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Explorations
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)

Prelude, Hymn and Toccata Op. 96 (1987)
Anthony HEDGES (b. 1931)

Three Explorations Op. 145 (2002)
Sonata Op. 53 (1974)
Five Aphorisms Op. 113 (1990)
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) arr. Vally LASKER 1885-1978)

Japanese Suite Op. 33 (1915)
Ronald STEVENSON (b. 1928)

Two Chinese Folk-Songs (1966)
Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow (pianos)
Recorded in the Church of St. John the Baptist, Alkborough, North Lincolnshire, 2003 DDD
THE DIVINE ART 25024 [76:51]

 

Although this disc takes its title from one of the three works contributed by Anthony Hedges, it is the Prelude, Hymn and Toccata for two pianos of Kenneth Leighton that is the true tour de force here. The work dates from the year before Leighton’s sadly premature death at the age of fifty nine. It bears his final opus number although the composer’s widow states that Leighton was in good health at the time of its composition and unaware of any impending illness.

It is difficult not to listen to this work without reflecting on the fact that it is based around the hymn tune Abide With Me. This in itself was nothing unusual, for Leighton was a deeply religious man who produced a large quantity of fine church music. Hymns were therefore an inextricable part of his musical and personal life. That said, the choice of hymn, given what was around the corner, is particularly poignant and in so many ways this piece seems a summation of all that was integral to Leighton’s compositional personality.

The hymn tune itself is buried deep inside the long, profoundly affecting slow movement. So deep in fact that I suspect few would be likely to spot the oblique references, often fleeting and harmonic rather than melodic. Yet this is quintessential Leighton, at once deeply serious, touchingly beautiful and haunting in its feeling of spirituality yet rubbing shoulders with passages of rhythmic dynamism that were an equal trademark. In the opening Prelude, double dotted rhythms abound and as this comparatively short movement progresses phrases are tossed backwards and forwards between the two instruments until the initially uneasy tranquillity of the slow movement is reached. In the concluding Toccata the very opening bars immediately bring to mind the piano music of Messiaen and John McCabe (track three from beginning) the latter Leighton’s junior by some ten years. Indeed on a rhythmic level at least, comparisons can be drawn between Leighton’s music and McCabe’s own momentum-charged writing for the piano. Other than these few bars however the rest of the movement is Leighton’s own as for the large part, with just brief melodic reprieves, the toccata progresses headlong towards its startlingly abrupt conclusion. The sheer energy of the music is finely mirrored in Anthony Goldstone’s and Caroline Clemmow’s thrillingly dynamic performance.

Anthony Hedges is one of those rare composers that can float between the worlds of serious music and light music with total ease and conviction although he may well be better known for many for his more popular excursions. Yet here is proof that his grittier work can be highly impressive in its integrity and technique. The fact that the composer is a fine pianist is evident in the quality and technical control of the writing, nowhere more so than in the impressive solo Sonata, a robust work cast in three movements. The allegro of the first movement gradually emerges from the chordal opening that sews much of the material for the entire work. The central movement is essentially rhapsodic in character and not unlike the central movement of Explorations whilst the culminating Allegro vivace releases the tension in an energetic summation that builds to a bristling conclusion (track fifteen, final thirty seconds). The Three Explorations were written as recently as 2002 and explore the wide-ranging possibilities that can be extracted from a note cell that is common to each piece. The Five Aphorisms were written to be played in a concert marking the opening of the Anthony Hedges Archive in Hull and although the five brief pieces pass through a variety of moods the outer movements are essentially lively in style.

Holst’s Japanese Suite is not one of his better-known works, possibly overshadowed by the more familiar Oriental Suite, Beni Mora. Yet melodically it is highly attractive and Holst’s treatment of the old Japanese songs, originally whistled to him by a dancer, are imaginative and full of his characteristic rhythmic and harmonic twists. There is some doubt as to whether the two piano version was actually made by the composer himself and copied by his amanuensis Vally Lasker or arranged wholly by her; either way it is both effective and enjoyable. The opening Prelude (Song of the Fisherman) is particularly atmospheric (track seven from 1:30) and returns for a varied reprise in the central Interlude. Continuing the oriental thread Ronald Stevenson’s Two Chinese Folk-Songs are fleeting (not a characteristic always associated with this particular composer!) arrangements of two genuine Chinese songs. The first, Song for New Year’s Day is gentle and treated in canon. The second, Song of the Crab-fisher, is lively in character and is given a fun twist by the melody being treated in counterpoint with its retrograde; what Stevenson punningly refers to as a "crab-canon".

It is good to have these works available on disc and Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow give them all sterling advocacy. It is the Leighton however that steals the show, in a recording that also serves as a fine remembrance of a composer deserving of the highest esteem.

Christopher Thomas

see also reviews by Graham Saunders and Jonathan Woolf



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