Full notes at
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
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
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
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
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.