Peter DICKINSON (b. 1934)
Lullaby from The Unicorns (1967/82/86) [3:24]
Mass of the Apocalypse (1984) [23:07]
Larkin’s Jazz (1989) [24:09]
Five Forgeries for piano duet (1963) [10:27]
Five Early Pieces for Piano (1955-1956) [10:59]
Air (1959) [2:46]
Metamorphosis (1955/57) [3:42]
Peter Dickinson (piano), John Flinders (piano: Forgeries, Early Pieces 2 & 4), Duke Dobing (flute: Lullaby, Air & Metamorphosis); Rev. Donald Reeve (narrator), Jo Maggs (soprano), Meriel Dickinson (mezzo), St James Singers, James Holland & David Johnson (percussion) John Alley (piano) Ivor Bolton (conductor) [Mass]; Henry Herford (baritone/speaker) The Nash Ensemble/Lionel Friend [Larkin’s Jazz]
rec. 18 April 2009, Potton Hall, Suffolk; 31 July 1988, University College School, Hampstead, London [Mass]; 5 February 1990, Keele University, Staffs [Larkin’s Jazz]. DDD
NAXOS 8.572287 [79:02]
The best way to explore this disc is to join the composer on a musical journey. This will be not so much a chronological trip but one that introduces the listener to a variety of facets of Peter Dickinson’s unique musical style. I guess that most listeners will be like me: they will know few if any of these works, unless they had been present at the concert performances. In fact, all these works are ‘world premiere recordings’, with the exception of the Mass of the Apocalypse.
There is no need for me to give biographical notes about the composer: I have already given a thumbnail sketch of his career in my review of his complete solo organ works, also released by Naxos. However one thing is useful to remember. Dickinson is something of an eclectic, using devices as far removed from each other as ragtime and aleatory elements and from jazz to serialism. Yet it must be noted that his use of these compositional devices is not self-conscious. They are not adopted simply for effect: they are nearly always an integral part of the concept of the piece.
So, the best place to begin this journey is with a little bit of pastiche. Dickinson has insisted that the Five Forgeries for Piano Duet are simply ‘party-pieces’. They are quite openly designed to take-off or parody the composers listed in the titles. The first piece gives the set a great start. This is a memorable tune that manages to ‘out Poulenc Poulenc’, especially in the middle section! This first ‘forgery’ is dedicated to Lennox Berkeley who was a close friend of the composer. The second piece is unmistakable Hindemith with its subtle juxtaposition of dissonant and consonant ‘areas’ of music. The Stravinsky parody is a little less convincing although it is an attractive piece of piano music in its own right. It is ‘late’ Stravinsky and owes little to ‘The Firebird’. The Delius number is a real treat. Although occasionally nodding to Debussy, this is the ‘quality’ piano piece that Fred never quite got round to writing. It is dedicated to the composer’s father who was a Delius enthusiast. The Bartók needs no recommendation – it is so typical of that composer’s percussive style that it could me mistaken for a lost part of the canon although spiced with a hint of jazz.
After these infectious piano pieces I turned to the Air for solo flute. This is one of the works that the composer wrote whilst a post-graduate at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. The piece is dedicated to Betty Mills who gave a number of performances of the piece in the early 1960s. It is a haunting tune that seems to straddle the boundary between serial music and something less contrived. There is an ageless quality here that makes it hard to tie down stylistically.
The second piece for solo flute is Metamorphosis. Apparently this was originally conceived for an ‘eight-note pipe’. It dates from 1955 when the composer had just turned 21. In some ways it is aurally similar to the Air, yet the construction of the work is based around a transformational journey from a melody to a cadenza. Certainly the latter half of this work is exceedingly challenging - for both the soloist and the listener.
The opening track, Lullaby, is a rather lovely piece for flute and piano that began life as part of a six-movement suite for brass which in turn was derived from sketches for the projected opera The Unicorn. This was to have been a story about “two unicorns [which] are discovered in a remote part of Africa. Both the East and West want to obtain specimens for research so they send out rival expeditions. The Western technique is to lure the unicorn with a young girl singing a lullaby. Both East and West manage to capture a unicorn each but the mythical animals, which have become attached to each other, escape together in the end”. Other versions of this attractive movement were severally made for clarinet, oboe and flute - all accompanied by piano.
Before tackling the larger works on this CD I suggest a hearing of the Five Early Pieces for piano solo, which were composed during Dickinson’s last year as an undergraduate at Cambridge. These five short pieces are sometimes rather wistful and introspective. The set consists of two ‘Inventions’ framed by three ‘Contemplations’. The composer recalls how the Inventions were written as a part of a music examination. Apparently, Dickinson destroyed the first and the second Contemplations, but his music teacher kept a copy of the first and the composer was able to recreate the second some forty years later from memory! It is an attractive set of pieces that successfully contrasts tradition and modernity.
The most challenging piece on this CD is the Mass of the Apocalypse, which was commissioned for the 300th anniversary of the radical Anglican St James’s Church, Piccadilly. It received its premiere there on 15 July 1984. It is certainly not a work that could be used in any liturgical context and can only be performed as a ‘concert piece’. Structurally, it is a mish-mash of words collated from the Mass and from the Book of Revelation. This confusion is further increased by the use of the memorable prose of the Authorised King James Version for those parts of the work which are spoken against a background of music, with the sung parts conned from the less than satisfactory and somewhat pedestrian language of the now largely redundant ASB (Alternative Service book). The Mass is set for soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, speaker and four-part chorus. Two percussionists and a pianist provide the accompaniment. I enjoyed this music in spite of its non-traditional format and the perplexity of styles. It is certainly a moving piece that will provoke a response from the listener of one kind or another.
A major part of this CD is given over to a live performance of Larkin’s Jazz. This is a rather unusual work written for a speaker and baritone (same person), small chamber ensemble including piano and percussion. It was commissioned by Keele University and was first performed in the chapel there on 5 February 1990. I have to hold my hand up and say that this work does not appeal to me. I guess that my main concern is the dichotomy between the relatively straightforward ‘jazz’-inspired sections and the much more modernistic tone of the remainder of the music. Yet there is much of interest and the music is always engaging. The balance of the musical and the spoken parts is well contrived.
Peter Dickinson met Philip Larkin at Hull and had a discussion about the possibility of putting some of his poems to music. Larkin was unenthusiastic. It was not until after the poet had died that Dickinson was able to set a number of the poems, however in deference to Larkin’s wishes they are narrated rather than sung. The work is quite simply constructed; being based around four poems and two of the poet’s favourite jazz numbers. These are Riverside Blues by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, which had been recorded in 1923, and Blue Horizon featuring Sidney Bechet (clarinet) and His Blue Note Jazzmen, which was laid down in 1944.
Larkin’s Jazz was conceived in some eleven sections – each poem has a prelude, then a reading of the text with minimal accompaniment and finally a musical commentary, or in the case of the final poem, an epilogue. The four poems used are ‘Reasons for Attendance’, ‘For Sidney Bechet’, ‘Love Songs in Age’ and ‘Reference Back’.
It is good that this CD has been released to celebrate the composer’s 75th year. There are now some six CDs in the current catalogue presenting a fair cross-section of over fifty years of musical composition. It’s an excellent CD with which to introduce the listener to the diverse sound-world of Peter Dickinson, a world that is always challenging and interesting but never lacks interest. It is a well-presented disc with an essential and informative essay by the composer. With nearly 80 minutes of music it represents good value for money. The ‘live’ first performances of the Mass and Larkin’s Jazz add interest and colour.