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Douglas LILBURN (1915-2001)
Complete Piano Music Vol.1

Sonata (1949) [18:59]
(Allegro 7:01; Poco adagio 6:23; Allegro assai, vivace 5:36)
Occasional Pieces for Piano (1942-73) * [27:03]
(Four Preludes (1942-44) [4:02]; Two Christmas Pieces for L.B. (1949) [2:17]; Allegro (1948) [0:33]; Four Preludes (1948-60) [4:00]; Rondino (1952) [1:15]; Two Preludes (1951) [3:50]; Andante (1950) [1:38]; Poco lento (1956) [1:44]; Three Bars for M.N. (1968) [0:55]; Adagio sostenuto (1944) [3:51]; Andante commodo (1973) [1:36]; Still Music for W.N.R. (1973) [1:25])
Six Short Pieces (1962-63) † [6:31]
Sonata for Piano in A minor (1939) † [21:49]
(Crotchet = 60 – Allegro [10:21]; Allegro assai vivace [3:39]; Andante – Allegro [7:53])
Moths and Candles (1948) † [2:13]
Dan Poynton (piano)
rec. Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, 6-8 December 2003
* First complete recording; † First recording
MORRISON MUSIC TRUST MMT2053 [76:51]

Douglas LILBURN (1915-2001)
Complete Piano Music Vol.2

Nine Short Pieces for Piano (1965-66) [14:03]
Three Sea Changes (1946-81) [8:25]
Seven Short Pieces (1965-66) † [7:50]
Short Piece (1965) † [0:34]
Prelude (1948) † [2:02]
Sonata (1956) [18:10]
(Allegro non troppo [7:30]; Allegro vivace [3:36]; Moderato [7:10])
Untitled Piece (1965) † [2:33]
Untitled Piece (1981) † [2:56]
Sonatina No.1 (1946) [9:57]
A Musical Offering (1941) † [9:34]
(Prelude: Sostenuto [2:07]; Prelude: Allegro jubilate [0:27]; Prelude: Grave [1:32]; Prelude: Allegro [0:28]; Musical Box No.1: The Lassie’s Lament – The Highland Gathering [2:52]; Musical Box No.2 [2:19])
Dan Poynton (piano)
rec. Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, 30 April, 1 May, 30 May 2004† First recording
MORRISON MUSIC TRUST MMT 2054
[76:52]


Full notes at

http://www.trustcds.com/pages/recordings/MMT2053.html
http://www.trustcds.com/pages/recordings/MMT2054.html
Outline Biography: http://www.trustcds.com/pages/artists/Lilburn.html

Far more people know Lilburn now that Naxos has recorded his three symphonies the first two of which have a language somewhere between Sibelius and Vaughan Williams. But what of his piano music? Morrison Music Trust are the first company to tackle it systematically although there have been single LPs and CDs in the past. These have included collections by pianist Margaret Nielsen who has been an advocate of Lilburn’s music for many years. There is apparently sufficient music for four CDs and these are first two from MMT.

There at least three sonatas; none of them numbered. After the musing Schubertian opening Lilburn's three movement Piano Sonata (1949) most often echoes Rachmaninov but with a faintly Bartókian accent. The first movement is marked allegro but it all sounds rather subdued, almost oppressive. The poco adagio is again cloud-hung with a dramatic thunderous horizon. The piano writing recalls the more monumental Finzi in the Grand Fantasia. The finale at last sheds cares in playful cut-glass dances. The premiere was given by Frederick Page. However it was Margaret Nielsen who made the first recording and championed the sonata extensively. Lilburn was a pupil of Vaughan Williams but this is not one of those works that sounds anything like RVW. It is a highly individual sonata. It sounds, for example, nothing like the derring-do Lisztian sonata by Howard Ferguson; nor does it have the tonal quirkiness of Rawsthorne. It is resolutely tonal but has a spiciness derived from Bartók.

After the ambition and achievement of the Piano Sonata there's a sequence of twenty pieces written for amateurs during the years 1942 and 1973. There are four delightful preludes from the early 1940s. These are playful and uncomplicated. Like the Four Preludes, the Two Christmas Pieces are dedicated to the artist Leo Bensemann whose remarkable stylised oil painting of chain mail mountain peaks dominates the CD cover. From the same year as the Sonata, the Two Christmas Pieces have a gentleness of lilting pleasure. The 1948 Allegro has the busy quality of a Shostakovich solo with a hint of sea shanty thrown in. The second set of four preludes is more subtle than the first with an evanescent Fauré-like tone, more of the Hungarian Terpsichore. The third prelude is acqueously impressionistic. The last has that East European quavering effect that I recall from the Guild recording of Këngë Bulgarian piano solos. The Rondino is a playful Merry Eye of a piece. There are then two preludes from 1951. The first was apparently inspired by the ‘peeping’ call of the NZ grey warbler. The second is emotionally ambivalent but seems concerned with great heights where vast distances are bridged by the clarity of the air. The Andante and the Poco lento contain peaceable and calming music again having that cut-glass clarity and concern with the chiming higher registers. The adagio sostenuto is sombre and the responsive Dan Poynton links its mood with that of the lonely lover in Winterreise.

For the first time we encounter discord and discontinuity when we reach Three Bars for MN (the pianist Margaret Nielsen). but then it does date from 1968. A similar style change appears in the Andante commodo and Still Music for WNR, both from 1973.

The Six Short Pieces from 1962-63 are all over and done with in 6:31. Again the style had moved away from tonal instant accessibility to a subtle and elusive mood outline for each: fantastic, grotesque, sinister. These seem among his least personal work.

The A minor Sonata from 1939 dates from Lilburn's studies with Vaughan Williams in London. Indeed there’s even the occasional echo of the teacher's music though less often than you might think. There is a troubled consciousness at work here and the music does not shy from supernal conflict. It is closer to the Ferguson sonata than the sonata Lilburn wrote ten years later. Lilburn is at first all sparkling energy in the second movement before he is gripped yet again by the stilling reflective mood so much part of his signature. After a mood of uncertainty there is the sparkling discharge of the allegro assai and a central movement full of tumbling excitement.

To soothe us out from volume 1 we have Moths and Candles, a music box piece of fragile gentleness, dusty light insect wings and tiny bells. It was written for infants schools in the two islands. The music box seems to falter and run down then regains enough breath for a final turn around the flame.

Volume 2 has a preponderance of later works written from the 1960s until 1981. There are a handful of earlier works from the 1940s.

The Nine Short Pieces are angular and dissonant. That doesn’t stop the second from being playful. Cut-glass clarity, fractured mirrors and elusive distorted echoes abound. The music is extreme, Bartók via Schoenberg or vice versa and much the same apples to the Seven Short Pieces of about the same vintage. Memorable are the last two, especially the sixth which reminded me of the glittering night skies of Urmis Sisask. The isolated Untitled Piece at track 20 and another at track 25 could just as easily have been the eighth and ninth of the Short Pieces. The untitled piece of 1981 (tr. 26) is a hesitant moonlit effort with harsh bass interjections providing a troubled ‘pulse’.

This contrasts with the Three Sea Changes written 1946, 1950 and 1972/81. They catch Lilburn’s three phases: romance, searching Bartók-influenced years, dissonant exploration. The first Change is bright-eyed, the second trembles and clamours while the third lightly embraces dissonance. Lilburn referred to the three Changes as reflective of the sequence of human life. Youthful vigour, mature indulgence and reflections of old age curve into the mystery of eternity. The 1948 Prelude is said by Dan Poynton in his notes to demonstrate Lilburn's fascination with the darker moods of Schubert. It is a big tolling piece which at moments recalls for me the more funereal of Rachmaninov's Etudes-Tableaux.

The 1956 Sonata catches what the composer calls harsh rhetoric and sombre inscapes. When upbraided for not writing charming music like Lennox Berkeley the composer called such music anathema. The sonata (his third) and last presumably reflects the composer's anxiety in having to leave South Island for Wellington on North Island. The allegro vivace central movement has an exciting rhythmically hammering attack recalling rumba inter-spun with lyrical asides. There is a final moderato. All three of his piano sonatas play for about twenty minutes.

The Sonatina No. 1 (the one and only) plays for just short of ten minutes in three untitled movements. It was first performed by Owen Jensen for its broadcast premiere. Its first public outing was given by Lili Kraus in 1947. In it delightful bell-like miniature themes are subverted by hard and muscular calls. The outline and character of the themes was influenced by New Zealand's Southern Alps. The ‘Sonatina’ diminutive reflects only playing duration not mood which is serious and in his late-romantic vein.

A Musical Offering of 1941 is in six movements . It was a gift to Lawrence Baigent and the artist Leo Bensemann. The first four pieces are lively and bell-like - often carillon in character. The two final pieces are denoted as Music Box 1 and Music Box 2. The first is playfully Scottish with more than a nod towards Grainger without being quite as zany. The second apes a sentimental sampler tinkling in diamond beguilement.

Each of the two discs is available separately. Each caries a reproduction of super-naturalistic paintings - notable for their carved rocky crags and outcrops - by Leo Bensemann (1912-1986) and the more surreal work of Rita Angus (1908-1970). Why do we never hear about these artists - especially the Bensemann.

I hope that MMT and Massey University will continue this series to completion.

There is nothing here of the instant pinioning power of Aotearoa or the Second Symphony however to have two such generous collections of Lilburn's sombre distinctive piano music is not to be taken for granted. Certainly if you care at all for 20th century piano music you need one or other; preferably both. For me the highlights are the Three Sea Changes, A Musical Offering, the 1949 Sonata and the ten preludes.

I hope that MMT have longer term plans to record the chamber music. The violin sonata and the string quartet are well worth hearing and who knows what other discoveries await.

The notes for this disc are by the pianist Dan Poynton who with distinctive success and sensitivity, takes on the heavy responsibility of presenting most of these pieces on CD for the very first time; more please.

Not to be missed, then. Rich pickings for any of the new breed of pianist prepared to reach for the less obvious. They will be rewarded and so will the listener.

Rob Barnett

 

 



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