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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Complete solo piano works

CD 1:
Five Studies Op.22 (1952) [13:09]
Sonatina No 1 Op.1a (1946) [7:34]
Variations Op.30 (1955) [16:19]
Sonata No 1 Op.2 (1948) [18:55]
Six Studies (Study-Variations) Op.56 (1969) [18:38]
CD 2:
Sonata No 2 Op.17 (1953) [19:48]
Conflicts (Fantasy on Two Themes) Op.51 (1967) [19:46]
Four Romantic Pieces Op.95 (1986) [22:42]
Fantasia Contrappuntistica (Homage to Bach) Op.24 (1956) [14:46]
CD 3:
Sonatina No 2 Op.1b (1947) [7:16]
Nine Variations Op.36 (1959) [13:01]
Sonata Op.64 (1972) [20:57]
Household Pets Op.86 (1981) [12:07]
Jack-in-the-Box (1959) [0:44]
Study (1965) [0:59]
Lazy-bones (1965) [1:40]
Pieces for Angela Op.47 (1966) [10:04]
Five Preludes (1988) [10:53]
Angela Brownridge (piano)
rec. Reid Concert Hall, University of Edinburgh, 16-18 March, 6-7 April, 2-4 July 2004. DDD
DELPHIAN DCD34301-3 [74:56+74:20+77:59]


In the late 1980s I acquired a 3-CD set of the complete piano music by the Estonian composer Eduardo Tubin on the BIS label (BIS-CD 414/6 – it is still available). There are many similarities here both in terms of the music and the package on offer. In their piano output both Tubin and Leighton wrote sonatas, sonatinas, preludes and variations, used themes of other composers and created music for children. Although they each wrote for the piano over a long period of time, the majority of their outputs for the instrument date from early in their respective careers. Both sets fit neatly onto 3 CDs, are the work of artists who knew the composer well (Vardo Rumessen for Tubin) and neither is likely to be surpassed. Tubin’s works were written in the period 1927-1978 and contain more national influence. Leighton’s span more than forty years from 1946 and are rarely overtly "British". Their styles are not dissimilar with ambiguous tonalities and some "toughness" about the major works. Leighton’s earliest piano works were written whilst he was in his teens but are not juvenilia.

Leighton was born in Yorkshire and became a chorister in Wakefield Cathedral at an early age. A talented pianist, he read music at Oxford and had some contact with Vaughan Williams, Rubbra and Finzi, the latter performing some of his early string works. Subsequently a scholarship enabled him to study in Rome for a year with the composer Goffredo Petrassi. On his return to Britain he became an academic and worked at the Royal Marine School of Music and Leeds University before being appointed to the Faculty of Music in Edinburgh in 1955. Apart from a brief period in Oxford he remained there until his premature death, holding the chair from 1970. There is fairly extensive information about Leighton available on the Edinburgh University website including a list of his compositions and discography (see link below). Unfortunately, in respect of the latter, this does not seem to have been updated since 1998. In passing, a splendid disc containing his Cello Concerto and Symphony No 3 has recently been re-issued at mid-price on Chandos (CHAN10307X) {to be reviewed).

Rather than go through the music in the order it appears on the discs, I propose to group the various genres together, the sonatas being the obvious place to start. Leighton was only 19 when he wrote the first. This has a fairly conventional four movement structure with a scherzo placed second followed by a contemplative slow movement marked lento e semplice. The second followed five years later and was dedicated to Eric Parkin. This is in three movements with a lyrical central elegy and concluding theme and variations. The theme is dark and almost atonal, spawning eight imaginative variations, a form in which Leighton clearly excelled. As documented here, the final sonata seems not have been designated No. 3 but merely Op.64. It was written two decades later for Peter Wallfisch. Also in three movements, the first two are both slow and the third marked Toccatas and Chorales: Presto precipitoso. If you think that sounds like an interesting recipe you’d be right!

After the sonatas, the most important works seem to be the sets of nine variations – Opp. 30 and 36, the six study variations, the Fantasia Contrappuntistica, Conflicts and the five preludes. The latter were incomplete at the time of Leighton’s death, part of a planned cycle of 24 covering all the keys. These are the only works here with designated key signatures and they are very fine inspirations that would surely have been part of a major masterpiece had he lived to complete it. The two sets are variations are virtually serial in method but Leighton never seems to completely eschew tonality. In the op. 30 set each piece is named (for example the third is called "Ninna-nanna") and in both sets the tempo markings are highly specified. Appropriately enough, the five-part Fantasia Contrappuntistica was written for and won the Busoni prize, the first performance being given by Pollini. As implied by the subtitle, Bach rather than Busoni’s own piece of the same name is the main underlying inspiration but the composer also acknowledged a debt to Bartók. At just under 20 minutes, Conflicts is one of the most substantial piano works by the composer with the subtitle "Fantasy" belying another exercise in variation form based on two contrasting themes.

Most of the remaining pieces may not be at the same level of artistic inspiration as those discussed above but they still make for good listening. The Sonatinas were Leighton’s first published compositions and contains influences from Debussy and Hindemith. Each is conventionally structured in three movements and despite their modest designation, both make considerable demands on the pianist. Of the works for children, the Pieces for Angela (the composer’s daughter) and Household Pets are the most notable. The latter is a series of six Satiesque takes on common pets followed by a slow wrap-up called Animal Heaven. Jack-in-the-box is a striking stand-alone miniature which illustrates the composer’s humorous side well.

Angela Brownridge is a virtuoso pianist who studied harmony and counterpoint with Leighton in Edinburgh. She is completely inside this music, the technical demands of which are often great. Giving the impression that this exercise was a labour of love, she has been backed up with a first-class recording. The documentation consists of a detailed essay on the music by Adam Binks. "Many" of the works are said to be first recordings although we are not told which ones; the Op.64 Sonata, Household Pets, Conflicts and Fantasia Contrappuntistica have certainly been recorded before. This would be my only criticism but it hardly matters what else is out there already, anyone interested in the composer will need to have this set. The making of these important recordings was supported by various trusts and we should be grateful to them all.

Finally, to return to my comparison with Tubin. Over a period of 17 years that is a set I have revisited as much as anything I bought around that time, always with pleasure. I recall that one of the original discs had a problem which was not cured by a replacement and I had to write to BIS to obtain a perfect copy. The effort was worthwhile since there is something indefinably special about it. My thoughts on the Leighton are similar but obviously much more preliminary. Without a crystal ball, I can’t be sure that I will feel the same about this as the Tubin set in almost couple of decades time but I suspect I will. It would be surprising if it remains continuously in the catalogue until then, so don’t hesitate to invest in this outstanding set while you can.

Patrick C Waller

Further information about the composer:
http://www.music.ed.ac.uk/composition/composers/leighton
and Rob Barnett writes:-

Bravo to Delphian, Jo Leighton (the composer's widow) and Leighton pupil Angela Brownridge on this superb set. Here we have Leighton's complete works for solo piano from the earliest in 1946 (Sonatina Op. 1) to the latest in 1988 (Preludes). His contemporaries Alan Rawsthorne and Howard Ferguson also wrote solo piano music though nowhere near as much. Leighton is closer to Ferguson than to Rawsthorne. His affair with dissonance began in the mid-1950s.

The Five Studies Op. 22 are brilliant yet never superficial. They require a pianist with a fearsome technique to conquer and articulate their leonine spirit. Leighton is shown here as a ‘grand manner’ romantic tracing a generously exuberant and exhilarating line from Chopin to Liszt to Rachmaninov via Debussy. The molto lento (No. 4) is a profound and reflective piece in which once or twice the listener can glimpse a shadow from the music of Leighton's friend Gerald Finzi.

The Op. 1 Sonatina betrays French voices - Debussy both pert and soliloquising is there but then so is the engaging and poignant Poulenc. The 1955 Variations represent one of Leighton’s forays into dodecaphony. He is not in thrall to the method but bends it to his will to produce entrancing effects as in the bell-like agility of the Toccata (CD1 tr. 12). By the way, each variation is separately tracked. The Interludio is magical, seeming to catch echoes of crystalline elfin fanfares.

The four movement First Sonata of 1955 remains highly romantic yet clean and with textures unsmudged. The finale made me think of the jazziness of Constant Lambert and the guying playfulness of the Toccata by Bax and of Moeran's Bank Holiday.

The Second Piano Sonata followed five years after the First. Once again this is soused in the grand romantic manner - modernised Lisztian, grandiloquently torrid in the first movement (made me think of the Ferguson sonata), plangent and gently capricious in the central elegiaco. The finale is unambiguously tragic and impressively concentrated. Eric Parkin was its dedicatee.

The 1967 work Conflicts is his single longest continuous stretch of music for solo piano. It is dissonant and terribly serious. Leighton wrote it between May and August 1967 yet the music seems to have more of winter's angularity and chill in its sinews than of summer's renewal. The work is well called Conflicts. To hear this aspect and also a hollow sense of negation try 12.30 onwards; ineluctable after all that has gone before.

The Four Romantic Pieces of 1986 again admit more of dissonance than we are accustomed to from the earlier works such as the Five Studies. This music recalls Rawsthorne in his Bagatelles or Ballade. The Adagio molto (CD 2 tr. 7) is the prize of this group. The Fantasia Contrappuntistica pays a dual hommage to Bach and Busoni. Indeed this serious work with its Bartókian energy (CD2 tr. 10) won the Busoni prize in 1956 and was premiered there by no less than Maurizio Pollini. This is a work of sobriety. Even its display is through gritted teeth.

There are 38 tracks on the last CD - a sweeping up but by no means an assemblage of inconsequentiality.

The Second Sonatina is early (1947) with a carefree air. Early Leighton of this vintage is extremely attractive. Although it starts and ends with a pawky Shostakovich-like humour it soon moves into sunny and smiling realms: a little like John Ireland through Poulenc. For all that Leighton is a Scot the andante sostenuto strikes me as the very paradigm of the English idyll.

By 1959 he had left such trifles aside. His grave Nine Variations is a serial work. However this regimen is spun, it sounds either the stuff of nightmare or of a desolation wanly lit with moonlight. This is no exception. The 1972 Piano Sonata was written for Peter Wallfisch (father of the cellist, Raphael Wallfisch). Peter was also the champion of several of the three Leighton piano concertos, all broadcast by the BBC. Caught between major and minor, the work sounds disconsolate or aggressive with much of the energetic writing showing syncopation - again a linkage with Lambert and in this work even Gershwin. I hasten to add that the style is fairly obdurate.

From 1981 comes the suite of seven portraits of Household Pets. This was written for able and discerning children to play. The pieces range from the dreamy fantasy of Cat's Lament to the clumsily bounding Jolly Dog to the Debussy-Berners style of Goldfish to the blithe and jazzy White Rabbit (another lovely piece, by the way) to the mildewed lament of Bird in Cage to the insistent Squeaky Guinea Pig (a little like Moskowski's Java Suite monkeys). The final piece, Animal Heaven, is both restful and sorrowing. It makes a subtle and emotionally rounded adieu to this skilful and probing suite. Many of the pictures strike me as rather objective and cool but in Animal Heaven and White Rabbit Leighton touches on emotional wellsprings. The work is dedicated to the composer's dog, Bruce.

Jack-in-the-Box is a Gallic knockabout piece written as a Ricordi commission. The 1965 Study is a relaxation from serial wastelands. From the same year comes another TCM examination piece Lazy-Bones, a warm sauntering andante.

The Pieces for Angela were written in 1966. They were written for the composer's daughter. These seven miniatures are relaxed and playful. As Adam Binks points out, similar suites by Debussy (Children's Corner) and Dallapiccola (Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera) are a clear parallel. These are uniformly more personal and emotionally communicative than the Household Pets suite. The Final Fanfare movement reminded me fleetingly of Britten and his Serenade fanfares.

The set ends with the extremely demanding five Preludes of 1988, the year of his death. The D minor Prelude is surging and grandly virtuosic; high gestural rhetoric of a grand order. We might see this as a modern echo of Rachmaninov but more the Etudes-Tableaux than the Preludes. The D major prelude Lentissimo dolce e cantabile uses a luxuriously singing Rachmaninovian style and this carries over, with a modicum of dissonance, in the E flat minor. The C major Prelude is a work of chime and charm - lambent and again lit with a beaming Poulencian smile. The C minor Prelude return to the hauteur and rhetoric of the D minor work. This makes a fitting and indeed transfixing envoi to the third disc and to the whole box.

This project has been superbly planned and carried through with great attention to detail and to the grand sweep. You will make your own discoveries from the more than three hours of music here. Among so many memorable pieces the highlights are those Five Preludes, the two sonatinas, Animal Heaven, the First and Second Sonatas and the Five Studies.

Adam Binks writes very well. His notes are clear and unburdened with technicalities.

Just superb ... and recommended strongly alongside another three CD set - the complete Malcolm Williamson on ABC Classics.

We need more Leighton. I wonder if the BBC would license out to Delphian the three piano concertos as broadcast by Peter Wallfisch. There are also attractive concertos for cello and violin not to mention the first two symphonies.

As for Delphian they do this sort of thing consummately well. Can we hope that they will now look to the solo piano music of that other forgotten but living Scottish master Ronald Stevenson.

Leightonites must have this and those who have any interest in the piano music of the 20th century will be generously rewarded when they buy this set.

Rob Barnett



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