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Decoding Skin: A Piano Recital by Philip Howard
Paul WHITTY (b.1970) De-coding Skin (1995); Max WILSON (b.1973) Zeitlin (1998); Iannis XENAKIS (1922-2001) Evryali (1973); Paul NEWLAND (b.1966) … Butterfly Dreaming … (2000); Michael FINNISSY (b.1946) Eadward Muybridge – Edvard Munch (1997); Morton FELDMAN (1926-1971) Palais de Mari (1986)
Philip Howard (piano)
Recorded at Phayd-X-Studios London in 2002
THE DIVINE ART 25021 [69.09]


This CD gets its name from the first item, an extraordinary, coruscating, whirlwind of a miniature by Paul Whitty bringing to mind some of Ligeti’s studies. Quite a start and a sign of what is to follow.

A similar sound-world can be found in Xenakis’s typically uncompromising ‘Evryali’ particularly as it forces towards its climax. Also one can hear its antecedents in Messiaen’s 1940s piano works such as ‘Canteyodjaya’ with its quirky accents and serialized dynamics.

In between these pieces is ‘Zeitlin’ by Max Wilson (who is also a practising psychotherapist). This treads a wobbly course midway between Conlon Nancarrow and Thelonius Monk; too short to make its presence felt.

We are told that Paul Newland’s ‘….Butterfly Dreaming…..’ has its origins in Satie. And here I should mention Philip Howard’s booklet notes which take a refreshingly new tack, in that they give us some basic facts about each piece. For instance "Newland is fascinated by music that contrasts apparent similarities with real differences, for example Satie’s ‘Trois Gymnopédies’", with his own brand of musical philosophy. Nowhere is this so noticeable or so fascinating as when he comments on Morton Feldman’s ‘Palais de Mari’, the longest work recorded here and one which ends the CD: "The saddest thing about today is that when tomorrow comes it will be lost forever. The pain of parting from the past weighs heavy on the heart". Wonderful stuff, ideal for this record label which is trying to forge its own unique image, and very helpful to the listener as Feldman’s twenty-six minutes of stillness passes in front of you almost literally making time stand still

No-one who knows the work of Michael Finnissy (one of Philip Howard’s teachers) would deny that he is a total original in British music and wonderfully prolific … perhaps overly so. His piece which rolls on for well over twenty minutes is part of a multi-part cycle ‘The history of Photography in Sound’. Its opening is a slow development of very quiet lines punctuated by silences which gradually diminish. After being lulled into a trance-like state brought about by seamlessly evolving counterpoint there is a sudden burst of wild activity. This happens at approximately eight minutes in. I can only say, and please forgive the analogy despite its accuracy, that this sounds as if a group of four year olds have been let loose on a piano to play anything they wish all at once. After a short time all is suddenly calm for well over ten minutes before a similar but briefer outburst comes towards the end. The coda, as it were, restates the mood and ideas of the opening. At twenty-two minutes the work is simply too long and Finnissy should learn from Britten who said that the composer’s best ally was the waste paper bin.

It is with some relief that Feldman’s last piano work appears. It alone is worth the money for the CD.

As for Philip Howard, I am full of admiration. This is his debut album. In 2003 he was the first British pianist for 35 years to win first prize in the International Gaudeamus Interpreters’ Competition. Technically he is totally assured in this challenging music. On top of that he has an innate ability to discover and use piano colour. This is just what is needed in this kind of repertoire; tough music but with a soft heart which needs to be found by performer and listener alike. However the rather boxy studio recording does not help. I can only try to persuade The Divine Art to look elsewhere for recording venues for its solo piano recitals.

Gary Higginson

see also review by Colin Clarke

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