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Peter DICKINSON (b. 1934)
Chamber and Instrumental Music
Sonata for violin and piano (1961) [12:47]
Air for solo violin (1959) [3:33]
Metamorphosis for solo violin (1955, rev. 1971) [4:19]
String Quartet No.1 (1958) [13:18]
Fantasia for solo violin (1959) [9:20]
Lullaby from The Unicorns for violin and piano (1967) [3:20]
String Quartet No.2 (1976) [16:12]
Quintet Melody for solo violin (1956) [2:33]
Tranquillo for violin and piano (1986, rev. 2018) [6:01]
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin)
Roderick Chadwick (piano)
Kreutzer Quartet
rec. 2017/19, St John the Baptist, Aldbury; All Saints, Finchley, London; St Michael’s, Highgate, London

The composer Peter Dickinson was born just up the coast from where I live, at Lytham St Annes. My introduction to his music came in the form of a Naxos disc of his piano music (review), on which he performed the music himself. I did not know what to expect from his music as a friend played me part of the disc he had recently bought, I remember being quite perplexed; here was a pianist composer whose music was varied and diverse and which veered from the popular-sounding to the more challenging, I thought then that I should investigate Dickinson’s music, but it is only recently that I have done so. I invested in the Naxos disc last year and I’ve also heard the occasional track on various other discs. His excellent and well-deserved reputation as a pianist I knew well; I have a number of discs of him as a performer, a personal favourite being the Hyperion disc of Herbert Howells’ oboe music (CDH55008), whilst his interpretation of Satie’s music is also quite wonderful. So, I was intrigued when offered the opportunity to review this new disc of chamber music, none of which I had heard previously, apart from a two-minute tribute to John McCabe. I was eager to see what Dickinson does with the medium of the string quartet.

The opening work on this disc is perhaps the most challenging: the Violin Sonata from 1961 which was written towards the end of his ‘American period’. A strongly articulated compact work, the Sonata opens with strident, almost atonal phrasing, setting the scene for what is an interesting serial sonata. In the first movement of the work both the violin and the piano seem to be playing frantically from different pages, as they complement each other’s lines with hardly any time spent coming together. This is a devise that makes the work all the more interesting. By contrast, the slow central movement gives a sense of calm with the slow, almost muted violin line playing initially above the occasional chord on the piano. The movement is sectional and as the violin part becomes more animated so the piano gets a greater part to play. This acts as a kind of oasis from the frenetic outer movements. The final movement opens with a short phrase, almost a truncated scale, which is repeated several times with the pace increasing every time. Peter Sheppard Skærved and Roderick Chadwick take this music in their stride, giving an excellent performance, one which, whilst not for the faint-hearted, draws the listener in and keeps them interested in the music.

There are two further works for violin and piano on this disc, the first of which, the Lullaby from The Unicorns cannot be more different. The piano introduces the work before the violin enters with a lilting melody which the piano echoes at times. The effect of the music is quite lovely. The final piece on the disc, the Tranquillo for violin and piano, began life as the third of four adagios that make up the slow movement of Dickinson’s Violin Concerto. The initial theme comes from Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata, although the treatment it gets here makes it sound at times quite ethereal whilst also having the air of a slow dance.

There are four works on the disc for solo violin, opening with Air for solo violin from 1959, a quite ravishing little piece which at times reminded me of Vaughan Williams’s Lark in the way that it makes its way up the register. This is followed by the Metamorphosis for solo violin which comes from some four years earlier, although Dickinson revised it in 1971. On the whole, this piece is stylistically similar to the Air, with a slow lilting main theme which is interrupted with short, more angular phrases from about halfway through until this more agitated style eventually replaces the more melodic music. The Fantasia for solo violin from 1959 is the longest of these pieces, and my favourite of the four. The music is strongly articulated and demanding, both for the performer and listener, as it traverses the leaps and bounds of the thematic material. The piece is very absorbing and interesting. The final piece for solo violin, Quintet Melody of 1956. The composer says in his excellent and erudite booklet notes that this is all that survives from a proposed quintet for violin, cello, flute, clarinet and harpsichord. Dickinson does not say why he destroyed the work. This beautiful little melody, hauntingly Jewish at times, was found later jotted down on the back of a separate piece of score paper. It is quite lovely and engaging, and as with all of these four solo pieces, it is played wonderfully by Peter Sheppard Skærved.

The promise of the two string quartets is what initially drew me to this recording, and they can’t be more different in their outlook. The first dates from 1958, soon after the composer arrived in New York, although Dickinson revised the work in 2010. The Kreutzer Quartet gave the premiere of the revised version. Thought of as “aggressively modern” by the American critics in 1961, its three movements and modernism now seeming conventional, especially when compared to the Second Quartet. The central slow movement is particularly fine with its calming violin solo, even if the composer talks of the central section containing some “weird col legno sounds”. I also like the way that the final movement gives reference to short extracts from the music of the previous movements, giving the work a semi-cyclical feel and a sense of completeness.

The big question I have regarding the String Quartet No. 2 of 1976, is to wonder if it is a quartet after all, with its use of the piano as well as the strings; it could be described as a modern take on the medium of the piano quintet. The two-movement work opens very quietly with the strings playing a theme based upon a piano “Rag” which Dickinson composed when he was a student and ultimately destroyed. With the piano playing memories of the same theme, it sounds like you are stood outside two practice rooms and you catch bits of the music from each room as if each were trying to master the theme. At times it sounds as if the quartet and the piano are playing around each other until each end up playing the music at the same time. This is quite ingenious and becomes clearer as the volume gradually increases. The short second movement, here played without a break, explodes on to the scene at full volume. Finally the snippets of the Rag theme come together and add a sense of conclusion to the work: quite wonderful! It looks as if the composer has only composed these two quartets, which is a shame, as both offer the listener a great deal to get their teeth into, and I for one would like to hear more.

The music on this disc is varied and interesting and the wonderful booklet notes by the composer both introduce and highlight specific aspects of the music; that’s very helpful. The performances of all the works are excellent with the first violin of the Kreutzer Quartet also playing the violin in the other works. These are committed performances, which help the listener engage with the music, I hope that Toccata Classics will go on to record more of Peter Dickinson’s exciting chamber music with these musicians, as I for one will be more than interested. The recording is also blessed with excellent recorded sound which helps you get the most from this music.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: John France

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