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Stephen DODGSON (1924-2013)
Chamber Music with Harp and Guitar
Septet Variations (1975) [14.38]
Pastoral Sonata (1953/54, rev.1959/98) [14.50]
Solway Suite (1974) [16.08]
Echoes of Autumn (1998) [5.35]
Sonata for Three (1982) [12.50]
Capriccio and Finale (1952) [17.00]
rec. 2015, Wathen Hall, St. Paul’s School, Barnes, UK
NAXOS 8.573857 [81.57]

These works – all recorded for the first time - will be welcomed by lovers of Dodgson’s music and not only because they span such a large period of his creative life. He produced an extensive catalogue, in most categories, but was also a distinguished teacher. For seventeen years he was Professor of Composition and Musical Theory at the Royal College of Music. That he was a confident and accomplished composer cannot be doubted, and his voice is distinctive, but I suspect that a century hence he will be categorised as interesting rather than truly great. But that is not a reason to ignore the riches here.

Dodgson’s particular gift, I think, is his ability to get inside the nature of specific instruments – he has an uncanny sense of just what an individual instrument can do and say, with an instinct for distinctive timbre. Perhaps best known for works for guitar and/or harpsichord, he has also written distinctively for solo horn, alto flute, viola, bassoon, brass, and even the baryton, as well as producing works for the National Youth Wind Orchestra.

That ear for instruments is strikingly on display in the works here, expertly played by the performers on this CD. Some of the members of Karolos will be familiar to most collectors – Sarah-Jane Bradley, for instance, has recorded frequently for Dutton Epoch, Craig Ogden for Chandos, Hyperion and others. Performances are impeccable throughout and the Naxos engineers have succeeded very well in bringing out the inner clarity of these chamber pieces, as well as each instrument.

The works here are all basically tonal and melodic but clearly belong to the twentieth century, with the occasional dissonance. There is perhaps a hint of Janácek in the episodic use of short phrases, but Dodgson’s love of the baroque shows in the use of sometimes elaborate ornamentation. The Septet Variations, from 1975 is made up of a theme and ten variations, plus coda, for string quartet plus flute, harp and clarinet. In less than fifteen minutes we encounter most of Dodgson’s characteristic touches, all in miniature. The final coda is elaborate, exciting – and all over in scarcely half a minute! The three movement Pastoral Sonata, a work suggested by Julian Bream, is in three movements, for flute, cello and guitar, consciously linked to the English pastoral tradition in music.

On the other hand, the Solway Suite (five movements for flute, viola and harp), which we might expect to be similarly pastoral, is emphatically not so – the first movement, ‘Invocation’, has a religious atmosphere, but later sections are quite knotty in sound. The piece was dedicated to Andrzej Panufnik to mark his British citizenship, and there is a degree of the biographical as both tribute and inspiration.
Echoes of Autumn, for viola and guitar, is a brief work, and the mood is captured by the title, but it is an autumn made brighter by the optimistic prospect of spring. The Sonata for Three, for trio of flute, viola and guitar, is also in three movements. The most striking of these is the finale, marked ‘Agitato’, which has sharp contrasts, sometimes even of mockery, before a dramatic conclusion.

The most impressive work is perhaps the Capriccio and Finale (for flute, clarinet, harp, violin, viola and cello). This gives scope for greater development in episodes variously elegant, peaceful, occasionally witty. All the characteristics which would be found in later pieces are here.

This is music to admire and enjoy – if not quite to love.

Michael Wilkinson

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