Stephen DODGSON (b. 1926)
Ode to the Guitar (1991) [16:59]
Legend (1977) [7:00]
The Midst of Life (1994) [10:01]
Stemma (1988) [9:04]
Partita No. 1 (1963) [9:46]
Fantasy-Divisions (1969) [8:20]
Merlin (1979) [9:06]
Roberto Morón Pérez (guitar)
rec. 20–22 September 2010, Holy Trinity Church, Weston, Hertfordshire, UK

Cadenza Music is a publisher specialising in contemporary chamber music with a heavy bias towards the guitar. The company also produces CDs, originally to promote in-house composers and publications, but now ranging more widely.

The British composer Stephen Dodgson has composed for the guitar for most of his career. He has written works for the most eminent guitarists; collectors will know, for example, his Guitar Concerto No. 1 in the recording by John Williams. Curiously, he does not play the guitar himself, but, as he explains in the excellent booklet note by Stephen Goss, he sees this as an advantage rather than a handicap. Thinking of the guitar as a harmonic instrument rather than a melody instrument is, he asserts, a mistake that “leads the innocent into writing too many notes.” This seems as good an indicator as any of his music in general. Concise, even spare, there is not one note too many, anywhere. Harmonies can be astringent, but tonality is always kept well within view. Getting to know his music reveals the underlying strain of “gentle melancholy” to which he himself refers below, and getting to know it amply repays the effort required.

The Partita, the first of four, was Dodgson’s first guitar work, and was composed for John Williams who also recorded it. Most serious guitar music enthusiasts will already be familiar with the work, and it is difficult to imagine a newcomer not responding favourably to it. Its four movements represent a short but comprehensive exploration of the world of the guitar, its singing quality exploited almost throughout, and even, rare enough in this composer’s music, an occasional excursion into a Spanish, strumming style. Fantasy-Divisions from six years later is just as accomplished and just as attractive. The theme – Fantasy – and the third of the five variations – Divisions – are calm and reflective, whereas the other short movements are more energetic, twangy, and, at the very end, rather dramatic.

The legend in the piece of that name is, according to the composer, “a tale told by an old man…now forward, now intense, now distant and solitary; the whole always lyrical, sometimes decorative, just occasionally declamatory, and often tinged with gentle melancholy.” It is a lovely piece, and certainly packs all these elements into its short duration.

Many collectors will know Edwin Muir’s poem The Horses, if only from school anthologies. Merlin seeks to evoke the spirit of lines from another of Muir’s poems. Two themes recur, developed and modify at each return, and as the piece progresses violent elements intrude, rather more violent than we are used to with this composer. I haven’t yet established in my own mind the rapport between the verse and the music, but the piece has sent me back, with a lot of pleasure and not a little nostalgia, to The Horses! [It may also be recalled that The Horses was set by Hugh Wood and recorded on Lyrita - Ed.].

Stemma is a set of free variations on a series of tiny motifs announced at the outset. From it’s pithy opening, through a series of more dramatic passages and culminating in the quiet, rather restrained and sad, yet major key close, this seems to me a totally successful exploration of the possibilities of the instrument, as satisfying to play – I feel sure – as it is to listen to.

The most immediately attractive music on the disc is probably the title piece, Ode to the Guitar. This series of ten short pieces was composed in collaboration with the celebrated guitar teacher, Hector Quine, and was, we learn from the notes, “designed to provide musically challenging concert music that didn’t demand a high level of virtuosity”. In this, it succeeds admirably. Each piece has its own attractions. The opening, title piece, for example, makes very attractive use of a six-note motif. “Drowsyhead” is particularly well named, and the sharp dissonances and buzzing figuration of “Hornet’s Nest” would lead us to the same observation. And listening to the sweet serenade that is “O Pussy my Love!” we are reminded that Edward Lear’s Owl was himself an accomplished musician, singing his devotion “to a small guitar”.

Four of the pieces on this disc are receiving their first recordings. One of them is The Midst of Life. This was written in memory of Tim Stevenson, a composer and teacher of composition at the Purcell School, who died at the age of thirty-two. There is tremendous sadness in this piece, as is to be expected, but great seriousness of purpose too, as if the work is as much a tribute to its dedicatee as an act of mourning. And in the central passage there is unmistakeable anger, an emotion that sounds almost foreign in this composer’s output, but which here is totally convincing. In its short span, only ten minutes, this deeply felt work is surely a masterpiece.

The performances, by the young Spanish guitarist Roberto Morón Pérez, are beyond praise. He makes a wonderful sound, sharp and edgy where required, and rich and sonorous elsewhere. Articulation is clean and clear. The composer was co-producer of the disc, so we can be sure that both performances and the excellent sound are what he was aiming for.

Seventy minutes of solo guitar music by a single composer inevitably lacks something in terms of variety and contrast. It would be a mistake, I think, to sit down and listen to this disc from beginning to end. But choose one piece and you will be hooked.

William Hedley

Outstanding performances of modern guitar music by a composer who really knows and understands the instrument.