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CD: Crotchet

Stephen DODGSON (b.1924)
Watersmeet for solo guitar and guitar ensemble (2002) [9.07]
London Lyrics for voice and guitar (1977) [18.45]
Partita No. 4 for solo guitar (1980) [15.27]
Duo for cello and guitar (1974) [22.25]
Personent Hodie - Fantasy on an ancient carol for massed guitars (1980) [10.02]
Jonathan Leathwood (solo guitar)
Neil Jenkins (tenor); Rohan de Saram (cello); Tetra Guitar Quartet; Aquarelle Guitar Quartet; Appassionata Guitar Trio; Carl Herring (guitar)
rec. St. Andrew’s Church, Toddington, Gloucestershire 11-12, 21-23 July 2005
Experience Classicsonline

Although this disc has only recently been received by this reviewer it was in fact recorded in 2005. It can however be seen as a 85th birthday present to this versatile and fascinating English composer (see also a recent Campion Cameo release). Although Dodgson has written for the orchestra as well as a fine series of string quartets I have always associated him with the guitar; not surprising really as his first “efforts for the box” as he writes in the booklet notes were in the early 1950s. Later on Julian Bream persuaded him to write a concerto and soon after some especially tricky studies.

The disc takes it name from the first work, ‘Watersmeet’, written for the rare combination of guitar and guitar quartet. Roger Wright, a guitarist, apparently conducts it although he is not directly credited on the CD box. It is a contrapuntal piece - the composer in his liner notes calls it linear, It should be imagined that each guitar in the ensemble represents a stream and these coalesce. The solo guitar plays a folding and unfolding descant around the quartet ensemble. It’s a refreshing and pleasing texture that might have outstayed its welcome but ends on a gentle major chord just at the right moment.

The second work is a lovely song-cycle ‘London Lyrics’. Dodgson was born in London and lives there still. It was the first poem by Pierre Motteux (d.1718) about 18th Century London that sparked the work off. The other settings are by Owen, the ghostly and spare ‘Shadwell Stair’, Clough, the amusing Rostrevor-Hamilton and finally ‘River Music’ a magical setting of C. Day Lewis. Dodgson’s language is ideal for the guitar - which is best when playing diatonic music - being tonal but with chromatic inflections and side-steps. The vocal line seems to be a rewarding sing and Neil Jenkins who gave the work its first performance in the late 1970s still sounds in lustrous voice. Indeed I recently saw him in ‘A Streetcar named desire’ and wondered why he was not regarded as one of our very top tenors.

The Partita No. 4 is for solo guitar was written for a then very young Nicola Hall for a solo Cheltenham recital. Sadly I am not familiar with the other Partitas but here I am a little confused. Two solo guitarists are named on the disc; another, Roger Wright is written about in the booklet. I list them above, but, unless I have stupidly missed something I am not sure who plays which piece and certainly who plays this Partita. I am making an assumption that it is the ‘main man’ Jonathan Leathwood because in his liner notes he comments knowledgeably “One thinks of the first movement of the Fourth Partita, stark and brooding with flashes of wildness”. The composer, in his notes, remarks that he wanted “to mirror Nicola Hall’s temperamental excitement and instinct for projection and expressive variety”, but no matter who is playing this is a marvellous work superbly and vividly captured both by the player and by the engineers. St Andrews Church, Toddington is regularly used by various companies as it is remotely and quietly set in the park of Lord Sudeley’s Gloucestershire estate. It is a cavernous purbeck marble church by G.E.Street with a superb acoustic. This helps enormously in a work such as this. The Partita falls into four movements with some exciting and original writing ending with a powerful “Energetic but measured” rondo.

The combination of a Duet for cello and guitar may be new to many but it is not uncommon. Rubbra composed his ‘Discourse’ in 1969 and I myself have written for this pairing (‘The Fire of Love’- 1988). It works beautifully and more composers should discover it. This is a large-scale piece, the longest on the CD, written for Rohan de Saram and John Williams for an all-Dodgson concert. The work is in six movements alternating slow with fast. An ‘Arabesque’ and ‘Invention’ are followed by an over-long Nocturne with some interesting effects such as ‘tambur’ on the guitar, glissando pizzicato and cello harmonics. Then there’s a Shostakovich-type March. ‘Vigil’ is a cello melody over a ground bass. The works ends with a delightful and fleeting ‘Bagatelle’. How good, in this wonderful performance, to hear Rohan de Saram sounding in such good form.

The idea of massed guitars may be something of a nightmare for you but the last track should dispel that fear. It is enchanting and imaginative fantasy really, around the medieval Christmas melody ‘Personent Hodie’. Not only are recorded here the Tetra guitar quartet and the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet but we also hear the off-stage Appassionata Guitar Trio who play music in what the composer calls a “distilling of single phrases of the tune in a sweet and lingering harmony” against the massed groups who imitate a “jumbled pattern of chattering voices”. The work was written for a Hungarian Guitar Festival at Esztergom for the “spectacular closing concert”. I am amazed how well it all stays together in this recording and how well spaced across the sound spectrum it is. A truly clever piece, wonderfully prepared.

An interesting disc then, with a fine array of performers, worth exploring as it demonstrates how the guitar can be used in such a variety of guises from huge ensembles to solos, by a composer who is so very sensitive to the instrument’s every nuance.

Gary Higginson



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