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Graham WHETTAM (b.
Piano Music Night Music (Sonata) for solo piano (1968) [24.49]; Ballade Hébraïque for
piano duet (1981) [11.00]; Prelude, Scherzo and Elegy for solo piano (1964)
[10.50]; Fantasy for piano duet (1956) [6.03]; Prelude and Scherzo
Impetuoso for piano solo (1967) [9.47]
(piano); Caroline Clemmow (piano)
rec. St. John the Baptist Church, Alkborough, North Lincolnshire,
2006 DIVINE ART 25038 [62.31]
This year marks
the 80th birthday of British composer Graham Whettam.
Although discs of his orchestral music have appeared from time
to time on smaller labels like Redcliffe Edition this is the
first exclusively devoted to his piano music.
Whettam is of that
generation of composers which, in the 1960s were considered
to be at or near the cutting edge of contemporary music but
who by clinging on to their own hard-fought style and language
have been overtaken by the latest fashion of the younger composers.
It always happens but in Whettam’s case it is us, the musical
public who are the sufferers as this disc clearly testifies.
Here is my first
reaction after hearing the disc whole … in three sittings I
hasten to add. Every piece is superbly performed by this man
and wife team who have made five other discs for this label
and twenty-something others over the last decade or so. It
is a rich and natural recording made in a church in North Lincolnshire
- I have visited it. It has a superb acoustic and incidentally
a magnificent aspect over the Humber. Each work is very fine
indeed. None is weaker than another and in the case of the
first piece, which is the longest on the disc ‘Night Music’,
the word ‘outstanding’ should spring readily to mind. The booklet
essay is by the composer - always a help. What he has to say
is very interesting and he provides useful and accessible commentary
should not put off the less technical listener.
What of Graham
Whettam’s musical language? I was new to it. He could be described
as one of the ‘Cheltenham composers’ a term now almost thought
of as derogatory but it should not be. He was one of those
composers, born in the 1920s, who in the 1960s had many performances
for instance at the annual Cheltenham Contemporary music festival;
at that time an almost unique event.
the notes we see that Night Music was “requested for
the 1968 Cheltenham Festival” and the ‘Prelude and Scherzo
Impetuoso’ was heard at the festival in the same year.
Other works like the ‘Fantasy’ and his wonderful ‘Sinfonia
ContraTimore’, recorded by Redcliffe Edition, were
premiered in London.
The ‘Fantasy’ is
the earliest work here and was adapted from a piece for flute,
oboe and piano. Although obviously ‘young man’s music’ with
its feel of searching experimentation, it makes an immediate
impression. It is in a succinct ternary form structure, based
on a tone-row announced at the start and later developed into
a virile fugue.
speaking - and it’s interesting to listen these works in that
order - comes the ‘Prelude, Scherzo and Elegy’ played
here by Caroline Clemmow. It is, as the title suggests, another
ternary structure, the slow, polytonal outer sections sounding,
as my ten year old nephew vividly described it as if someone
was “sitting alone in a dark room in complete fear”. The middle
section is a spiky excursion with irregular rhythmic patterns
which reminds me a little of Bartók.
The next and slightly
similar work ‘Prelude and Scherzo Impetuoso’, commissioned
by Cheltenham, is also entrusted to the sensitive virtuosity
of Caroline Clemmow. Its middle movement is marked ‘allegro
assai con precipitazione’ a new one on me, but you know
what he means.
performed by Anthony Goldstone, inhabits a world of softly
focused mystery. It has four movements beginning with a long ‘Fantasia’,
then a gripping ‘Notturno Lunare’ subtitled “tu, solinga, eternal
peregrina’ (solitary, eternal wonderer”). The composer’s notes
identify the wonderer as the Italian poet Leopardi who moves
slowly “across the sky in an infinity of silvered silence”.
After a wispy ‘Scherzo Frenetico’ - Whettam likes that word – comes
a finale the same length as the opening movement. This is headed “Infinito,
andar del tempo” (infinite as far as time), an incredibly still,
Martian landscape with no beginning and no end. This makes
for a brave ending and is exceedingly successful even if ultimately
That brings us
to the ‘Ballade Hébraïque’ for piano duet, the latest
work on the disc but which is now twenty-five or so years old.
Stylistically it is of a piece with the rest of the works here.
I did wonder however if Ernst Bloch had been looking over Whettam’s
shoulder. Originally it was written for violin and piano and
was prompted by a letter from no less a luminary than Yehudi
Menuhin. Thus the title is not altogether inappropriate. The
opening recitative has an Hebraic sound and key sense, especially
so when coupled with the ornamentation. Again there is something
of an oppressive and mysterious atmosphere just as in Night
Music. The whole range of the piano is used and as is typical
of Whettam, the tonality is mostly undecided with quartal harmony
alongside some whole tone writing. After about five minutes
all hell breaks loose in an exciting Allegro. The opening tempo
and much of the earlier material re-emerges and the work ends
I say again … a
splendid disc and one to which I for one, will regularly return.