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John PITTS (b. 1976)
Changes – for 20 nifty fingers [3:04]
Toccata – Blue Frenzy [9:41]
Air 1 – Gentle Interweaving [3:34]
Fantasia 1- Clockwork 5/4 [3:23]
Air 2 – After Satie [3:06]
Fantasia 2 – On the Westminster Chimes [4:11]
Air 3 – On an anagram [4:17]
Fantasia 3 – Parallel Octaves [5:18]
Air 4 – Sarabande [3:49]
Fantasia 4- Wind Chimes [8:18]
Air 5 – Calmly Contented [3:57]
Fantasia 5 – Bells in 9/8 [3:38]
Air 6 – Modal Twist [4:11]
Fantasia 6 – Half-Second Hand [5:33]
Air 7 – Cantabile Mist [5:56]
Fantasia 7 – All in a Chord [5:54]
Compositions 1992-2007
Steven Kings (piano)
rec. 7, 14, 21 August 2008, The Auditorium, The Victoria Rooms, Music Department, University of Bristol. DDD
CD.TP/IPM 08 [77:49]
Experience Classicsonline

A couple of years ago I reviewed a CD of music by the Severnside Alliance of Composers. I was particularly impressed with some piano pieces by John Pitts. I noted that his “music reminded me of Herbert Howells’ Lambert’s Clavichord; not in idiom so much as his ‘picking up’ an older style of keyboard composition and re-presenting it for our times”. I concluded by suggesting that “this is lovely music to listen to and shows a deep absorption of earlier styles but with a large degree of originality added for good measure.”
 
A few days ago, the present CD dropped into my letter box and I was delighted to be introduced to a larger selection of his music. My original thoughts about his style, ability and technique held up well throughout the near-eighty minutes of this recording.
 
It is not really the place to give a biography of John Pitts. However a few brief notes will help the listener and the potential CD purchaser gain some understanding of this interesting composer and his music.
 
John Pitts studied with a galaxy of teachers including John Casken, Robert Saxton and John Pickard. In 2003 he won the prestigious Philharmonia Orchestra Martin Musical Scholarship Fund Composition Prize: his Piano Quartet was performed by the Fidelio Quartet in the final stages of the competition at the Royal Festival Hall.
 
Pitts is interested in composing for Christian worship and for the stage. He has written incidental music for a number of stage plays and two short operatic works – Crossed Wires and the strangely entitled 3 Sliced Mice!  Other interests include working with the Bristol Savoy Operatic Society as a conductor and arranger.
 
The music on this CD consists of a major cycle of piano music – the 7 Airs & Fantasias, which I believe is well worth regarding as an entity, and two additional pieces for good measure.
 
The disc opens with a piece called Changes – for 20 nifty fingers. On this recording the pianist Stephen Kings is assisted with a further ten fingers by the composer. It is definitely a minimalist work that is vibrant and even rock-based in its driving rhythms. Like much of Pitts's music it develops bell-like changes – a campanologist's delight. After many adventures it ends abruptly on a loud violent chord. A great opener – or encore for any pianist.
 
The massive Toccata is subtitled Blue Frenzy. This is a considerable work lasting near ten minutes. I found this work to be pleasantly modern in style. I see it as complex and even disjointed but I am not sure if ‘frenzy’ is a good adjective. The idiom would seem to be rhythm piano, boogie-woogie, rather than the ‘blues’. This music is technically involved; it shows a great command of pianistic style and sounds extremely difficult. I can hardly believe that it is played by just one player!
 
The main event on this CD is the group of seven Airs interspersed with seven Fantasias. This is a colossal musical project that deserves admiration. Pitts achieves a structure that manages to be both diverse and unified at the same time. That is no mean achievement in a cycle lasting more than an hour.
 
The opening Air (1) is subtitled Gently Interweaving. This is not minimalist in ethos, but is gently meditative music that exploits shifting harmonies. There is almost a ‘pop’ feel to this piece. Its companion Fantasia –Clockwork 5/4 is constructed from gently shifting patterns of music and cross-rhythms. Initially played on the high octaves of the piano this music moves into the lower register. I was impressed by the interesting pedal effects in this piece.
 
Air (2) carries the title After Satie. In fact, Pitts almost manages to ‘out-Satie’ Eric - if that is possible. Perhaps it could be seen as the fourth Gymnopédie? There is naturally a decided French feel to this music that is at all times very beautiful and quite relaxing.
 
After this ‘Parisian’ interlude the composer turns to the Westminster Chimes for his Fantasia (2). This is composed for prepared piano. I am never too convinced by this ‘faux’ alteration of the instrument’s sound – but in this case it allows the composer to contrast two completely different tonal centres in the exposition of this piece – the ‘prepared’ and the ‘normal’. The chimes pervade most of this work and it becomes almost like a toccata. There are even suggestions of ‘Chinoiserie’ in some of the later passages. This is a mystical, mysterious, and novel exercise that cannot fail to please the listener. Furthermore it manages to bring the ‘prepared piano’ from the specialised ‘Cage-ian’ milieu into more a more traditional and universal setting.
 
The third Air, On an Anagram is a delicious, totally laid back piece of music that exudes evocative chords, felicitous melodies and pianistic devices. The melting harmonies give this piece an almost timeless feel. And lookout for some nods (probably not deliberate) to Sir Malcolm Arnold! What the anagram is, I have no clue. And I do not really care, and I guess the listener does not need to understand this device to enjoy this lovely piece of music.
 
The Fantasia (3) is entitled Parallel Octaves. However the music is not all what this title suggests. This is no technical study designed to reinforce the right or the left hand in coping with a difficult device. The Octaves are only a part of the design of this piece; the music does have a minimalist feel to it with structural changes occurring slowly and subtly.
 
The next Air; Sarabande is actually a meditative and exploratory piece. It is sometimes quite a hard-edged example of the baroque dance form that goes beyond the usual dynamic and range.
 
The corresponding Fantasia is a long piece that is designed to be hypnotic in effect. Wind Chimes hardly give a clue to the clever aural effects that Pitts creates in this Debussy-like work. He manages to reduce the music to a virtual standstill – a near perfect equilibrium – stasis.  I have not seen the score of this piece, but I guess that the entire Fantasia is constructed from some very simple material that is worked up and used with skill. It is a quite lovely piece. However, one word of warning: the listener will need to be in the ‘right’ mood to hear this piece. It requires a balance of attention and a certain letting go. These ‘wind chimes’ are not sounded by a hurricane – just a stiff breeze that blows through the listeners mind.  After a livelier and faster second section the piece ends quietly, almost hesitatingly.
 
Calmly Contented, the fifth Air is probably the most ‘traditional’ of pieces in this cycle. To my ear at any rate, it is reminiscent of Gerald Finzi, though I imagine he was not a conscious model for the composer.  The attentive listener will perhaps feel that the contentment is not quite as perfect as the title suggests. The calmness is disturbed now and again by something less serene. However the general impression of this air is of a concentrated introspection.
 
The fifth Fantasia, Bells in 9/8 is another poetic piece, evoking a variety of images in the hearer’s mind. It opens very quietly, minimalist and almost like a flower unfolding. Yet appearances can be deceptive. This piece develops into a little toccata that becomes more complex – both harmonically and rhythmical – until it reaches a mid-life crisis. Some parallel chords allow the music to slip back into the opening mood. Gently ‘clanging bells’ are heard before the work ends just a little more fraught that it opened.
 
I felt that Modal Twists (Air 6) was reminiscent of music from the 1950s. In particular I was reminded of the music of Franz Reizenstein.  It is a good balance between consonances and dissonance and also between varying tempi. For a definition of a ‘twist’ it is essential to look at Pitts’s website
 
The associated Fantasia is called Half-Second Hand. Once again this piece explores Pitts’s interest in bells and bell-ringing. Somehow, amongst the reiterated notes and the high register there is a definite Spanish feel to this music. And look out for the intriguing little downward scale figure that permeates this piece.
 
The last Air is called Cantabile Mist. I felt that it was a little slower than I would normally play cantabile. However this is a very beautiful piece that could almost be regarded as an essay in the use of the sustaining pedal. Naturally the ‘mist’ effect suggests impressionism – and this ‘-ism’ is never far away from what is a reflective piece. The final Fantasia –All in a Chord is all about chords – and their reiteration. The chordal structure varies between more or less complex harmonies. I was reminded of the music Steve Reich here. It is a perfect and decisive conclusion to a great work.
 
The playing on this CD is both stunning and seriously impressive. I alluded earlier to the Toccata sounding as if it were a piece for four hands. Steven Kings is obviously committed to this kind of music and makes a distinguished performance that does both composer and music proud. My only criticism is that I could have done with fuller programme notes. That said, however, this music is quite capable of standing on its own without a supporting commentary.
 
I look forward to watching John Pitts’s career with interest and certainly will be privileged to review any subsequent CDs if they are up to the compositional and performance standards of this one.
 
John France
 

 


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