"Priaulx Rainier…was known as a composer of scrupulous
judgement and discriminating taste"; so wrote The Times’ music editor
in October 1986 for the composer’s obituary. He went on "her standards
were unflinchingly high" not only on her pupils, as Nicola Lefanu
points out in her fascinating essay in the CD booklet, but on herself.
Perhaps that is why, if Grove is correct, less than thirty works are all
she allowed to outlive her. Schott, her principal publisher, in their
catalogue of her work list only twenty-four. Since her death her music
seems of course to have become completely forgotten in concert halls.
The BBC naturally have forgotten her and, with a few rare exceptions,
so have the record companies. Redcliffe Edition (RR007)
brought out in 1992 a recording (another had appeared four years earlier)
of the 1939 String Quartet, coupled the Oboe Quartet ‘Quanta’ (1962),
the austere String Trio (1966) and ‘Ploermel’, an amazing piece not unlike
Varèse, for winds and percussion. Also on Redcliffe (RR
011) The National Youth Choir recorded Rainier’s beautiful ‘Requiem’
of 1956. In the LP era some works like the String Trio did occasionally
appear, but there has been little or no chance to reassess her output
in the last decade.
I first saw Rainier at the Wigmore Hall at the Alan
Rawsthorne memorial concert in the autumn of 1971 alongside figures
like Elizabeth Lutyens and Richard Rodney Bennett. I next saw her at
the same venue when Peter Pears sang her unaccompanied ‘Cycle for Declamation’.
Works would appear on the Radio and William Glock commissioned from
her the stunning ‘Aequera Luna’ (1967) and the Cello Concerto (1964).
Not only that but when I did come to speak to her she had such a beautifully
honed colonial accent that it all added up to Rainier being a respected,
established, even establishment figure. But when I came to discover
the music (not always easy to do) I realized how wrong I was. She was
highly individual, an outsider from a backwater in rural Natal, South
Africa. Her sound world could be harsh and totally lacking in sentimentality,
purged of any romantic notions of the natural world. These elements
are fundamental to the three works recorded here. They are each early
works and relatively easy to assimilate but they, in many ways, encapsulate
the nature of her compositional activity up to that point.
The Viola Sonata of 1946 has been broadcast by the
BBC and broadcast a few times. It was never commercially available.
It shows to a certain extent Rainier’s admiration for Bartók
who had just died. This admiration is particularly strong in her ‘Barbaric
Dance suite’ for piano, which was first performed in 1950. Its antecedents
are African whereas Bartók’s are Eastern European; nevertheless
the inspiration is ethnic.
It must be remembered that when you listen to Rainier
you are listening to African music (as indeed you are with John Joubert
also South African but less radical). The last movement of the Viola
Sonata encapsulates a quality that Nicola Lefanu refers to in the aforementioned
essay as having "boldly, direct rhythmic patterning, spare textures
and deceptively simple melodic shapes" such as one finds in the
music of her native Natal.
The ‘Five Keyboard Pieces’ were written between 1951-1955.
Schott have produced a faded lithographic score, a reproduction of the
composer’s rather poor hand. The music though is highly original. I
have attempted to play them myself and can vouch for the unusual hand
formations needed and widely spaced harmonies; at no point however are
they unpianistic. The ‘Clarinet Suite’ is in five movements, each casting
its own individuality and not linked, except stylistically, with the
next. This piece has many technical challenges for both players especially
in the last movement but, and this is what I most admire, the music
has its own integrity; an integrity you can trust.
I must not forget the other interesting female composer
represented here who almost gets half the disc’s playing time, the Australian,
Sadie Harrison. In fact it is her piece ‘No title required’ written
in 1994, (the title taken from the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska) which
gives the CD its curious nomenclature. It is the only work here for
all five members of ‘Double Image’. It is a two movement investigation
of the ‘poems’ images of revolutions, tyrannies and political conspiracies
in relation to skimming shadows, fluttering white butterflies and wind-blown
clouds" to quote the composer in the CD booklet. This is a good
example of how a listener should best listen to the music first and
then possibly read the composer’s notes. It is a dramatic piece, which
draws one in effectively. Its ideas are arresting and thoughtfully developed.
The first movement gives a chance for the group to show their virtuosity
in its speed and technical demands.
‘Three Expositions’ is for unaccompanied flute and
in duration, at just over eight minutes the composer seeks to develop
three short ideas stated at the start – Three Expositions. Expert flautists
could do worse than add this beautifully constructed and fascinating
work to their repertoire; it should rank alongside Debussy and Varèse.
Finally ‘After Colonna’ is an impassioned 12-minute
exploration of a 15th Century myth - effectively a Romance
for cello and piano. The composer’s notes make its complex antecedents
fairly clear so I will say no more except that I have come to admire
it greatly. This, in addition to Harrison’s other two works recorded
here, points to a composer of considerable potential and power, although
I find the comment by Nicola Lefanu that she defies categorisation unhelpful
and inaccurate. Lefanu says that Boulez is an influence (I’m not so
sure). Peter Sculthorpe’s name came to mind more naturally while listening
to Harrison’s music.
The recording is immediate and yet spacious. The performances
seem me to be exemplary, often brilliant, lyrical when needed and dedicated.
‘Double Image’ state in the CD that they were established in 1989 and
that they specialise "in performances of music by women."
The presentation of this disc is first class with excellent
notes by Lefanu and pianist David Carhart who contributes some personal
reminiscences of Priaulx Rainier.
This music will probably have limited appeal but I
find it strong and brilliant, perhaps you will.