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Gallery - Piano Pieces Evoking a Visit to an Imaginary Exhibition
by Gary Higginson
31 pages, with full colour illustrations
Published 2020
Fand Music Press

This handsome publication is a very bold venture in today’s uncertain times; an ambitious sixteen movement piano cycle inspired by an eclectic range of paintings, with each of the artworks shown in full colour next to the pieces they inspired.

Gary Higginson has a fascinating background as a composer. He studied with a number of outstanding teachers, including Edmund Rubbra and John Joubert. I have reviewed a couple of his CDs before for MusicWeb International, one of choral music and one filled with chamber and piano works. Higginson has composed nearly 200 works; this piano cycle is his Opus 197!

Pianists interested in adding this work to their repertoire would need to be at least Grade 6 level. The pieces are all very different, as I will outline, but somehow give the impression of being by the same composer. This indicates that Higginson’s style has a number of recognisable features. The piano writing is clean and clear with no wasted notes. Harmonies are often built up using fourths and the writing can be contrapuntal, no doubt a legacy of Higginson’s training with Rubbra. The outer extremities of the keyboard are not brought into play; nevertheless, this work is full of idiomatic piano writing.

This music is not romantic, yet it is, nevertheless, very English sounding. I am reminded occasionally of Kenneth Leighton, one of our finest composers of the later twentieth century. It is worth pointing out that these pieces were written over a period of fifty years (1970 to 2020); the idea of putting them together only occurred to Higginson when he visited the Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen in 2018. The work can be played as a whole or as separate pieces; the whole work lasts about 25 minutes in performance.

In his introductory notes in the score, Higginson explains the rationale behind the work; his aim is to put together a set of varied pieces inspired by art which are intended for “young or less experienced pianists, or even especially adventurous ones”. The pictures that prompted the music are illustrated within the score itself and add an extra stimulus for the performer.

The original paintings are all in different locations and not in the same gallery; it is therefore an imaginary exhibition “that could never take place in real life”. The obvious precursor to such a scheme is Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, the magnificent half hour piano cycle inspired by Viktor Hartmann’s paintings. Both the Higginson and the Mussorgsky works have a recurring section between some of the pictures; in Mussorgsky, this is entitled “Promenade”, in Higginson’s work it is called “Intrada”. A major difference between the two works is that Mussorgsky’s pictures were all by one artist, whereas Higginson’s come from an extraordinarily wide range of sources, including a photograph (“Painted Lady”) and even an ancient cave painting (“Solstice”).

The “Opening Intrada I – Entrance” commences with a rising theme, which recurs as a unifying feature at four later points in the cycle, including the “Exit” movement. Each time it reappears it is varied and in the “Exit” section it appears in a greatly altered form. This feature ensures that there is a feeling of unity and continuity.

The work shows Higginson’s mastery of a wide range of styles. We have a medieval sounding “Annunciation” (inspired by Fra Angelico) with plenty of parallel fourths and fifths. There are pleasing touches of Edmund Rubbra (the slow movement of his 6th Symphony) in this movement. “The Wrong Kind of Fugue” also has a few parallel fifths placed for humorous effect (as they were not allowed in Bach’s time) and suggests Hindemith at times. “A Still, Small Voice” rather surprisingly begins loudly and at an Allegro speed. This is certainly an effective piece and is the one with the earliest vintage, as it was originally written when the composer was just eighteen.

“A Moody Stomp” is great fun and would make a superb concert piece on its own. The “Painted Lady” movement that follows is very delicate; it has more of Higginson’s trademark parallel fourths and an almost Debussyan feel at times.

“The World of the Cavalier” has a bluff good humour and matches the Frans Hals “Laughing Cavalier” painting very well indeed. For me, the most interesting point in the cycle is the “Miniature Theme and Variations”; here the inspiration for the music is Gustav Klimt’s “Tree of Life”. This movement adds immeasurably to the richness and variety of the entire work; it shows real confidence to add such an adventurous piece within a cycle that is intended for less experienced pianists. Occasionally, two movements will follow straight on from each other, such as Intrada IV and the “Solstice” section, adding a pleasingly Schumanesque blurring of formal boundaries. My favourite of the remaining sections is the lovely “Spring Flowers” inspired by Monet. Interestingly, Higginson does not attempt to make this movement particularly French sounding; I feel that it represents his response to the painting rather than the painting itself.

All in all, this is a richly rewarding cycle; The music is resourceful, often moving and never bland; this is a remarkable piece which demands to be commercially recorded at the earliest opportunity.

David Jennings

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