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Edwin ROXBURGH (b. 1937)
Reflets dans la glace: Sound Adventures for piano

Reflets dans la Glace for piano duet [11.48]
Waka Hasagawa; Joseph Tong (piano duet)
Les Miroirs de Miro - four pieces for young pianists (1981) [4.53]
Sally Mays (piano)
Six Etudes (1980) [14.14]
Hiroaki Takenouchi (piano)
Piano Sonata (1993) [17.11]
Peter O’Hagan (piano)
Two Pieces (for young pianists) [4.34]
Thalia Myers (piano)
Prelude and Toccata [7.49]
Karl Lutchmayer (piano)
Labyrinth (1970) [8.07]
George King (piano)
Introduction and Arabesques (1963) [6.55]
James Young (piano)
rec. The Warehouse, London, 26 November 2006 (Reflets); 29 June 2003 (rest).
NMC D132 [75.20]

The composer announces right at the beginning of his booklet notes that he has been very fortunate "to work with musicians of artistic distinction and integrity". He goes on to add that "the pianists featured in these recordings demonstrate this with supreme artistry and virtuosity". I can add no more to his well-pronounced accolades except to tell you a little about the music and about the composer.

Edwin Roxburgh is known both as a composer and as a virtuoso international oboist having many first performances of concertos and chamber works especially written with him in mind. His own extensive catalogue includes much music for oboe including the moving ‘Lament’ for oboe and strings of 2003.

Each work here is performed by a different pianist; some are pupils or have been pupils of the composer at the Royal College of Music where he is a well-known teacher.

Thalia Myers is a really experienced exponent of contemporary piano music, not least that of Roxburgh himself but who, touchingly, has recorded the first set of pieces for children, four in all which are entitled somewhat pretentiously I feel ‘Les Miroirs de Miro’. I have seen these myself in the Associated Board syllabus. This first set is aimed more at children, the second set ‘Two Pieces’ for the adult pianist of a slightly higher and more demanding standard. These two pieces are played by Sally Mays and have the impressionist titles ‘Hallowe’en’ and the evocative ‘Moonscape’.

But it’s the ‘Six Etudes’ which are for me the highlight of this CD. They are freely atonal and terrifically exciting at times, quiet and distant at others. The opening Etude contrasts heavy chords with gushing upward scales using the entire instrument. Little dotted rhythmic figures reminded me of Messiaen’s bird-calls popping out of the textures. As soon as it’s over something approaching a pokey little atonal two-part invention strikes up; this Etude being marked ‘Flautando, leggiero’. Its successor reiterates a high repeated chord. Pointilistically, it continues with textures scattered across the keyboard before building to an impressive climax. All six Etudes exude total compositional confidence and a wide variety of daring textures. The final piece is a coruscating two minute show-piece with Ligetian cross-rhythms in contrary motion contrasting with fanfare figures which just arrest the movement for a moment. These rank as the finest produced by any Englishman, and are well worth the study.

The Piano Sonata is the longest work on the disc and need considerable powers of concentration from the listener as well as from the pianist. Like most of these pieces this is virtuoso music. Here it is Peter O’Hagan, who knows Roxburgh’s demands very well now after many years of playing his music, who is the marvel. The three movements are played without a break with intensity and passion - the finale is marked ‘Appassionato’. There are moments of relaxation even romanticism, and if you think that at times it sounds almost like Alban Berg as I did at about three minutes in, then, as the composer tells us, the piece is based on a three note motif found in Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces: B natural, G sharp and G natural. Curious that they should conjure up the soundworld so immediately. Like the other pieces the language is freely atonal and dense: rhythmically highly complex and demanding the full array of the keyboard.

The opening work on the disc appears actually to be called, if the composer’s notes are to be understood ‘Hommage to Debussy’ for piano duet. Its third movement is ‘Reflets dans la glace’, the title giving its name to the CD. The textures here are, in movements 1 and 3, very Messiaenic, even down to great cavernous silences in movement three. The middle movement uses, you might say, what Debussy-would-have-written-were-he-alive-now kind of textures; very kaleidoscopic, fearsomely virtuoso and fast.

The least interesting piece is the earliest and it concludes the disc: the ‘Introduction and Arabesques’. It is there for completeness and offers us a more rounded picture of the composer’s considerable achievements. Its ideas are less arresting and more formalized. The composer being in his mid-twenties when writing it, has mannerisms rather than passion and is concerned more with the style of the times than with communicating anything new.

With the ‘Prelude and Toccata’ the composer admits to attempt to "rejuvenate a classical form" with "stillness in the Prelude, while the Toccata…..gradually speeds up into a fiery finale of virtuosic intensity". Originally written for Thalia Myers it is tackled brilliantly here by Karl Lutchmayer.

That leaves us with ‘Labyrinth’, and another Debussy connection. In 1970 Richard Burnett played the First Book of Preludes at the Wigmore Hall. This work was meant to accompany it, and, to a certain extent show-off the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand which contains a nine-note extension to bottom C. Roxburgh exploits this, nevertheless the work also has a liquid impressionist quality, especially near the beginning. The music descends from the upper register to the lower, going as it were, into the Labyrinth. George King studied with Roxburgh at the Royal College and the composer adds that King’s "technique and imagination fully realize the delicacy and passion of the piece."

All of the pianists are superb and the recording seems to be ideally balanced and made in an entirely appropriate acoustic.

To sum up ... This disc, which comes with notes by the composer and biographies of each of the nine pianists is an impressive achievement by all concerned although many might find the music a little too consistent in style, despite the brief didactic pieces. Personally I yearn for more warmth in the music but there are moments here of great delicacy and fragile beauty, as well as passion, intensity and power.

Gary Higginson


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