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Walter LEIGH (1905 – 1942)
Romancea [3:27]
Reverie (1922)b [5:10]
Music for String Orchestra (1931) [6:06]
Sonatina for Viola and Pianoc (1931) [11:02]
Trio (1935)d [9:08]
Aire [1:12]
Three Movements for String Quartet (1930) [4:41]
Sonatina for Recorder and Pianof (1939) [7:49]
Student String Quartet (1929) [10:58]
Locrian Ensemble (Rita Manning, violinb; Patrick Kiernan, violin; Philip Dukes, violac; Justin Pearson, cello; Stacey Wotton, double bass; Anna Noakes, fluted; John Anderson, oboed; Martin Feinstein, recorderef; Sophia Rahman, pianoabcdef)
Recorded: Henry Wood Hall, London, January 2004
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7143 [61:10]

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Walter Leigh tends to be seen as a one-work composer, in this case the marvellous Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings. This was recorded back in the days of 78s (Kathleen Long playing piano on Decca K.1832-3) and somewhat more recently during the LP era (some may remember Neville Dilkes on EMI CSD 3705, now re-issued in CD format on EMI 5 67431 2 and Trevor Pinnock on Lyrita SRCS 126, n.l.a. and to date not re-issued). A re-issue of the Lyrita record is long overdue, for it was the only LP entirely devoted to Leigh’s music. It included the Harpsichord Concertino, Music for String Orchestra, The Frogs and the suite A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lyrita also recorded his overture Jolly Roger (SRCS 99, n.l.a.). I must nevertheless mention a more recent disc released a few years ago that has, I am afraid, passed unnoticed. This CD (Tremula TREM 101-2, published 1992 and presumably still available) included piano music and several songs as well as Music for Three Pianos and Three Waltzes for two pianos. This fine release is still worth looking for, if you have any interest in this composer’s attractive music.

Now, to the present release. It is a varied selection of chamber works written during Leigh’s all too short composing life. Despite his untimely death in 1942 his surviving output is interesting enough to deserve re-assessment, which this fine release makes possible. As might be expected, most pieces (indeed, all of them) are quite short, but some, Music for String Orchestra, Three Movements for String Quartet, Sonatina for Viola and Piano and Sonatina for Recorder and Piano, are substantial in spite of their concision. As Calum Mac Donald rightly remarks in his excellent insert notes, "this is music with a power far beyond its dimensions". In fact, all these pieces are perfectly balanced and never outstay their welcome, also because the composer never felt the need to "overwork" his basic material.

Music for String Orchestra, played here as a string quintet, is in four short movements, of which the second Vivo is particularly short (0’42"). A solemn Adagio leads into the Scherzo, actually a rustic dance. This is followed by a concise, but quite eloquent Chaconne. The whole is capped by a lively hornpipe - a Leigh trademark. This very fine work clearly belongs to the best of British music for strings. Holst’s Saint Paul’s Suite and Bridge’s Suite for Strings are not far away.

The Sonatina for Viola and Piano, composed at about the same time, may still be indebted to Hindemith; but the music sometimes hints at Rawsthorne (also born in 1905). It is in three compact movements again, of which the central Andante tranquillo ed espressivo is particularly beautiful. The Sonatina ends with another lively hornpipe. It is a fairly substantial achievement and undoubtedly one of the finest British pieces for viola; its neglect is difficult to understand. The Three Movements for String Quartet, also written at about the same time, open with a lively march (a bit à la Warlock). The slow movement hints at an Elizabethan viol fantasy, whereas the third dances along, yet another hornpipe.

Leigh was a pupil of Hindemith, as was his near-contemporary Arnold Cooke; and this is often clearly heard, although he obviously avoided slavish imitation and succeeded in remaining his own man. Some of his pieces breathe a lighter, Gallic air, as heard in the delightful Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano in which Hindemith rubs shoulders with Poulenc, e.g. in the lovely pastoral second movement. The Sonatina for Recorder and Piano, one of his last works, composed in 1939, is another worthy piece of some substance and considerable charm. The exquisite Air for recorder and piano was published as recently as 1996. It has since been recorded by John Turner (Forsyth FS001/2).

The early Reverie for violin and piano as well as the undated Romance for piano quintet, both salon music of the highest order such as Bridge might have written in his early years, are also very attractive and enjoyable.

One of the most impressive pieces here is the Student String Quartet written when Leigh was a pupil of Hindemith in Berlin. A free sonata, full of imaginative counterpoint, still somewhat redolent of Leigh’s teacher, is followed by a short bustling Scherzo. The beautiful Lento espressivo is another little gem characterised by long-breathed melodic lines that MacDonald rightly compares with the melodic outpourings of another of Leigh’s contemporaries, Michael Tippett. The concluding Molto vivace brings the piece to its lively close. As it turns out, this is no prentice effort, but an early, highly accomplished piece that undoubtedly deserves to be heard. I am sure that any budding composer would be proud of such "student" work.

In short, this well-filled release is most welcome, filling important gaps and shedding interesting light on the output of a most distinguished composer whose untimely death in tragic circumstances deprived the British musical scene of a highly personal, utterly sincere and endearing composer. I wish that this release might encourage Lyrita to re-issue their excellent recordings, were it only to mark the centenary of Leigh’s birth. This is the loveliest disc that I have heard recently.

Hubert Culot


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