This is an exemplary disc in every respect,
Chandos are carrying something of a torch for Kenneth Leighton
at the moment. Their series of discs of orchestral music is revealing
new riches with every volume now supported by this superb disc.
Margaret Fingerhut has long been a favourite pianist of mine and
her typically clean, powerful and articulate playing is ideally
suited to the sound-world of this composer. She does have serious
competition; on Delphian, Angela Brownridge – a Leighton pupil
– has recorded a 2 CD set of the complete published works that
has been very well received on this site and elsewhere. I had
not heard a note of Leighton’s solo piano music prior to this
Chandos disc landing on my mat so I am not in a position to make
comparisons. Judged solely on its own merits these performances
are compelling, convincing and utterly involving.
It is about time that all of Leighton’s oeuvre came in for serious re-evaluation. My first encounter and awareness of the scale of his work as a composer were the earlier Chandos recordings of the Symphony No.3
and the Cello Concerto
. Somehow, under the radar slipped the first volume of Fingerhut’s survey of the solo piano music, which was recorded some 11 years ago – a disc I will be seeking out as a result of my enjoyment of this one. Leighton sounds quite unlike any other English piano music composer. There is a terseness, a desire to write music of maximum intensity yet using minimum musical verbosity, that is superbly impressive. Try the very opening of the disc for a perfect example of what I mean. Although simply titled Sonata Op.64
this was actually his fourth and last essay in the form completed in 1972. Leighton’s own description is so perfect that I quote it in full; “[the piece] attempts to express a search for stillness amid the conflict and turmoil of experience.” The opening paints a bleak unforgiving landscape in which stunted musical phrases grow. This opening also demonstrates the qualities of the performance and recording. The piano fills the sound-stage while allowing the subtleties and range of colour that Fingerhut finds to register clearly. As the music gathers momentum Fingerhut’s ability to delineate strands within complex passages becomes ever more clear. Although clearly his own man a couple of times during this movement I found myself recalling the music of Frederic Rzewski – who is only nine or so years younger than Leighton – or some of the Latin-American piano composers. There is a pounding mechanistic energy here in the bulk of the movement – somewhat surprisingly given the tempo indication lento e chiaro
– that is really exciting. The second movement, Chorale with Contrasts
again uses sparsely expressive material over gently tolling bell-like chords. The final Toccatas and Chorale
returns to the nervous muscularity of the opening. Here Fingerhut’s dynamic range is stunning and her easy control of complex meters is simply superb. The cumulative excitement of this movement is utterly compelling and the final dissolution into another frozen landscape similar to the opening is beautifully achieved – a thrilling opening to the disc.
I am not sure I realised that Leighton had died so tragically young – just 58 when he succumbed to cancer of the oesophagus. Yet even to the end the compulsion to compose burned bright. The Five Preludes,
which come next in the programme, were composed in his final year under the shadow of the disease. They were part of a projected cycle of twenty-four preludes following Bach’s plan of alternating major and minor keys. Many of the same keyboard characteristics are here as in the previous Sonata
. The serenity and simple beauty of the Prelude in D major
[track 5] and the Prelude in E flat minor
[track 6] in particular are disarmingly powerful. To find such other-worldly calm in the face of one’s own mortality I find hugely moving. Again the key lies in the utter economy of expression. The final prelude in this set is more expansive, frustratingly so in the sense it promises what else might have come if only Leighton had lived.
The appeal for collectors who already have the Brownridge set are the two works that make up the second half of the programme. These are the unpublished early Winter Scenes
and Sonata No.3
from 1954 and as such don’t appear in the Delphian complete published
piano works set. Although the Winter Scenes
date from just some eight months before (December 1953) the following sonata they occupy a simpler uncomplicated world. This is reflected by the movement titles that owe more to an Alec Rowley Suite than anything one would normally associate with Kenneth Leighton: Woodsprites, By the Fireside
are just some examples. Yes, this is less knotty music and at points more obviously illustrative. Given its relatively early position in the body of work perhaps it is not that surprising that Leighton’s musical personality seems less clearly defined. In The Wind
[tracks 10 and 11] the influence of Debussy appears which is quite absent in the later works. But even allowing for that these are beautiful finely wrought miniatures in their own right. Woodsprites
contains some of the most light-hearted music on the disc – a gentle waltz in the left hand with arabesquing figurations above. Again Fingerhut displays total technical control as well as demonstrating a light-fingered aptness. Her ability to gauge the mood of a piece and adjust her playing accordingly is perfection.
Quite why Leighton should have felt the need to withdraw his Sonata No.3 Op.27
just prior to publication is not clear – the liner states the composer had a “change of heart”. With the benefit of hindsight one can only conclude he was his own sternest critic. For sure he is still seeking a fully individual voice and perhaps he would achieve a greater control of form and content in later works but this is no apprentice work. Its gaunt forbidding power is instantly impressive and compelling. He starts to experiment with the use of serial techniques but rather than abiding by the strict letter of the law regarding serial form he uses the twelve semitones of the standard scale equally in a way that liberates the tonality and emphasises chromaticism and heightened levels of dissonance. Perhaps his concern at the time was more to do with the fact that this music fell between the opposing schools of the then-derided ‘Cheltenham’ composers and the rigours of the post-War modernists. It’s a chasm into which several British composers – Benjamin Frankel particularly springs to mind – disappeared, their music failing to please or find support from either camp. Thank goodness that both Leighton and Frankel – and others - are now receiving the recognition and acclaim their powerful and personal music deserves. But back to this Sonata
; the opening Andante
instantly sets a serious mood with a snaking sinuous uneasy, harmonically shifting theme. The pulse of the movement soon quickens into a passage that in its contrapuntal writing feels like Bach meets the 2nd
Viennese School. The drama of the movement is held in check, initially at least the climaxes being structural rather than emotional. But it would be quite wrong to imply that this is in any way dry or academic – Leighton’s skill is the balance he finds between the head and the heart, I like very much how the movement dissolves to a calm serenity before a final simple consonant chord. The following Lento Sostenuto
is another masterly display of maximum effect through minimum means. Again the ghost of Bach, perhaps this time in the form of some distorted angst-ridden Chorale Prelude over an ominously tolling bell in the piano’s left hand. All of that is my invention but aided by Fingerhut’s ability to clarify lines and counterpoints with brilliant ease. Gradually the tolling bell idea dominates the music and a powerful climax is reached. Concision is the key throughout – this feels like a much bigger work than its fifteen minute time-span would imply. Much as in the first movement, the music almost stumbles to an uneasy rather abrupt close. The third movement is exactly as titled – an Intermezzo.
Not that it is without shadows either but generally the mood has lightened and at little more than two minutes it is the shortest movement in the sonata by some way. The Presto, molto ritmico
finale bristles with virtuosic energy. Perhaps it lacks some of the lean terseness that so impressed in the sonata that opened the disc, certainly the accompanying figures are far fuller and busier and ultimately less impressive. Again Fingerhut sounds utterly at ease with any technical hurdle thrown in her way and the recording copes easily with the thicker textures that Leighton has written. This is still a powerful and impressive work and an exciting end to the disc but it does sound like more of a transitional work in comparison to the mastery of the Sonata Op.64
Collectors new to Leighton’s piano music – as I was - can buy with confidence that this is a Chandos disc in the best traditions of the label. For those already possessing the Delphian set the ‘new’ music is a useful appendix to the published works without commanding compulsory purchase status. However Fingerhut’s interpretations of all the music here is of the very highest order so some duplication might be in order.
And a further review – by Rob Barnett:-
Margaret Fingerhut, like Lydia Artymiw, was with Chandos during
their earliest days. Fingerhut has been a constant presence
while Artymiw moved to pastures new.
While some companies manage train-wrecks in design terms Chandos
are consistently daring and successful in their abstemious approach
to visual detailing. The stark cover for this disc tells us
a great deal about the company and a great deal that is good.
We start this Leighton collection with The piano sonata op. 64. It was written for the
pianist Peter Wallfisch who premiered and performed many of
Leighton's works from the 1950s. The Sonata is haunted by and
seasoned with dissonance. Crucially it's buffeted by the passions
and especially by a sort of stalking predatory anxiety. Gentle
bell-like dissonances are also in play in the fractured slowly-
evolving kaleidoscope of the central Chorale. Negation and motoric
energy rack the exciting finale until, violence-spent, the work
dissolves in a desultory quiet twinkle.
The 1988 Preludes were written in the year of his death. The
D minor is jazzy, ruthless and offset with flowing tributaries
of notes. The D major speaks of contentment, lush meadows and
a seeming gradient accelerating down a steep and precipitous
face. It is as if the contentment was written in the shadow
of something awful. The E flat minor sports a melancholy and
hypnotic coolness. The C major is like a hyperactive water wag-tail
- delightful and not breathless but certainly virtuosic. The
C minor is a more ferocious and defiant. Its pugnacious mood
is soon established and then sustained. It sounds a little like
the Ferguson piano sonata. Leighton completed only five of an
intended set of 24 preludes.
Then we come to two premiere recordings.
Winter Scenes from 1953 is written in a more accessible language,
caught somewhere between Finzi in his piano writing for the
songs and Howard Ferguson. The first is a cut-glass and earth-
stood-hard-as-iron landscape. There’s then a fervent fast-flying
feroce called The Wind. Then comes the twinkling
Mist, as vivid a picture of mystery as any film score.
In fact, if orchestrated, it would make an ideal accompaniment
to a fogbound forest scene. Woodsprites is rather capricious
and much in the manner of Cyril Scott’s many miniatures. By
the Fireside is a ‘Werther’s Original’ romantic scene. It
could have been written to order and specification and is all
very atmospheric and cosy. Snowflakes's flurries
of glinting notes has about it a passing touch of Medtner but it’s lightly applied. The final Carol is again
Finzian. This is all very different from the later works and would go down well as an orchestrated suite of light but delicately
The Piano Sonata No 3 op. 27 is in four movements. This is much
tougher music and while always having a rhetorical-heroic face
it is as satisfyingly involuted as the sonata op 64 and the
preludes. The sonata ends with a sometimes Mussorgskian Presto-Brillante
which again has the determined heroic face of the Ferguson sonata.