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Stephen MONTAGUE
Southern Lament* (1997) [17:26]
Midnight Sun [2:44]
Chorale for a Millennium Sunset** [1:46]
Headless Horseman [1:58]
Thanksgiving Hymn [6:02]
A Crippled Ghost at Halloween [4:03]
Beyond the Milky Way** [1:07]
Dagger Dance*** [1:06]
Paramell V (1981) [7:48]
Haiku (1986) [13:28]
Night Frost Settles on a Pumpkin [2:00]
Something’s in Grandma’s Attic*** [2:00]
For Merce C. at the Barbican (2005) *** [3:09]
After Ives…: Four Studies [14:22]
Philip Mead (piano)
Monica Acosta (voice)*
Elysian Quartet **
Nancy Ruffer (flute/piccolo)
London Sousa Band/Stephen Montague
Stephen Montague (piano)***
rec. Vestry Hall, London College of Music and Media, 25 May, 19 December 2003, 30 August, 16 October 2005.
NMC D118 [79:09]
Stephen Montague, like many composers removed from their home turf, has that keen sense of objective nostalgia which reinforces whatever national voice they may or may not have been nursing while working as someone inside, and looking out from beyond his native shores. 

Southern Lament is based on Negro spirituals and ballads which the composer recalls from his childhood on the borderlands of Florida and Georgia. The opening is explosive and angry, the quoted songs which include ‘John Henry’ and ‘Go Down Moses’ are fragmented and transposed into angular chunks of pianistic pyrotechnics. The piece is in two movements of roughly equal length, with the second using ‘Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen’ and ‘I am Troubled’, both laments which express the heartfelt and deeply moving sadness of the cotton slaves. This second section is slow and atmospheric, with some harp-like stroking of the piano strings, and Monica Acosta’s voice emerging like a ghostly echo, doubling the melody from the piano – a moving and effective piece. 

Many of the shorter works on this CD are from two collections, Five Easy Pieces and  Autumn Leaves (1998-2003), which are ‘occasional’ pieces written as presents for friends and relatives. While concise in duration, these are certainly not negligible in content. Just to pick on a few, Chorale for a Millennium Sunset has the piano opening with a simple, almost Schubertian descending fragment, which is joined by a string quartet which extends the notes to form streamers – an austere and engaging effect. The following piece, Headless Horseman, is a fun gallop accompanied by wind and storm sounds on tape. Something’s in Grandma’s Attic is played entirely on the piano’s casing, and if the noises are anything to go by, Grandma might be advised to check on her insurance. These are a super collection of little musical sketches, showing the composer at play, relaxed and enjoying flexing his creative muscles in miniature diversions which often provide surprising and remarkable results. 

Of the other pieces, Haiku consists of some fairly new-agey electronic drifting around. For Merce C. at the Barbican was written for a prepared piano set up to perform works by John Cage, so almost inevitably sounds like an addition to that composer’s ‘Sonatas and Interludes.’ After Ives… is a suite of six studies, of which four are presented on this disc. The composer says, ‘My studies use some of Ives’s source material, but – unlike Ives’s – include larger chunks of the original tunes: the result is that mine develop more like bizarre arrangements of a whole tune, rather than short melodic fragments in a larger compositional tapestry.’ The results are widely varying, from the mad, thumpingly virtuosic Songs of Childhood, to the desolate atmosphere of Wayfaring Stranger which would make excellent dustbowl film music. Forever JPS has the ‘Stars and Stripes’ in a version which out-Horowitz’s Horowitz, and applies Ives’s clashing marching bands as a finale. 

I’ve lived with American composers messing around with pianos on and off for years now. Taking one of my old teachers Frederic Rzewski as a gritty and somewhat unforgiving reference, I find Stephen Montague’s relatively clean-living and humorous touch to be refreshing and unpretentious. This won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but there will be many who will find Montague’s post-post-modernist reflections on life at all ends of the spectrum fit neatly into what they seek in contemporary music. There is challenge and familiarity, some jokes and some tears, virtuosity and simplicity, tough brutalism and elegant nuance. All in all, a package which is hard to resist.
 
Dominy Clements
 

 

 



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