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Diversity - Amrywiaeth
John METCALF (b.1946)
Light Music (1997) [11:04]
Alun HODDINOTT (1929-2008)
Sonata (2004) [13:18]
Brian HUGHES (b.1938)
Arithmetical Bagatelles (1999) [9:32]
Jeffrey LEWIS (b.1942)
Night Fantasy (1996) [16:39]
John HEARNE (b.1937)
Solemn and Strange Music (1998) [10:27]
Pwyll ap SION (b.1968)
Emyn (Hymn) [12:10]
Helen and Harvey Davies (piano, four hands)
rec. Ty Cerdd, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 17-18 September 2007
CAMPION CAMEO 2073 [73:40]
Experience Classicsonline

This is another one of those discs from Campion which gives a good feeling right from the start, and carries on giving, beyond the lovely photo of Abermenai Point by Glyn Davies on the cover and into an invigorating programme from start to finish. As the booklet notes declare with some accuracy, the piano duet is a rather neglected medium for contemporary composers. Long gone are the days when family and friends made music around the piano together in the drawing room, and long gone are the days when composers wrote the kind of music family and friends would want to, or be able to play. Helen and Harvey Davies are helping to revive the concert piano duet by commissioning duets by composers who are Welsh, or have connections to Wales.
The title Light Music ironically refers to a general sense of ‘lightness of being’, and while John Metcalf casts a spell of classically transparent, bright and rhythmic music over its 11 minutes, the composition is serious in intent. There are five variations here, which run continuously and have a refined sense of continuity. As a welcome mat for the rest of the programme, this is an invitation which is very hard to resist indeed.
Alun Hoddinott’s seven solo piano sonatas are powerful statements in their own right, and the 2004 Sonata for Four Hands has plenty of that grand depth of purpose which characterises his best work. While the work is one of great substance and intensity, none of the four movements go beyond an early-classical proportion of relative brevity and compactness. The significant themes and harmonies of a mysteriously developing first movement are taken over by fast second, which is scherzo in character, and demands considerable virtuosity from the players. With a conclusion of this movement which refers back to the opening moderato, the sense of architecture in the piece takes on a Palladian clarity of proportion. The conclusion of this first ‘arch’ is like the base of one column, introducing an Adagio third movement which forms the emotional core of the piece. The finale, a ‘con brio’, draws together threads from each of the previous movements, and places us firmly on a triumphant pinnacle.
Like Ligeti’s ‘Bagatelles’, Brian Hughes’s six Arithmetical Bagatelles explore intervals. While the opening and closing repeated notes might recall the Hungarian master’s work, the rest is of course in Hughes’s typically attractive personal idiom, which has an essential lyricism at its heart. Hughes takes the opportunity to work with the rhythmic potential of the piano, and there are some superbly ‘funky’ movements which drive on with striking energy, though the metre and pulse of the music is, as the title suggests, often broken up and rendered unpredictable. The ‘bluesy’ central movement has a great sense of space, and a subtle swagger. One movement involves no notes at all, the wood of the instrument being tapped in a nice rhythmic invention. This is a marvellous collection, and entirely approachable.
Night Fantasy by Jeffrey Lewis seems to expand the piano almost from the start, some of the gestures utilising the entire range of the instrument. Lewis’s music is described “a celebration of harmony” by Harvey Davies, and the steadily developing and shifting chords certainly have a potent resonance, though easy tonalities are masked by ambiguities and modal obstacles. The nocturnal elements are provided by a kind of hypnotic, if unpredictable repetition of a kind of rich and ever-varying passacaglia, and the night is certainly not one without event – the tolling of a massive bell for one. The atmosphere of this piece is to a certain extent continued in John Hearne’s Solemn and Strange Music. This piece, as its title announces, has references to Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ at its centre, and the ‘Solemn and Strange Music’ is a famously enigmatic stage direction in Act III. The subsequent quotations are given in the booklet, and Hearne’s purpose and design is both effective and clear. Hearne plays with psychological effects, such as stretching the octave in the upper voice against the bass – confusing the ‘innocent ear’ into thinking it is in tune. The programmatic nature of the music doesn’t make it less valid without knowledge of the literary references, but the ‘educated ear’ would no doubt suspect that some kind of commentary is going on. The piece is full of intriguing sonorities and effects, and stands very well in its own right.
Pwyll ap Sion freely states that his music is “based on, or inspired by, music written by other composers.” In this case Emyn, or ‘Hymn’ has its origins in John Hughes’ hymn ‘Arwelfa’, although this tune is only really glimpsed in a fragmentary sense. The idiom might be said to have some relation to the American styles of John Adams, and even that of Aaron Copland in the open harmonies and intervals of the slow central section. The final section has some of that funky rising bass that we love in the final section of Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’, the excitement being heightened by some energetic page turning caught by the microphones.
The technical and musical vibe in this programme is second to none, and the recording is also excellent. Cardiff’s quayside has been entirely transformed since I saw it last in the grim 1980s, and the Millennium Centre proves to have excellent facilities when it comes to recording. This is a superb disc, and world class in terms of production, programme and performance.
Dominy Clements


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