> Peter Dickinson [RB]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Peter DICKINSON (b. 1934)
A Feature Review: Three Dickinson CDs on ALBANY


Concertos for Piano, Organ; Outcry
ALBANY TROY 360 [77.35]


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Song Cycles
ALBANY TROY 365 [60.06]


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Rags, Blues and Parodies
ALBANY TROY 369 [62.36]


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Rags, Blues and Parodies

Stevie's Tunes
Concerto Rag
Quartet Rag
Blue Rose
Wild Rose Rag
Three Satie Transformations
A Red Red Rose
Hymn-Tune Rag
So we'll go no more a'roving
Patriotic Rag
Four Blues

Meriel Dickinson (mezzo)
Peter Dickinson (piano)
rec Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London 9 Dec 1985; *
ALBANY TROY369 [62.36]

Peter Dickinson was born at bracing Lytham St Annes in Lancashire on 15 November 1934. He studied at Cambridge then at the Juilliard in New York. He met Cage and Varèse during his American years. Satie is plausibly claimed as an influence on Dickinson. Stravinsky is also mentioned but on the evidence of these three discs I did not see the basis for this. Berners' growing discography and exposure is down to Dickinson's advocacy and informed enthusiasm (see the ex-Unicorn Symposium recital reviewed elsewhere on this site). Dickinson is also a doughty friend to the music of Lennox Berkeley.

Dickinson's works include a ballet Vitalitas (1959), The theatre-piece The Judas Tree (1965), Monologue for Strings (1959), Transformations - Homage to Satie for orchestra (1970), Piano Concerto (1978-84), Violin Concerto (1986), Mass of the Apocalypse for SATB chorus and four percussionists (1984). There are at least two string quartets and many songs. I came away from this listening experience wanting to hear more and I am intrigued to hear the violin concerto, the Mass, the quartets and Transformations.

This brings us to the first of the three Albany discs which mixes songs and piano solos.

The Stevie Smith cycle is called Stevie's Tunes and the music is based on tunes which Smith had in mind when she wrote the poems. There is a sense of humour at work here most evident in songs such as O Happy Dogs of England but Dickinson is no 'mere' humourist. He slides from high, almost operatic, emotion (as in In Canaan's Happy-Land and Le Singe qui Swing) of the type we hear in the Moeran and Orr contributions to the Joyce Book to 'Moody and Sankey' land (The Heavenly City and in the words 'O circle of Trismegistus'), to Bernstein's suave and smoky sarcasm (The Nervous Wife) to a sincere sentimentality that stays just the right side of the sampler morality heard in Copland's Old American Songs. The familiar friends include Greensleeves, Londonderry Air and the Coventry Carol. The songs in this group are not banded individually.

The Concerto Rag (Joplinesque, somewhat Beethovenian and feline) is extracted from the 1980 piano concerto where it is played on an upright within the orchestra. Rag is clearly something of an obsession. There are four rags here. Quartet Rag is the basis for his string quartet No. 2 written for the Albernis and premiered by them at Harlow, Essex on 30 January 1977. The style is somewhat tougher than the Concerto Rag. More tender and yet heartless is the Wild Rose Rag (a transformation of Macdowell's famous Woodland Sketch). The Hymn Tune Rag is closely modelled (says the composer) on the style of Charles Hunter (1876-1906). It is neatly turned but charm is its strength. There is more of a sly smile in Patriotic Rag which 'roughs up' the British National Anthem. It works very well indeed.

Dickinson has championed Berners and Satie amongst many others. The three Satie Transformations grasp the first three of Satie's Gnossiennes (1890) and melt them into a casually moody and rather breathless reflection, a slouchy blues and a ruthless chase number with a hint of the murderous Orient.

Gregory Corso, one of the Beat Poets, provides the poems for Extravaganzas. The poems are all very short - a ghoulish take on death. They were written for unaccompanied voice as a means of illustrating twelve-tone technique to a group of students. That was in 1963. In 1969 Dickinson added the piano part. It is a macabre little effort.

Rags are one theme and Blues are another. There are seven on this disc. The Blue Rose is a blues of such deliquescence as to be almost Delian. It is Macdowell's To a Wild Rose held up to a tobacco smoked mirror and breathed over with Southern Comfort. A Red Red Rose is a bluesy song which takes an anglicised version of Robert Burns' famous words and gives them the full cool 3.00 a.m. night-club treatment. The pulse slows further for So We'll Go No More a Roving where the music was suggested by the first of the Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. The song is the basis for the Organ Concerto. The Four Blues drift lazily through humid misty mangroves.

Song Cycles

Let the florid music praise (1960)
Four W.H. Auden Songs (1956)
A Dylan Thomas Song Cycle (1959)
An e.e. cummings Song Cycle (1965)
Three Comic Songs (1960-72)
Three Songs from The Unicorns
Surrealist Landscape (1973)
ALBANY TROY 365 [60.06]

The song cycles are lent source authority by the presence of the composer as pianist. He also appears in this capacity in the Rags, Blues and Parodies disc.

Let the florid music has something of the declamatory tone I associate with Alan Bush's Voices of the Prophets - less relentless - with a more lyrical heart.

Four W H Auden Songs are sung by Meriel Dickinson and suggest that the composer is in sympathy with the fine and still disregarded songs of Michael Head. The songs explore heroic, defiant disillusion and delicacy without fragility. The final song is rather Britten-like. These date from his student days.

A Dylan Thomas Song Cycle was written six years after the poet's death. Robin Bowman takes over as pianist for this cycle only. Henry Herford is the soul of dictional clarity. The songs depict turbulence and anxiety. They are concise and are free with dissonance.

Is it purely British reserve that prompts the use of the indefinite article in the titles of the Thomas and Cummings cycles? The Cummings songs are sung by the composer's sister and frequent collaborator, Meriel Dickinson. The first song is threatening and darkly mesmeric. No time ago is a most striking song. Up into the silence is part-Debussian as well as carrying hints of early Messiaen. Love is the every only god touches off memories of Britten's Our Hunting Fathers. The composer ends the song with a touch of cabaret - all done quite naturally.

Martyn Hill was in great voice in 1986 for the comic Auden songs. His tone reminded me of the Walton's for the music for Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida. This was especially true in My Second Thoughts Condemn. He is 'down and dirty' in the bluesy Happy Ending. Elements of popular commercial music are to the fore in this cycle.

The Unicorn songs are to words by John Heath-Stubbs. They are full of emotional content; just listen to Lullaby. On this evidence it is tragic that the opera from which these songs are workshop pieces has not been realised.

The strange last piece for soprano and piano and soprano and piano on tape includes vocalises. It sounds, for all the world, like one of Berners 'red-nosed' music-hall songs or an 'escapee' from Anthony Burgess's light opera The Blooms of Dublin - itself a James Joyce tribute.

It is a pity that there are no texts supplied - copyright complications? Mind you their absence does promote concentration.

Thankfully the composer's notes are specific on facts; not to be taken for granted with composers' sleeve notes. Everything is very approachably explained.


Piano Concerto (1979-84) [24.28]
Howard Shelley (piano)
Organ Concerto (1971) [20.00]
Jennifer Bate (organ)
BBCSO/David Atherton (both concertos)
Outcry: A Cycle of Nature Poems for contralto solo, chorus and orchestra (1969) [33.07]
Meriel Dickinson (alto)/London Concert Choir
City of London Sinfonia/Nicholas Cleobury
rec 30 Jan 1986, Watford Town Hall (piano); 31 Jan 1986, RFH, London (organ); 20 March 1988, University College School Hampstead, London (Outcry)
ALBANY TROY360 [77.35]

Sad to say, Dickinson's name (as composer) has disappeared completely from the 2002 Penguin Guide. I had to leaf back a few years to find him. There I found the original EMI issue from which this disc is, in large part, drawn. The two concertos were first issued in the 1980s under HMV CDC7 47584-2 and cassette EL 2 2704339-4.

The Piano Concerto starts in unequivocally dissonant terms with stony bell-tower impacts and resonances and irritable brass gestures. Oddly enough the bell-strikes reminded me of the start of the finale of the Concerto for Two Pianos, Three Hands by Malcolm Arnold before that overripe and enjoyably vulgar tune bursts in. The Dickinson is a short work in thirteen separately banded sections. Jazz and ragtime voices flicker and surge through the pages vying with sleety showers and rainclouds. It is a work that jostles the elbows of Britten's Grimes (especially the Grimes - Passacaglia) and Messiaen without the French master's voluptuous abandon. The work is dedicated to Howard Shelley.

Can organ concertos escape the monumental and the Gothic? Malcolm Arnold's does. Peter Dickinson's Organ Concerto does although you might be fooled for the first couple of minutes. Hear it alongside Peter Racine Fricker's Fifth Symphony (a symphonic organ concerto premiered by Gillian Weir some four years after the Dickinson) and you note a more inward-looking and intimate approach. This is a work of psychological horizons rather than smashing public gestures. Dickinson joys in the chamber textures. The same fragmentary-continuity we hear in the Piano Concerto is heard here. The dedicatee is Simon Preston who premiered it at Gloucester on 22 August 1971. Frémaux conducted and from my memories of his conducting of Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oie with the City of Birmingham SO I am sure he would have found Dickinson's orchestral fabrics very congenial. Helpfully the work's nine sections each have their own banding on the CD. There is dissonance but everything registers without smudging. The last adagio has a dewy Rosenkavalier quality and the ending is unemphatic - almost casual - as if we simply slip out of a dream of eternal tintinnabulation.

In between the two concertos comes the orchestral song cycle. This is larger than each of the two concertos. The dissonant edge of the concertos is absent. The anthology cantata is a bit of a British speciality (RVW's Hodie and Dona Nobis, Britten's Spring Symphony, Bliss's Serenade, Morning Heroes and Beatitudes, Geoffrey Bush's far too little known Summer Serenade). The binding theme here is protest against man's cruelty to animals. The texts are by William Blake (Robin Redbreast in a cage), Thomas Hardy (The Blinded Bird and Horses Aboard) and John Clare (Badger and the final Nature's Hymn to the Deity). The whistles and evocation of violence of the hunt in Badger is extremely well done reminding me rather of another protest song cycle - the young Britten's Our Hunting Fathers written before the sand settled on his creativity and wax cloyed his expressive humanity. The Hymn is a cortege of radiant grandeur which has its roots in the march of Spring in Bridge's Enter Spring and in Holst's Choral Symphony. The brilliance of the orchestration (clearly a Dickinson hallmark) reminded me of another colourist (he is more than that of course), William Mathias, whose This Worldes Joie is worth your attention (Lyrita) if you like this.

Rob Barnett

Dickinson's music is published by Novellos of 8/9 Frith St LondonW1V 5TZ - music@musicsales.co.uk
G Schirmer Inc., 257 Park Ave South, NY 10010 USA -


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