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]

Given the wide-ranging ambit of this disc, all of which pieces bar one are heard in premiere recordings (two are even world premiere performances) I allowed myself the luxury of getting down first to Larkin’s Jazz. This was written in 1989 and is heard in a first ever performance, live in the chapel at Keele University. There’s certainly a live, echo-laden atmosphere here, not always entirely comfortably so it must be said, because the recitalist Henry Herford can be rendered a bit indistinct, acoustically speaking. Percussion taps hammer naggingly and there is an elliptical instrumental accompaniment as he reads Larkin’s poems. Dickinson cleverly divides this project into threes; a Prelude, the reading of the poem, and finally a Commentary. There are four poems; Reasons for attendance, For Sidney Bechet, Love songs in age, and Reference back. In places it’s not an easy listen, but elsewhere Dickinson conjures up jazz echoes to commanding effect. There’s the surprisingly Goodman-sounding clarinet swing in the Prelude to For Sidney Bechet which then veers off into a more Buddy de Franco meets late Artie Shaw ethos – fretful off-beats and Krupa-esque drums. These are the genial, clever moments in which jazz is evoked but not straightforwardly. I wish Herford hadn’t got the stress wrong in the poem though. It’s not; ‘Oh play that thing’; it’s ‘Oh play that thing’. The thing in question being a cornet in Dippermouth Blues and this being the shouted cry of a thousand bandsmen down the years as the leader takes his time-honoured solo. I admire Herford as a singer and artist but I find his readings too ‘elevated’, if you know what I mean.
The Prelude to Love songs in age is the most harmonically complex, and the most extensive setting. Its commentary has an agitated cello solo and a melismatic vocal. The Prelude to Reference back adds a muted trumpet to the mix and in the Poem and Conclusion that follows we hear the strains of Riverside Blues emerge as if formulated from the preceding material. Dickinson also uses a strain from Bechet’s Blue Horizon in the piece, though less explicitly. The emergence of Riverside Blues is not unlike the emergence of Dowland’s tune in Britten’s Lachrymae but the effect is wholly different.
Mass of the Apocalypse again features some eclectic instrumentation; four part chorus, a soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, speaker, two percussionists and piano. The texts are deliberately chosen, and derive from the King James (1611) version of the Bible for the spoken text, but the Alternative Service Book for the sung passages. It was commissioned for the 300th anniversary of St. James’s Piccadilly and premiered there in 1984. This recording was made in 1988. As with the Larkin piece there are determined percussive taps and there are also moments of staccato or even Nymanesque rhythmic patterns. The Agnus Dei sports strongly reharmonised Palestrina whilst the prominent marimba and wordless vocal of Ite Missa est adds another layer of colour.
Continuing the eclectic pathways that this disc offers we arrive at the Five Forgeries for piano duet. Dickinson describes these are ‘party-pieces’ and given that they emulate five composers with amusing precision he’s not far off the mark. The Poulenc forgery has a delicious tunefulness, whilst Hindemith is wickedly witty. The Stravinsky movement is adept, whilst the Delius is very much in the mould with those strong left hand chords to the fore. Bartók ends the sequence nicely. Five Early Pieces for solo piano were student examination works written between 1955 and 1956; in one case reconstructed by the composer many years later. They show hints of youthful neo-classicism in the second Invention, as well as a strong sense of the thoughtfully contemplative; markers of an early style in fact.
We also have the first recording in this flute and piano version of the Lullaby from The Unicorns – a lovely tune – as well as the Air for solo flute (1959) and Metamorphosis for solo flute. This last is impressive, with still, reflective lines alternating with loquacious interjections. The latter’s attempt to destabilise the serenity of the former is fruitless. Many years later, in 1971, Dickinson added a transformation sequence leading from the melody part to the tricky cadenza, which he took from his Translations written for David Munrow. It works well, and adds bite.
We certainly take a multi-faceted look at the many sides of Peter Dickinson in this disc, a rewarding and often challenging journey.
Jonathan Woolf