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.
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.
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.
See also review of