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Contemporary Piano Soundbites: Composers in Lockdown 2020
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
rec. 27 and 28 July 2020, Gransden Hall, Merritt Centre, Sherborne Girls, Dorset, UK

Whether you regard Covid 19 as a hoax, the end of the world, simply a nuisance or a warning about the fragility of the human condition, there is no doubt that the pandemic has caused untold damage – locally, nationally and internationally. So much that we were used to has disappeared from our lives: holidays, football, socialisation, and the Arts. And I cannot believe that I was in a pub recently and heard the old call – ‘Time, Gentlemen Please!’ or at least the politically correct equivalent, at 10pm. I thought that had disappeared many years ago.

During the Lockdown (we seem to be heading there again) pianist Duncan Honeybourne commissioned a series of short piano ‘soundbites’ from a wide selection of composers – old and young, established and aspiring. There were premiered by ‘video link’ from the piano in his study. As well as giving opportunities for hearing ‘live music’ in these straightened times, it was also a fund-raising project for Help Musicians UK hardship find. This CD is a permanent record of this project, and, equally importantly, the profits will go to the charity.

Looking at the track-list reveals a huge age spread of composers. The senior person is John Macleod, born in 1934 and the youngest is Zoe Sones who was born a mere 22 years ago.

I explored this CD in four sessions; I felt that 23 pieces by 22 musically diverse composers was a little too much - and I am glad that I did, as these ‘mini-recitals’ allowed me to concentrate on each piece.  Before listening, I read up the relevant liner notes. The reader will be relieved that I am not going to critique each one, but I decided to pick out eight that immediately appealed to me, which implies no criticism of the other 15 pieces.

Despite its title and largely lugubrious mood, David Jennings’s ‘Melancholy. A Fragment’ is not depressing. There is little optimism in these pages, but a deep sense of resignation. Structurally, this is written in ternary form, with the outer sections designed as a palindrome.  The composer has written that the piece ‘documents my response to the sad state of events unfolding around me’ at the end of March 2020’. Jennings told me that this was the first piece of piano music he has written in ten years. He has been concentrating on other genres and had not intended to write any more keyboard music. Based on the quality of invention and the depth of feeling in the present piece, I hope that he continues to compose for piano.

Clive Jenkins hails from Plymouth in the West Country.  His contribution to this CD is ‘Quicksilver’. This is an exuberant piece that blows the cobwebs away; there is nothing of tragedy or despair here. I would like to hear more of his music.

‘A Dark Waltz’ by the senior Scottish composer John McLeod, is another piece that seems to call up both reactions to the lockdown: hope and despondency. This dark-hued little masterpiece is a clever concoction of varying metres, textures, and dynamics. McLeod’s music is always inventive, interesting, and approachable. His style of ‘modernism’ demands attention, is challenging, but never off-putting.

I have not come across Sadie Harrison before, although she has been performed and broadcast across the globe by many of the world’s leading ensembles and soloists.  The liner notes explain that her short piece ‘In the Air’ ‘muses on the unseen, nebulous identity of the coronavirus, an invisible enemy that brought the world to its knees.’ This urbane music uses a clever combination of ‘improvisatory’ melodies and spinetingling harmonies to achieve it effect; this is one of the loveliest pieces on this CD.

One work that I took to immediately was Benjamin Oliver’s ‘From the Sublime to the Ridiculous’. I liked the sound of the title. The musical material for this piece is quite limited; there is a perfect cadence, a jittery melody, a rising arpeggio, a touch of romance and not a lot else. Oliver had explained that ‘these basic ingredients are repeated, reordered and transformed as the piece develops.’ The resulting piece is tongue in cheek, and none the worse for that. Great stuff!

Luke Whitlock’s gentle ‘Refractions of Light’ is relaxing and soothing. Clearly owing something to the minimalist tradition, this music just washes over the listener’s mind - and so, it should; the composer has stated that this piece is one of an ongoing series entitled Oceanic Interludes.

The final track on this disc is Peter Facer’s ‘Diabolical Dance’. This is a toccata-like work which is powerful and virtuosic. If I am honest, it is not too ‘fiendish’ to my ear - except in its technical difficulty. It makes a splendid finale to this remarkable set of pieces.

No review of this CD could fail to mention John Casken’s Tempus Plangendi - A Time to Mourn. The title derives from Ecclesiastes 3:4 from the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible.  Although the ambience of this short piece reflects the Northumberland landscape close to where the composer lives, the sound also captures bells. This reflects the words ‘Tolling bells for those who mourn/ Ringing bells for a brighter dawn’ The music is a profound reflection on the reality of the current situation, but also signals a message of hope for the future.

My only criticism of this CD is the packaging. For old eyes, small white print on black is not helpful.  The liner notes are written in a tiny font. Fortunately, when the disc is launched these will be available in PDF format from the Prima Facie webpage. That said, the programme notes are superb. Duncan Honeybourne has written a succinct assessment of each piece, as well as explaining the rationale behind the project.

Clearly, these are all first performances, so there is nothing against which to judge the playing.  That said, the recital seems to me perfect in every way. Duncan Honeybourne is a great champion for all these composers.

From an artistic point of view, Honeybourne writes that: ‘My objective, as I stated in my invitation to the composers, was fourfold: to imaginatively harness the zeitgeist of our present situation: to bring comfort and enjoyment to a large ready-made audience stuck at home, to aid musicians badly affected by the “cultural lockdown” and to add to the contemporary repertoire, creating an artistic keepsake of this extraordinary phase in our history.’

This excellent CD ticks the boxes of all four goals, presenting a varied soundscape of ‘contemporary’ music. There is nothing particularly difficult here. If anything, a lugubrious atmosphere seems to hang over many of these pieces, but bearing in mind the physiological, economical and psychological impact of the pandemic, this is hardly surprising. That said, within the this largely restrained ambience, there is much powerful optimism for the future - which currently is what we all need.

John France

John CASKEN (b.1949) Tempus Plangendi (2.55)
Phillip COOKE (b.1980) The Turtle Dove (3.04)
David JENNINGS (b.1972) Melancholy. A Fragment (3.31)
Marcus BLUNT (b.1947) Prelude to Better Times (1.57)
Clive JENKINS (b.1938) Quicksilver (2.35)
Francis POTT (b.1957) Poem of the Air (4.18)
John MCLEOD (b.1934) A Dark Waltz (2.10)
David LANCASTER (b.1960) Angelus (5.47)
David POWER (b.1962) Joy (1.23)
Sadie HARRISON (b.1965) In the Air... (3.04)
Simon CLARKSON (b.1964) Everyone Sang (3.33)
Adam GORB (b.1958) After the Darkness (5.23)
Graham FITKIN (b.1963) R Zero (6.12)
Liz Dilnot JOHNSON (b.1964) A Little Lockdown Lyric (1.57)
Benjamin OLIVER (b.1981) From the Sublime to the Ridiculous (5.31)
Hayley JENKINS (b.1990) I hear you Mr Blackbird - Before March 23rd, 2020 (1.10); I hear you Mr Blackbird - After March 23rd, 2020 (2.36)
Charlotte MARLOW (b.1992) Wayfaring (2.52)
Zoe SONES (b.1998) Rona (3.59)
Luke WHITLOCK (b.1978) Refractions of Light (4.52)
Ludo GELOEN (b.1962) Paralysis (3.39)
Paul HENLEY (b.1959) Adagietto (3.05)
Peter FACER (b.1987) Diabolical Dance (3.33)

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