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Richard STOKER (1938-)
Vocal music and Piano Duos

Four Shakespeare Songs Op.69 (1988)
Quatre Morceaux à Quatre Mains Op.77 (1988)
Music that brings sweet sleep Op.25 (1968)
Diversions on a Theme of Lennox Berkeley Op.46 (1975)
Four Yeats Songs Op.64 (1968)
Duologue Op.47 (1975)
Kristallnacht Monody Op.76 (1998)
Portrait of a Town Op.52 (1976)
Aspects I in III Op.39 (1970)
Jacqueline Fox, mezzo-soprano; Margaret Feaviour, Soprano
Harvey and Helen Davies - The Davies Piano Duo; and the composer, piano.
Recorded at the Highgate Recording Studios London circa 1998
ASC CLASSICAL SERIES ASC CS CD10 [66.00]

I must state at the outset that I have nothing against serialism in principle. However, many composers in the 1960s and 1970s raised the theory from a tool in the composer's tool chest into a fetish. At least we cannot accuse Richard Stoker of this sin. He is able to use serialism in a convincing manner. When the 'tone row' does not seem to suit his purpose he is perfectly able to manipulate the order of notes to suit his own ends - even if this means using a dominant seventh or a common chord. Yet the fact remains that most of the works on this CD are serial. That I believe makes it quite hard to listen to at one sitting. It all seems to blur into one great complex of notes - I for one am not capable of disentangling O and IR series without a score and a commentary. So my advice for anyone coming across this CD is to listen to each work on its own, with gaps between. Then I think the composer's voice will be heard to best effect. Serialism can tire the ear more quickly than almost any other form of compositional technique - except perhaps minimalism!

For a brief account of the life and work of Richard Stoker I refer the reader to my review for his Piano Music on Priory PRCD 659. I must thank Richard for some additional information on these recorded works.

One of the things I would have liked this CD to have given was the words for the songs. Having said that, the vocalisation of the texts by both of the soloists allows for a clear appreciation of the sense of the poems. Most of the texts are quite readily available either from the Internet or from that more old-fashioned source - the personal or even public library. However some of the works have words written by the composer himself and are presumably not available to the general public.

The Four Shakespeare Songs Op.69 are quite a mixed bag. Originally written in 1988 for voice and guitar, this was recast in the present version a few years later. The second song, Love, Love nothing but Love was derived from a much earlier work written as incidental music for a production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ at the Old Vic in 1964. These are attractive songs, which are not particularly challenging to the listener, however they seem to lie well for both the performers. It is quite hard to classify these songs or to compare them to those by other contemporary composers. It is certainly not in the mould of Benjamin Britten. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable on Lennox Berkeley's songs to invoke any comparison. However here is where the influence appears to lie. It is fair to say that in these songs, slight as they may be, Stoker defines his own style.

The Quatre Morceaux à Quatre Mains Op 77 immediately gives away their French provenance; they are easy to listen to, with no programme or attempt at pastiche. They were composed for the Davies Piano Duo who give the performance on this disc. There is a certain aural hardness about these pieces that goes beyond the obvious neo-classical style of the work. Perhaps it is just the recording or the studio that is giving an edge to the sound. As always with Stoker's music we are reminded of Berkeley and perhaps Poulenc. The third Morceau is perhaps the most intense - having an almost 'pop' feel to it - Malcolm Arnold could have written this if he had had the idea first!

Music that Brings Sweet Sleep Op.25 has a serial feel to it! It certainly has strong first performance credentials. Gerald English and Paul Hamburger gave the first broadcast performance and Philip Langridge (the dedicatee) and Geoffrey Pratley gave the first performance at the Maidstone Music Club in 1968. The work is a setting of four poems by a somewhat diverse bunch of poets; Alfred Lord Tennyson, George du Maurier, Robert Herrick and Bill Shakespeare. These settings are both quite listenable and singable - although I do feel that they are quite definitely a period piece. There is a sameness about these songs, yet here and there are some felicitous touches.

The Diversion on a Theme of Lennox Berkeley.

This work is quite definitely serial. The original twelve-note theme was lifted from the first movement of a work by Berkeley that is unknown to me - the Sonatina for Oboe and Piano (1964). As a whole this is rather good. I have no problems with Stoker's 'diversions' - yet like much serial music of this period it sounds somewhat dated. Perhaps more so than the original Berkeley work? It does move me so that must be good - yet somehow I do not imagine it ever really catching on. Perhaps an enterprising concert promoter could run both works together?

Four Yeats Songs

These are very dark works. The first is a setting of The Curlew. One cannot help being reminded of the masterly setting of the Yeats' poems by the late Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock): I must confess I do not like Stoker's settings here - it is difficult to define why - perhaps it is the unremitting shadows and dark recesses.

Duologue Op.47.

This interesting piece for piano duet was first given by the composer/pianist Richard Rodney Bennett and Susan Bradshaw at the Purcell Room on the South Bank. Once again this is very much a period piece, relying on serialism, non serial invention and experimental form. The first two movements are scored in conventional notation, whereas the middle movement uses a 'form of time-space notation whereby a certain amount of freedom is left to the performers.' The entire work sounds like so much music that I recall listening to in the early 1970s and it seems to be no better or worse than many others. Yet as a piece in its own right it probably deserves an occasional airing.

Kristallnacht Monody Op.76

The song for unaccompanied solo mezzo soprano, Kristallnacht Monody Op.76 is a work I do not like at all. It frightens me! But that is good - it is eliciting a response which is more than much music ever does. It was composed for the 60th Anniversary of the atrocities carried out by the Nazis on 9th November 1938. Yet in spite of my lack of appreciation on a personal level I can tell that it is an excellent example of a pure vocal work written in a basically serialist style. It comes complete with one or two vocal effects such as glissandi. It was first heard in 1998 at Leighton House, London. This should be heard and understood by all listeners concerned with music and politics.

Portrait of a Town Op.52

This is a rather good piece of music - for orator and piano. I must confess that I prefer the content of the words to the music. But as the composer wrote both one feels that it must be exactly as he wanted it. It is really a nice paean of praise for a smashing North Country town. And one with an excellent musical heritage - the Choral Society, the Town Hall organ, brass bands and of course the Festival. I imagine that the local concert 'punter' would have preferred the words to the music too. Unless a charabanc of serial music enthusiasts had been bussed in for the occasion, I imagine the locals would be more at home with Elijah rather than Anton Webern's later works. Yet it is a good piece, well performed and spoken by the Davies Duo. It was an occasional piece - written as a commission for the Huddersfield Arts Council - so I doubt it will be much heard in the Pennines these days. But nice to have it on CD and it is flattering to Huddersfield.

Aspects I in III Op.39

An unusual little number. One poem, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, set three times. No.I - lyrical; No.II - dramatic and No.III operatic. However I am not sure that I can detect much of a contrast. I think a contemporary reviewer likened it to faceting - three views of the one text. A good idea and one that could probably be useful for a composer to develop further.

Conclusion

Altogether an interesting CD from one of Britain's best, lesser-known composers. Of course Richard Stoker does not confine himself to jotting down the crotchets and quavers. He writes the texts of a number of his works as well. In fact the CD cover sports a painting by the composer - Fruit II. (1970). So, all in all a bit of a polymath!

If you run across this CD give it a listen and think about it - it may be a bit dated in parts but it still represents a period of music when there was a lot of kid-ology and pretentiousness in the air. Richard Stoker is able to fuse a number of different styles and musical techniques together with a distinctive and personal voice.

John France

See also review of Volume 1


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