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Points North: Piano Duets
William Walton (1902-1983) Portsmouth Point: an Overture (1925/27) [5:59];
Siesta (1926/1928)[4:45] Duets for Children (1942) [10:36]
Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971) The Creel: Suite (1940) [3:14]
Thomas Pitfield (1903-1999) Minors: Suite (c.1965) [6:57]
Leonard Isaacs (1909-1997) Two Piano Duets based on Folk Tunes (1959) [3:55]
Percy Young (1912-2003) Five Folk Song Duets (1938) [5:10]
Roy Heaton Smith (b. 1929) Sonatina (1990) [9:14]
Norman Cocker (1889-1953) Eight Duets (1913-15) [13:56]
Keith Swallow and John Wilson (pianos)
rec. Peel Hall, University of Salford, 30-31 August 2004. DDD
CAMPION CAMEO 2036 [63:56]

 

The only health warning with this excellent release from Cameo is to take the programme a bite at a time. There are so many interesting bits and pieces on this CD that it would be a pity to allow them to pass over your head. And perhaps bits and pieces is the operative phrase. Here we have nine works for piano duet by seven eminent composers, some better known than others. But the unifying features are the North Country and the sheer attractiveness of the music.

The first piece is Walton’s Portsmouth Point. Be prepared to hear this work as you have never heard it before. I have always enjoyed the orchestral version - but have come to appreciate it even more after hearing this piano duet arrangement. The 'jazziness' of the music is especially highlighted as is the general structure of the piece. The necessity of a slightly simplified score for two pianos allows the listener to hear themes and sub-themes with great clarity. A fine opening number. The Oldham composer is also represented by Siesta which, in its piano duet version, retains all the ‘Mediterranean' atmosphere.

The Duets for Children were originally written for Walton's brother's children - Elisabeth and Michael. The original piano pieces were seen as being too difficult for 'children' and were re-written as duets. Later they were orchestrated. The ten pieces are all extremely short and exemplify moods and notions that may once have been popular with children. However one cannot help wondering, in the age of Nintendo, just how popular a Puppet’s Dance, Swing Boats or a Pony Trap would be? These are not important pieces; however they well reflect the creativity and craftsmanship of one of Britain’s great composers. And they are never patronising.

Alan Rawsthorne was born in Haslingden - in fact the interested listener can stay at the birth-place which is now a hotel. The Creel - which is also the title of the Rawsthorne Trust news-sheet - was originally composed with young players in mind. It uses some 'fishy' imagery to underscore the titles of each piece. It is worth quoting the those titles - derived from Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler -


The Mighty PIKE is the Tyrant of the Fresh Water
The SPRAT: a Fish that is ever in Motion
The CARP is the Queen of the Rives; a Stately, a good and a very Subtil fish
The Leap or Summersault of the Salmon.

The music is extremely well wrought and is certainly not written down to amateur players. Everything about this delightful work suggests the master enjoying himself. It is one of the minor treasures of English music.

Thomas Pitfield is one of those composers who is under-represented in the CD catalogues and concert programmes. Partly this may be due to a large proportion of his music being miniatures – often written for children or amateurs. However, there are a few large-scale works that need exploring. Naxos recently issued his piano concertos which are both certainly well worth hearing. And there is a large scale five-movement Sinfonietta and a Violin Concerto which remain desiderata for enthusiasts of English music.

The Minors: Suite is perhaps the most engaging ‘original’ work here. It was composed for the husband and wife duo Hedwig Stein and Iso Elinson who were personal friends and colleagues of the composer. There are four contrasting movements, a Galliard, a Sarabande, a Sinister Dance and a Rigaudon.

Leonard Isaacs’ Two Piano Duets based on Folk Tunes are well constructed pieces that would grace any recital. There is nothing difficult here – just two really attractive tunes. They were written in 1959. Listeners may recognise the melodies from arrangements by Roger Quilter and Percy Grainger. This does not detract from the value and the sheer beauty of Isaacs’ essay.

Perhaps most people know of Percy Young as a prolific writer about music. I have a fair number of his books in my personal library. Apparently he also has quite an extensive catalogue of compositions which are largely unknown. The present set of Five Folk Song Duets is a lovely contribution to the genre .Each of the well known tunes is dedicated to a personal friend of the composer. Full details are given in the programme notes.

There is very little information about Roy Heaton Smith. According to the programme notes he has been involved in music all his life – having won a County Music Scholarship to attend the Royal Manchester College of Music. It appears he won a competition with Phantasy, a cantata for choir and strings. There is also a clarinet concerto which was broadcast in the early 1970s.

The present Sonatina was composed in 1990 for the son and daughter of close friends of the composer. It is an attractive work which is stylistically ambiguous but can hardly claim our attention for more than one or two performances. Apparently after the ink dried on this piece Heaton Smith gave up composing.

Norman Cocker suffers from being known for one work – the Tuba Tune for organ. A little peek at the CD catalogue reveals seven recordings currently available of this ubiquitous work - and not a lot else. There’s also an Interlude and a Paean with a single recording of each. In fact there appears to be very little music in the Cocker catalogue: a few organ pieces, a handful of anthems and the Eight Duets for Piano. These lovely pieces appear to have been written during the composer’s years of military service with the 16th Lancashire Fusiliers during the First World War. Titles include Mock Morris, Scène du Ballet, Clog Dance, Dance of the Fairies and In an Old Garden. In spite of there being a touch of the Albert Ketèlbeys about some of these pieces they have a charm and freshness that never falls into direct pastiche of any one composer ... except perhaps Percy Grainger and his Clog Dance! These are great pieces that would grace any amateur recital or provide a concert pianist playing the Bridgewater Hall with a localised encore.

Keith Swallow and John Wilson are quite clearly enjoying themselves. They play each piece ‘to the hilt’ and without any sense of condescension. Many of these numbers may be for young players – but it is better to consider this as meaning that the music appeals to children of all ages!

It is nice to discover a CD devoted to musical compositions from that far-off country beyond Watford Gap. There is plenty more awaiting discovery.

One last point. The CD was recorded with the assistance of the Ida Carroll Trust. For those listeners who studied the attractive and often quite difficult piano pieces of her husband Walter, this is an added bonus. This Trust does much to further music-making in the North Country. And do not forget to check out Walter’s superb Piano Sonata on Carrolling review

John France

 



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