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Graham FITKIN (b. 1963)
Log (1990/1) ¹; Line (1990/1) ¹; Loud (1990/1) ¹; Hook (1991/2)²; Mesh (1991/2) ³; Stub (1991/2) º; Cud (1987/8) ª; Aract (1990) *; Fervent (1992/4) *; Piano Piece 91 *; Piano Piece very early 92 *; Piano Piece early 92 *; Hard Fairy (1994) *; Blue (1993) *; Piano Piece mid 92 *; Piano Piece late 92 *; Piano piece very late 92 *; Piano Piece 93 *; Fract (1989) *
Piano Circus ¹
Ensemble Bash ²
Icebreaker ³
Delta Saxophone Quartet º
John Harle Band ª
Graham Fitkin, piano *, conductor ª
Recorded at Church Studios, Crouch End, London, September 2001 ¹, CTS Studios, Wembley, July 1992 ² ³ º and October 1992 (Cud), Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, February 1994 * and May 1994 (Hard Fairy).
British Music Collection
DECCA 473 434-2 [71.38+78.18]

In no respect can Decca’s ‘British Music Collection’ be said to be treading water. Certainly there has been Britten, Walton and Delius but Decca also explore young composers. Graham Fitkin is forty this year (2003) and already has behind him a distinctive body of highly original work. His style is minimalist but in an individual way. Recently his language has grown richer.

The pieces of these two discs are what I suspect will one day be called ‘early works’. They date from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Represented here are pieces for large ensembles, small ensembles and piano, either solo, or in twos, threes or sixes. I regret the omission of the orchestral works named after colours like ‘Green’. It cannot therefore be said that this selection is totally representative of his output. Stylistically the menu here affords a good guide. I suspect that, in the end, you will either love this music or loathe it.

Well done to Decca for the idea of putting this double album together. One thing I can say at the outset is that the performances are superb. Any young composer with such committed readings as these is very fortunate indeed and can say that he has been every chance to be heard at his best. The recordings too are excellent and perfectly balanced.

I realize that by reading this you are probably one of the converted but for me listening to Fitkin is rather like being in the outside lane of an urban motorway mostly exceeding the speed limit and going round and round without ever taking an exit route. It can often be exciting and exhilarating but also irritating and sometimes even frightening. I don’t like the experience although it does depend on the mood I’m in and the time of day.

Some pieces like the last work on CD2, the piano duet ‘Fract’, is a non-stop drive which leaves one quite breathless. Another piano piece, say ‘Fervent’, has moments of repose and even lyrical beauty as the driver now and again slows down to take in a particularly interesting view. Some of the shorter piano pieces are quiet and reflective throughout, as is ‘Line’ for six pianos. These pieces tend to be short and carry titles such as ‘Piano Piece early 93’. And really that’s it. Those are your three emotional states. In most cases it seems to me that the moods are repeated from one work to another so that they could be joined up to make one long monster of a ride. The material is often simple and similar. In some cases it is weak and unmemorable; only made as memorable as possible by constantly being hammered at you until you submit. It is a metaphor for contemporary urban life which it sums up as well as Vaughan Williams could evoke the English country landscape.

I must add however that sometimes, as in the deliciously ambiguously titled ‘Hard Fairy’ for sax and piano, the slower, reflective elements are held in balance with the manic fast jazz music voices. That piece works very well. But in the perpetuum mobile of ‘Stub’ for sax quartet the pace is relentless. All becomes just an irritant like a buzzing wasp in the bedroom.

In a sense, Fitkin hides behinds his emotions when writing for one, two, three or six pianos, stressing mostly, as he does, the percussive nature of the instrument. The slow pieces are mostly chordal and in some cases, for example ‘Piano piece 91’, casting a wave at Messiaen. ‘Blue’ nods to Copland.

You might think that moving into ensemble music would tempt the composer to show more colour and sensuality. Not so. Fitkin eschews sensuality particularly so with marimba quartet or sax quartet. With ‘Mesh’ for the group ‘Icebreaker’ (consisting of ten players, woodwind plus two guitars and three keyboards) there is no sense of colouristic effects. Everything is subsumed into the driving forces of rhythm and form. Yes, form is vital and each piece is a sound-form in time. Each is sculpted, and when the form has reached its apogee the work ends. There is no conventional fuss or climax it stops existing.

The detailed, if somewhat microscopic booklet notes by Laurence Crane have been written by someone who is much less of a sceptic than I.

Gary Higginson

See also review by Neil Horner

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