> STOKER Piano Music PRCD 659 [JF]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Richard Stoker (1938- )
Piano Music

Piano Serenade Op. 17 (1962)
Piano Sonata No.1 Op.26 (1967)
A Poet's Notebook Op.19 (1969)
Piano Variations Op.45 (1973)
Regency Suite Op.15 (1952-1959)
Two Jazz Preludes Op.63 (1980)
Zodiac Variations Op.22 (1965)
Piano Sonata Op.71 (1992)
Eric Parkin (piano)
Rec. 1998
PRIORY PRCD 659 [79.00] Fullprice


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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 notes 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 pianistic style.

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 pianist.

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 before.

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!


John France

See also review by Colin Scott-Sutherland


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