of the twelfth-century founder of western music, rather than attempts to replicate any compositional monody or language expressed by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179).
What we get is a fine-tuned post-tonal nimbus of a quietly striking musical personality, a work that would sound at home anywhere: contemporary, and contemporary-mainstream. There’s a wide-fanned delicacy of touch and a quietism that Hildegard herself might have recognized. It’s be good to hear this in full, and – emphatically – more of Maidment-Evans’ compositions.
Guy Richardson, a Sussex graduate in music, isn’t a voice I associate with radical sonance, but with wondrous translucency, in some of his pianistic works, based on African and other meta-linguistic musical tropes. There’s often a shimmering quality.
What we get in his Piano Trio is quite different. Blackshaw, Copley and Allen too bring out the remarkable passion and power latent in this work, that comes to this writer as a revelation of Richardson’s palette. It’s the strongest work of his I’ve heard.
There’s some of the way Richardson negotiates building blocks and separating them out: so pitch, rhythm, harmony and melody are all strung out initially so the three instruments explore their conjoined an disparate sonorities. At one point the piano imitates the strings’ playing col legno, bowing near the wood of the bridge. One passage with the two string players evokes the opening movement (‘Duets’) of Britten ‘s Quartet No. 3. The music moves towards a tonal confrontation of its very physical constituents, then move towards a reconciliatory calm.
It hardly needs adding: another sovereign afternoon from the most innovative regional new music group in the UK.