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Severnside Composers’ Alliance: A recital by two pianists.
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959) Three Czech Dances (1949) [16:31];
David BEDFORD (b.1932) Hoquetus David (1987) [5:02];
John PITTS (b.1976) Changes (1995) [3:34];
Robin HOLLOWAY (b.1943) Gilded Goldbergs Suite (1997) [23:26];
Jolyon LAYCOCK (b.1946) Die! A1 Sparrow (2002) [11:51];
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Élégie (1959) [6:15];
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994) Paganini Variations (1941) [5:50].
Steven Kings and Christopher Northam (pianists).
Recorded ‘LIVE’ at a recital given in the Bristol Music Club, 76, St. Paul’s Road, Clifton, Bristol BS8 1LP, 14 May 2005. DDD

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This is a recording of a live concert in May 2005, which was, and is, a rewarding mixture of music from the sixty years up to 2002.

If there is a theme running through much of the programme it is of variation form, mostly inspired by historical models. The finest item for me is Robin Holloway’s recomposition of Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations. The complete work takes 90 minutes as, more or less, does Bach’s original. To make things more ‘comfortable’ for a concert audience, Holloway has devised a Suite of eight of the first fifteen variations, preceded by Bach’s theme and capped by a shortened reprise of it. None of this departs too far from Bach but enough new and richly inventive material is added to make it so much more than a transcription.

To an extent the same is true of Lutosławski’s version of Paganini’s Variations on that often-varied Caprice. This draws from these accomplished pianists their most virtuosic playing. David Bedford’s Hoquetus David takes its theme from the medieval church composer Machaut. A "hocket" has the theme broken into one- or two-bar sections. I liked its energy.

Jolyon Laycock’s piece would fare better with a less nonsensical title – possibly "Icebreaker Variations" as it was, before being re-jigged for two pianos, composed for the Icebreaker Band. I hope it does fare better as there is plenty to enjoy in variations ranging from the fiercely rugged to the fluently lyrical. The writing for duo is idiomatic.

For the rest, Martinů’s Dances are infectiously rhythmic, though I must admit that I found the dotted rhythms of the first a little relentless; the third, the longest, is the pick of them. John Pitts’ Changes is 3½ minutes of minimalism and its principal, indeed only, interest lies in a 15 quaver figure being set against another with 14: tricky, especially as this is the only piece here played by four hands on one piano. However all four hands do finish together.

Poulenc’s Élégie, from his later, "Romantic" period, is a delicious interlude, so much so that I was surprised I had not encountered it before.

Congratulations to the Severnside Composers’ Alliance for: (a) putting on such a stimulating programme and, (b) attracting an audience whose silence is exemplary.

The recording is equally so; it does not "get in the way of" appreciation of this relatively little-known music and one cannot ask for more than that.

Strongly recommended to enterprising listeners.

Philip L. Scowcroft


Ian Milnes has also listened to this recording

Music for two pianos is relatively rare, so it is good to be able to welcome a new CD of a live recital of music for this medium given to a capacity audience in the Bristol Music Club on 14 May 2005.

Steven Kings and Christopher Northam are outstanding pianists who work superbly together, making a most successful two-piano ensemble as well as being equally very comfortable in the only work included for piano duet – that by John Pitts.

The order of the programme holds one’s interest, with works by living composers set alongside fine works by long-established 20th century ones. The Three Czech Dances by Martinů are suitably contrasted, and the players provide a full range of attention to dynamics, with a driving momentum where needed in the outer dances, contrasting well with the slower central one. David Bedford’s Hoquetus David is a thrilling short piece - I wish it had been longer! - with brilliantly executed interplay between the pianists.

The only work for piano duet – four hands on one piano – is by John Pitts, the secretary of the Severnside Composers’ Alliance, and his short minimalist Changes is great fun, with players in such great command that quaver patterns of 14 against 15 sound to provide no difficulties – amazing!

The most substantial work on this CD is the Suite which Robin Holloway extracted from his complete (over 90 minutes) Gilded Goldbergs, a remarkably imaginative "recomposition" of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This Suite opens with the Aria and closes with a "nostalgic reprise" of it. The overall impact of the variations heard here is thoroughly entertaining, varied, enjoyable and uplifting, in a brilliant performance!

Then follows a "tour de force" of nearly 12 minutes by Jolyon Laycock in his Die A1 Sparrow (the title being an anagram), originating from a version for the band Icebreaker. The interlocking lines are brilliantly brought out in a virtuosic performance. A most effective contrast is provided by a lovely, atmospheric performance of Poulenc’s Élégie followed by yet more contrast in the final item – a brilliant performance of Lutosławski’s brilliant Paganini Variations. My repeated use of the adjective "brilliant" here is quite deliberate!

The balance between the two pianos is splendidly recorded, full of clarity and much detail, though I would have liked a little more resonance – but this is a minor point!

The booklet is first-rate with interesting, comprehensive information (some by the composers themselves), profiles of the pianists and details of the Severnside Composers’ Alliance. Excellent photographs include an outstanding one of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Very well recommended.

Ian Milnes


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