> Howard Skempton - Piano Works [NH]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Well, Well, Cornelius
June '77
Saltaire Melody
Senza Licenza
Passing Fancy
Sweet Chariot
First Prelude
Piano Piece 1969
Quavers 5
A Roma
Of Late
Campanella 3
Swedish Caprice
Quavers 3
Una Barcarola Eccentrica
Images (20 pieces)
The Durham Strike

John Tilbury, piano
Recorded at Snape Maltings, Suffolk, 4th - 7th July 1994, in the presence of the composer.
SONY SMK 89617 [71.00]


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This disc, reissued in Sony's beautifully packaged mid-price 'Music for You' series, highlights the contemporary British composer Howard Skempton at his best and most idiomatic. While his creative peak, to date, is perhaps represented by his orchestral masterpiece Lento, these miniatures are probably more representative of his body of work as a whole and share with Lento a profound ability to communicate with their audience. Simplicity is the key here, and the composer's own booklet notes, while bearing little resemblance to the usual track by track commentary, divide the pieces into two types - chorale-like or landscapes. In one sense, I can see the logic at work here but the music encompasses so much more than that stark description could ever do.

The quintessential pianist for experimental British music of this vintage, John Tilbury, not only finds within himself performances that commune completely with works he is playing, but also contributes a second, highly perceptive booklet note. The composers he chooses to compare are American (Cage and Feldman) but I would add that anyone fond of the piano miniatures by the likes of Sculthorpe or Pärt will find much to please them here. Beyond that, I can, predictably I suppose, hear the ghost of Satie, by turns playful and solemn, at work as well.

This is a recital disc first and foremost and it would be wrong to overanalyse and isolate too many individual elements, some of which might be diminished by separation but certain tracks/pieces I cannot let pass me by without particular mention. The opening tribute to Skempton's teacher Cornelius Cardew is a friendly, unpretentious homage, whereas the extraordinary music, collected here as Images, written for a TV series about photography, places Skempton in the wider context of the English tradition with its incorporation of The Cockfight (a stunningly beautiful realisation) and, not for the first time with this composer, a version of The Keel Row. The Durham Strike reminds us that Skempton is not, unlike many of his contemporaries and, indeed, predecessors, detached from the real world but succeeds in its attempts at the transmutation of the daily grind into something more noble. These ears hear everything from Irish caoines to French impressionism in five and a half minutes of true genius.

Most of these pieces were written between 1970 and 1981, although they are not individually dated, and now it is surely time that Skempton gains the recognition he so richly deserves. Like the often very similarly inspired, though more "rock" aware music of Brian Eno's younger brother Roger, it positively bleeds artistic integrity and is what really ought to be playing on Classic FM's "chillout" sessions, rather than the pseudo-filmic ephemera of Einaudi et al. Absolutely essential, it reminds me of so many things I love in music, from the vaults of the ECM back catalogue to the contents of Singing Together I learnt as a child thirty years ago, this disc is a hymn to life itself. It will cost you ten pounds and you will love it.

Neil Horner

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