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Edward GREGSON (b. 1945)
Complete Music for Solo Piano
Murray McLachlan, Rose McLachlan, Edward Gregson (piano)
rec. January 2020, The Stoller Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester, UK
Premiere recordings
NAXOS 8.574222 [71:59]

Collectors are likely to be particularly familiar with the name of Edward Gregson as a composer of music for orchestra or for brass band. A number of his orchestral works have been recorded by Chandos while the Doyen label has done his brass band music proud, issuing several discs devoted to his music. Here, however, we are concerned with his solo piano music and every piece on this Naxos disc is a recorded premiere.

The most substantial and ambitious work on Murray McLachlan’s programme is the Piano Sonata in one movement of 1983. As the pianist explains in his very useful liner notes, the work “utilises six different musical units, labelled ‘tempos’. Each ‘tempo’ has its own character and emphasis”. These units are labelled one to six and they all recur at various points in the work. Though it plays without a break, Naxos helpfully divide the sonata into three tracks and tell us which of the ‘tempos’ is utilised in each of the sections. I found it easier to discern some of the ‘tempos’ than others.

The sonata was inspired by the Second Piano Sonata of Michael Tippett, to whom Gregson dedicated his own sonata. I may be mistaken but I discern in Gregson’s writing the (beneficial) influence of Tippett’s colour and, at times, the senior composer’s sense of rapturous freedom. There also seems to be a debt to Bartók in some of the music’s rhythmic drive. I’ll readily admit that I still don’t feel I’ve really come to terms with this sonata, not least in terms of discerning and understanding its organisation, which Murray McLachlan describes as a “mosaic structure”. McLachlan delivers a virtuoso performance, not least in the subdued, atmospheric passages in the second section of the work (tr 29) and, at the other end of the scale, so to speak, in the thunderous, percussive conclusion to that section. The last segment of the work (tr 30) features a good deal of lyrical writing – almost romantic at times. As I said, I’ve still to come properly to terms with this sonata but it’s clearly a work of substance and Edward Gregson could scarcely wish for better advocacy than Murray McLachlan’s.

In compete contrast to the sonata stands An Album for my Friends with which the programme opens. Each of the short individual movements is dedicated to one of the composer’s friends. Most of the movements are dances with titles derived from the keyboard suites of Bach. I’m not sure if these dances were intended to be portraits of ‘my friends pictured within’, to borrow Elgar’s phrase; perhaps not, since the individual pieces are so short. However, these succinct, accessible pieces seem to me to bespeak affection. It will be noted that one piece, the tiny, impish ‘Brian’s Bourrée’, is heard twice, either side of ‘Bethan’s Bourrée’; I wonder if this means that the two friends in question are related in real life? The music of the two Bourrées seems to be connected. Elsewhere, ‘Clare’s Courante’ is charming and elegant, the music enriched by Baroque-style decoration. I also liked the cool, graceful ‘Stefan’s Sarabande’; to my ears this bears a debt to Ravel. ‘Gavin’s Gigue’ is dexterous, fast and merry. This is a sparkling set of miniatures which I really enjoyed. Murray McLachlan plays them delightfully and it was a very good idea to open the programme with this collection as it affords an excellent entrée to Gregson’s music.

Lullaby dates from Gregson’s student days. It’s a disarming composition; the music has a gentle lilt and is completely winning. For A Song for Sue Edward Gregson briefly displaces Murray McLachlan from the keyboard. That’s fitting because the music derives from a larger work that was an engagement gift to the composer’s wife-to-be. The work in question is the Concertante for Piano and Brass Band (1966); that’s an unusual, possibly unique combination of forces. A Song for Sue is a reworking of the Concertante’s central ‘Nocturne’ movement. I’ve not heard the original work but this miniature works exceptionally well as a standalone piece. The music is warm and affectionate with, unless my ears deceive me, an occasional touch of Blues in the harmonies. The other small individual work is Friday a.m. This is an intriguing little piece. It derives from the central Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Mahlerian reminiscences permeate the piece. But grafted onto Mahler are thoughts of what the composer refers to as “a Manhattan jazz club around 2 am when everything is subdued and transient”. There were occasions too when the music suggested to me that Sergei Rachmaninov had drifted into the jazz club and seated himself at the piano for some melancholy improvisation. The piece is a winner and I loved Murray McLachlan’s way with it.

For the Four Pictures for Piano Duet Murray McLachlan’s daughter Rose joins her father. These short pieces are aimed, we are told, at ‘children’ of all ages. Gregson deliberately avoided entitling any of the movements so that young players could imagine for themselves what the music conveys. The first piece exploits the sonorities available from two pianos; the music seems to suggest fanfares. McLachlan rightly describes the second piece as a “wistful slow waltz”; it’s charming. The third suggests to me a fast rustic dance. The final piece, the longest, is built round an incessant repetition of the note D, albeit at a variety of octaves, round which Gregson weaves gentle compound-time material; the effect is hypnotic.

For some reason I found the Six Little Piano Pieces to be not quite as attractive as some of the companion works on this programme. However, that’s an entirely subjective view and there’s no gainsaying the craftsmanship.

Two of the Three Études were composed specifically for this recording. The first of the three originated as an independent piece written in tribute to a former colleague of Gregson’s who died in 2006. Murray McLachlan describes this a “a motoric, linear bravura piece”. The music contains a passing reference to Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto (at 0:46). The writing demands – and here receives – extremely precise articulation. The second Étude is dedicated to McLachlan, who draws attention to the music’s “quiet wistfulness”. The piece gives the impression of cold, pure water. The third Étude evidences Gregson’s admiration for Bartók. It’s a driving, toccata-like creation which is full of exciting energy.
 
Edward Gregson’s piano music is varied and rewarding and I enjoyed exploring it with Murray McLachlan as my guide. His playing is superb throughout and he clearly identifies strongly with the music. Nor should one overlook the expert contributions of Rose McLachlan and the composer himself at various points in the programme. Engineer Ben Sharpe has captured the piano playing in a very pleasing, truthful recording. Edward Gregson himself produced the disc and I should imagine that, wearing his composer’s hat, he’s delighted with the results. Murray McLachlan’s notes provide an ideal introduction to the music.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Philip R. Buttall ~ William Kreindler

Contents
An Album for my Friends (2011) [17:08]
Paul’s Prelude [1:48]
Adam’s Allemande [1:10]
Clare’s Courante [1:57]
Stefan’s Sarabande [2:00]
Gaynor’s Gavotte [1:27]
Brian’s Bourrée [0:38]
Bethan’s Bourrée [0:55]
Brian’s Bourrée (repeat) [0:43]
Maggie’s Minuet [2:42]
Gavin’s Gigue [1:35]
Phil’s Postlude [2:01]
Three Études (2020) [[7:09]
Fast and Rhythmic [2:00]
Not Too Slow, Gently [3:08]
Fast, with Energy [1:59]
Lullaby (1965) [2:58]
A Song for Sue (1966) [3:57]
Four Pictures for Piano Duet (1982)
Quite Fast, but Majestic [1:03]
Quite Slow and Thoughtful [1:12]
Lively [1:11]
Quite Slow and Sad [2:14]
Six Little Piano Pieces (1993 Version) [9:17]
Quite Slow and Precisely [1:26]
Fast and Playful [0:46]
Flowing [1:24]
Not Too Fast [1:23]
Gently and with Expression [2:04]
With Energy [2:08]
Friday a.m. (1981) [6:23]
Piano Sonata in one Movement (1983) [19:00]
Tempi I-4 [4:45]
Tempi 1-3, plus Tempi 5-6 [7:54]
Tempi 1-5 [6:18]



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