couple of years ago I reviewed
a CD of music by the Severnside
Alliance of Composers. I was particularly impressed with
some piano pieces by John Pitts. I noted that his “music
reminded me of Herbert Howells’ Lambert’s Clavichord
not in idiom so much as his ‘picking up’ an older style
of keyboard composition and re-presenting it for our times”.
I concluded by suggesting that “this is lovely music to
listen to and shows a deep absorption of earlier styles
but with a large degree of originality added for good measure.”
few days ago, the present CD dropped into my letter box
and I was delighted to be introduced to a larger selection
of his music. My original thoughts about his style, ability
and technique held up well throughout the near-eighty minutes
of this recording.
is not really the place to give a biography of John Pitts.
However a few brief notes will help the listener and the
potential CD purchaser gain some understanding of this
interesting composer and his music.
Pitts studied with a galaxy of teachers including John
Casken, Robert Saxton and John Pickard. In 2003 he won
the prestigious Philharmonia Orchestra Martin Musical Scholarship
Fund Composition Prize: his Piano Quartet was performed
by the Fidelio Quartet in the final stages of the competition
at the Royal Festival Hall.
is interested in composing for Christian worship and for
the stage. He has written incidental music for a number
of stage plays and two short operatic works – Crossed
and the strangely entitled 3 Sliced Mice
interests include working with the Bristol Savoy Operatic
Society as a conductor and arranger.
music on this CD consists of a major cycle of piano music – the
7 Airs & Fantasias, which I believe is well worth regarding
as an entity, and two additional pieces for good measure.
disc opens with a piece called Changes – for 20 nifty
. On this recording the pianist Stephen Kings
is assisted with a further ten fingers by the composer.
It is definitely a minimalist work that is vibrant and
even rock-based in its driving rhythms. Like much of Pitts's
music it develops bell-like changes – a campanologist's
delight. After many adventures it ends abruptly on a loud
violent chord. A great opener – or encore for any pianist.
massive Toccata is subtitled Blue Frenzy
. This is
a considerable work lasting near ten minutes. I found this
work to be pleasantly modern in style. I see it as complex
and even disjointed but I am not sure if ‘frenzy’ is a
good adjective. The idiom would seem to be rhythm piano,
boogie-woogie, rather than the ‘blues’. This music is technically
involved; it shows a great command of pianistic style and
sounds extremely difficult. I can hardly believe that it
is played by just one player!
main event on this CD is the group of seven Airs interspersed
with seven Fantasias. This is a colossal musical project
that deserves admiration. Pitts achieves a structure that
manages to be both diverse and unified at the same time.
That is no mean achievement in a cycle lasting more than
opening Air (1) is subtitled Gently Interweaving
This is not minimalist in ethos, but is gently meditative
music that exploits shifting harmonies. There is almost
a ‘pop’ feel to this piece. Its companion Fantasia –Clockwork
is constructed from gently shifting patterns of
music and cross-rhythms. Initially played on the high octaves
of the piano this music moves into the lower register.
I was impressed by the interesting pedal effects in this
(2) carries the title After Satie
. In fact, Pitts
almost manages to ‘out-Satie’ Eric - if that is possible.
Perhaps it could be seen as the fourth Gymnopédie
There is naturally a decided French feel to this music
that is at all times very beautiful and quite relaxing.
this ‘Parisian’ interlude the composer turns to the Westminster
for his Fantasia (2). This is composed for prepared
piano. I am never too convinced by this ‘faux’ alteration
of the instrument’s sound – but in this case it allows
the composer to contrast two completely different tonal
centres in the exposition of this piece – the ‘prepared’ and
the ‘normal’. The chimes pervade most of this work and
it becomes almost like a toccata. There are even suggestions
of ‘Chinoiserie’ in some of the later passages. This is
a mystical, mysterious, and novel exercise that cannot
fail to please the listener. Furthermore it manages to
bring the ‘prepared piano’ from the specialised ‘Cage-ian’ milieu
into more a more traditional and universal setting.
third Air, On an Anagram
is a delicious, totally
laid back piece of music that exudes evocative chords,
felicitous melodies and pianistic devices. The melting
harmonies give this piece an almost timeless feel. And
lookout for some nods (probably not deliberate) to Sir
Malcolm Arnold! What the anagram is, I have no clue. And
I do not really care, and I guess the listener does not
need to understand this device to enjoy this lovely piece
Fantasia (3) is entitled Parallel Octaves
the music is not all what this title suggests. This is
no technical study designed to reinforce the right or the
left hand in coping with a difficult device. The Octaves
are only a part of the design of this piece; the music
does have a minimalist feel to it with structural changes
occurring slowly and subtly.
next Air; Sarabande is actually a meditative and exploratory
piece. It is sometimes quite a hard-edged example of the
baroque dance form that goes beyond the usual dynamic and
corresponding Fantasia is a long piece that is designed
to be hypnotic in effect. Wind Chimes
a clue to the clever aural effects that Pitts creates in
this Debussy-like work. He manages to reduce the music
to a virtual standstill – a near perfect equilibrium – stasis. I
have not seen the score of this piece, but I guess that
the entire Fantasia is constructed from some very simple
material that is worked up and used with skill. It is a
quite lovely piece. However, one word of warning: the listener
will need to be in the ‘right’ mood to hear this piece.
It requires a balance of attention and a certain letting
go. These ‘wind chimes’ are not sounded by a hurricane – just
a stiff breeze that blows through the listeners mind. After
a livelier and faster second section the piece ends quietly,
, the fifth Air
is probably the most ‘traditional’ of pieces in this
cycle. To my ear at any rate, it is reminiscent of Gerald
Finzi, though I imagine he was not a conscious model
for the composer. The attentive listener will perhaps
feel that the contentment is not quite as perfect as
the title suggests. The calmness is disturbed now and
again by something less serene. However the general impression
of this air is of a concentrated introspection.
fifth Fantasia, Bells in 9/8
is another poetic piece,
evoking a variety of images in the hearer’s mind. It opens
very quietly, minimalist and almost like a flower unfolding.
Yet appearances can be deceptive. This piece develops into
a little toccata that becomes more complex – both harmonically
and rhythmical – until it reaches a mid-life crisis. Some
parallel chords allow the music to slip back into the opening
mood. Gently ‘clanging bells’ are heard before the work
ends just a little more fraught that it opened.
felt that Modal Twists
(Air 6) was reminiscent of
music from the 1950s. In particular I was reminded of the
music of Franz Reizenstein. It is a good balance
between consonances and dissonance and also between varying
tempi. For a definition of a ‘twist’ it is essential to
look at Pitts’s website
associated Fantasia is called Half-Second Hand
Once again this piece explores Pitts’s interest in bells
and bell-ringing. Somehow, amongst the reiterated notes
and the high register there is a definite Spanish feel
to this music. And look out for the intriguing little downward
scale figure that permeates this piece.
last Air is called Cantabile Mist
. I felt that it
was a little slower than I would normally play cantabile.
However this is a very beautiful piece that could almost
be regarded as an essay in the use of the sustaining pedal.
Naturally the ‘mist’ effect suggests impressionism – and
this ‘-ism’ is never far away from what is a reflective
piece. The final Fantasia –All in a Chord is
about chords – and their reiteration. The chordal structure
varies between more or less complex harmonies. I was reminded
of the music Steve Reich here. It is a perfect and decisive
conclusion to a great work.
playing on this CD is both stunning and seriously impressive.
I alluded earlier to the Toccata sounding as if it were
a piece for four hands. Steven Kings is obviously committed
to this kind of music and makes a distinguished performance
that does both composer and music proud. My only criticism
is that I could have done with fuller programme notes.
That said, however, this music is quite capable of standing
on its own without a supporting commentary.
look forward to watching John Pitts’s career with interest
and certainly will be privileged to review any subsequent
CDs if they are up to the compositional and performance
standards of this one.