Richard Stoker is the kind of individual who in the
old days would have been called a polymath. Not only is he an
accomplished musician involved in teaching, playing, composing and furthering
his discipline but he writes poetry, authors novels and is involved
in humans rights organisations. However it is with his music
that we have to deal with here.
The Piano Works of Richard Stoker is definitely
a good introduction to the music of this relatively unheard composer.
I hasten to add that the 'unheard' fact has nothing to do with the quality
of his music. It is simply that most British Composers both alive and
dead have the same problem of projecting their oeuvre onto the musical
platform. It seems that the concert programmer will rarely sacrifice
a Rachmaninov Concerto or a Chopin Nocturne for an Arnold Symphony or
a Stoker Sonata. And, the more's the pity.
A very brief overview of the composer's life and work
so far will not come amiss.
He was born in 1938 in Castleford, in what was then
the West Riding. Music, poetry and art seem to have been important to
him from a very early age. The Pontefract Town web site [http://www.casandpont.freeserve.co.uk/]
makes great play of the fact that his favourite place was the Castle
in that Yorkshire market town. His favourite sport was, and presumably
still is, cricket. There is a lovely photograph on that same web site
with young Master Stoker, complete with school-boy trench-coat standing
outside the public library with a musical score under his arm.
Educated locally, he then attended the Huddersfield
School of Music. This great town was later to be honoured with a fine,
if unusual, work by the composer for narrator and piano called 'Portrait
of a Town Op. 52. He studied with the late, great Eric Fenby and
the little appreciated composer and teacher Harold Truscott. Then he
translated to the Royal Academy of Music. This is where the name-dropping
really begins. After a few private lessons with Arthur Benjamin (famous
for his Rumba - but also a fine symphonist) and with Benjamin Britten,
his composition teacher at the RAM was none other than Lennox Berkeley.
And what an influence this was to be. All through this present CD and
his other works we are conscious of the influence and shade of this
great English composer. But let us not forget the period he had in France
with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, which rounded off his musical education.
All this academic study paid off in a life of composing
and preparing the next generation of composers at his old Alma mater
- the Royal Academy of Music, where he taught from 1963 to 1985. Not
content with this contribution to the musical life of the nation he
edited ‘Composer' magazine for 11 years.
A brief look at his catalogue reveals adventures in
nearly every form of musical composition. There are, amongst some 300
works, three string quartets, a Piano Concerto (I would love to hear
this, based on what I have listened to in this present CD), Organ works
including a Symphony for that instrument, two piano sonatas, an opera-
Johnson Preserv'd, a number of overtures, songs and various piano
pieces. Over and above all this 'concert hall' music he has been involved
in writing scores for stage plays, television and for films.
The down side is that so little of this music appears
to have been recorded. Two CDs of Vocal Music [ASC 10 & 17] clarinet
pieces in Chandos [CHAN 9079], guitar music [ASC 15] and the present
CD seem to be all that is about. [ASC
reviews}There are two volumes of Hoagy Carmichael arrangements.
It is actually very depressing. There appears to be a treasure house
of music available and no way of hearing it.
For completeness, I notice that he has written an autobiography
Open Window-Open Door (1985), a children's novel Tanglewood
(1993) and a novel Diva. He has two volumes of poetry to his
credit. However, I must confess that Richard Stoker's poetry does not
seem to come up to the standard of his music. I append a line or two
from his poem New York Vistas:-
Changing lifts near the top of Empire State I remember
the 'Huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Looking out over Manhattan my 'tired, poor' guide is
now far, far below me.
Does the Battery flagpole still stand in its place
as in 1797 two hundred or so years ago?
I think his piano sonatas will be remembered long after
this poem has been forgotten.
One of the notable things to my ear about the piano
music of Richard Stoker is its relative consistency. There are certain
stylistic factors that seem to crop up from the earliest works until
the latest - at least as represented on this disc. Of course there are
differences - but these differences are often a matter of degree rather
than fundamental. One is always conscious of a tone row of some kind
underlying this music. Without the musical scores and analytical notes
it is difficult to see how this structure is applied to the music. However,
I think it is flexible. Not for Stoker is the rigid serialism or structuralism
of some of Boulez's works. If he wishes to use a chord that John Ireland
would have enjoyed, then so be it. He does not wait until the series
creates it for him. Formally the works on this disc are quite conventional
-whether they are cyclic works like the Second Piano Sonata or
are a collection of pieces such as the Regency Suite. Most of
the pieces on this disc are eminently listenable - and do not require
an in-depth understanding of the post-1945 avant-garde.
Piano Serenade Op.17 (1962)
The Piano Serenade Op.17 was composed in 1962.
I am not surprised that the composer chose to orchestrate this work
for string orchestra for it has very much the atmosphere of a String
Serenade about it. It consists of five very short (too short!) movements.
The opening 'Prelude' has the feel of Berkeley and Poulenc about it
-an attractive start indeed. The 'Air' is a dry piece - almost frosty
in its effect. However towards the end of the movement a little warmth
is admitted. Stoker describes this as a 'balletic piece full of repose.'
The 'Danse' is attractive - in waltz time with a great flexibility of
tempi. There is no doubt that the heart of the work is the 'Intermezzo'.
This is certainly a deeply thought-out miniature. The work concludes
with an attractive 'Caprice' that nods its head to the opening Prelude.
A good example of one of Stoker's formal devices - the cyclic form.
Piano Sonata No.1 Op.26 (1967)
The 1st Piano sonata is a more 'modern'
sounding work than virtually everything else on this CD. It was commissioned
by the Romanian born pianist Else Cross in 1967. Stoker cast this work
in two movements. He had been impressed by Beethoven's two-movement
Piano sonatas Op.90 (No.27) and Op 111 (No.32). Within
the context of these 'truncated' sonatas Beethoven was able to create
the illusion of three and four movement works. He achieved this by contrast
both between the movements and internal to them. The first movement
of Stoker's work, a Ritmico, is somewhat impressionistic in its detail.
It is as if the composer is trying to establish a theme but deliberately
never succeeds. The programme note
s describes the longer
second movement as a kind of Passacaglia. This extended, slow movement
certainly seems to be more coherent formally than the first movement.
The work finishes with a bell-like coda. Altogether an interesting piece
in a challenging yet not off-putting modern idiom.
A Poet's Notebook Op.19 (1969)
A Poet's Notebook Op.19 (1969) combines two
of Stoker's interests. And perhaps a third by implication. For not only
does he compose and write poetry, but he also exhibits paintings. So
what we have here could be entitled An Artist's Sketchbook. For that
is what these six pieces actually are - thumbnail sketches. One is reminded
perhaps of Prokofiev's Visions Fugitives - not so much in quality
but in design. They are thumbnail sketches; pieces that are so short
as to be untenable except when played in one sitting or perhaps as thoughts
for future works; maybe even defining the parameters for a developing
It is well placed on the CD after the relatively modernistic
1st Piano Sonata. Once again we have the Berkeley-esque
and French feel to this work. There are six very short sketches in this
work; Ballad, Epigram, Elegy, Lampoon, Parody, and Ode. The first sketch
has a lovely tune set against a chordal accompaniment. The second is
like a little toccata - far too short. The Elegy has a poignant theme
- that is again far too short to get one's teeth into. The Lampoon is
a little study making use of triplets. Britten, perhaps, is the Parody
intended in the fifth movement. And finally the Ode is spare, compressed
and perhaps lacking in movement. Again there is a touch of 'Winter
Words' here I think.
The Piano Variations Op.45 (1973)
The theme used in this piece does not seem to be vital.
It is hard to see how the composer can make much of it. There are ten
contrasting variations. This work is much less approachable than some
of the works on this disc. It is as if it were deliberately written
in what was the 'received' style of the early seventies. I must confess
that this is a bit of a curate's egg. Some of the sound schemes are
effective whilst some seem like tinkling. It is fair to add that there
is an intense concentration of sound here. Their only connection with
Rachmaninov -it was written for that composer's birthday centenary -
is the fact that they are variations. It is not, in my opinion, the
best work on this CD; it is a bit of a makeweight.
Regency Suite Op.15 (1952-1959)
The earliest piece on this CD is the Regency Suite
Op.15. This was composed over a number of years during the 1950s.
It is actually a composite work - with a number of pieces being mined
to produce what is in many ways an attractive work.
The opening 'Scherzo' - almost a little toccata, in
fact, is supposedly based on Picasso line drawings and circus paintings.
It was the last piece to be completed for this suite. It is full of
little figurations and has a definite and deliberate chaos of tonality.
The following 'Minuet' on the other hand was written when the composer
was yet a boy. It is quite a concentrated little piece complete with
cunning key changes at the cadences. I wondered if it was worked over
by Stoker for this suite, as it seems to fit perfectly into the prevailing
style. Again the tonality is very free- one almost feels that there
is a little tone row somewhere amongst the rather sweet tune.
The 'Pastoral Andante' was written in 1958. It is perhaps
quite a desolate landscape the composer is reflecting on. Perhaps it
is nearer the moors above Huddersfield or the strange country around
Spurn Point rather than the smiling fields near York.
The 'Gigue' is a rather fun piece. Lots of contrast
and a few sequences, ties this nicely into the old-fashioned feel to
the work. The oldest piece of music is the 'Gavotte', composed when
Stoker was a mere 14 years old. Yet it is a piece that deserves to be
preserved. Absolutely perfect here. The last piece is a 'Toccata' and
it is apparently very dear to the composer. A fine finish. There is
an interesting little bit of musical history here- apparently the Gavotte
and the Minuet were given their first Broadcast Performance on the BBC
Home Service in 1953 - by none other than Violet Carson - later to become
famous as Ena Sharples in Coronation Street. I never knew she was a
Two Jazz Preludes Op.63 (1980)
The Two Jazz Preludes Op.63 (1980) are great.
I love these two pieces even though I am not a great jazz enthusiast.
There is a definite feel of Ronnie Scott's about them -at about 2a.m.
in a smokey atmosphere, with two sleepy people still sitting at the
bar. They are well played by Eric Parkin -that great exponent of Billy
Mayerl. I prefer the first piece - although there seems to be a relationship
between the two preludes.
Zodiac Variations Op.22 (1965)
I like the Zodiac Variations - certainly to
me they are much more approachable that the 1973 set. It is amazing
what a difference eight years can make. A short theme, then an exploration
of the Zodiacal signs with eleven variations. This work explores a slightly
more conventional field of pianistic styles than the later work. Once
again, like much of the music on this disc, the music has completed
before we can come to terms with it. The composer can waste ideas. But
that may be a good thing. He does not allow us to get bored. And of
course because of his leanings towards a gentle serialism he can manipulate
a small amount of material in many diverse ways. All sorts of onomatopoeic
effects are produced here. Swimmy music for Pisces; the ram running
away in Aries; Sagittarius's bowstring twanging; the water carrier's
splash of water and the Bull's strident final variation. This is excellent
music - at once interesting, approachable and extremely satisfying.
Piano Sonata No.2 Op.71 (1992)
The last work on this CD is the Piano Sonata No.2
Op.71 composed in 1992. This is a masterpiece. I love every bar
of it. It was specially written for Eric Parkin and suitably exploits
his abilities as a jazz pianist. It is not, of course, overtly jazz-
neither is it any kind of crossover music. It is unusual in being written
in five movements -all of which have Italian titles to them. The first
is Suonare which means to sound - more often in connection with pealing
bells. It is a complex first movement with both first and second subject
and appropriate development. The sleeve notes highlight the fact that
the composer has sought to include great contrast in this opening movement.
And he well achieves this. Lovely piano writing; much warmer and perhaps
even more romantic than anything else on this CD; lots of scales and
pseudo glissandi. There is of course a more cerebral side to this music,
especially in the development. But somehow I think the composer is wearing
his heart on his sleeve here. The second movement continues the interest
- with a Cantare I. Here we have jazz effects -where the right hand
has the interest and the left hand is doing a 'cocktail lounge' style
accompaniment. According to the programme notes the outworking of these
melodies is left to the performer. However, Eric Parkin in an appended
note makes clear he keeps to the text of Cantare I but uses considerable
melodic freedom in the third movement Cantare II.
The Scherzare - Italian of course for Joke - is not
a classical scherzo. In fact there is a touch of Debussy about his music.
Stoker appears to have discovered and subsequently enjoyed the whole
tone scale. There are pauses, chords, scales and silences. Good stuff.
And effective piano writing.
The last movement -after the somewhat improvised Cantare
II is a brief Toccare - Italian for touch. Once again Stoker shows a
preference for cyclic forms. There is reference to much that has gone
This is an excellent introduction to this very approachable
composer. Erik Parkin plays with all the expertise we have come to expect
of him from his Billy Mayerl and John Ireland recordings. The programme
notes are good and the cover picture 'Abstract No.1' is provided by
the composer himself. The sound quality is what we expect form Priory
Records. It is a good 79 minutes of recorded sound too!
See also review
by Colin Scott-Sutherland