Peter DICKINSON (b. 1934)
Wild Rose Rag (1985) [2:14]
Blue Rose (1979) [3:08]
Paraphrase II (1967) [12:54]
Concerto Rag (1980) [4:05]
Quartet Rag (1976) [2:53]
Vitalitas Variations (1957) [15:13]
Three Satie Transformations (1970) [7:14]
Bach in Blue (2004) [6:12]
Hymn-Tune Rag (1985)[2:28]
Patriotic Rag (1986) [2:32]
Four Blues (1973) [10:11]
Five Diversions (1963) [10:30]
Peter Dickinson (piano)
rec. 9 December 1985, Rosslyn Hill Chapel, London (Wild Rose, Blue Rose, Quartet Rag, Four Piano Blues); 13 November, 1975, Walter Mobberly Hall, Keele University, UK (Paraphrase II); 30 October, 1999 (Concerto Rag, Satie, Hymn-Tune Rag, Patriotic), 9 November, 2004 (Bach in Blue, Five Diversions), 5 June 2010 (Vitalitas), Staffordshire & Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, UK
NAXOS 8.572654 [79:15]

My colleague John France has already given this disc a warm welcome, and I will now do the same, but for the opposite reasons. JF particularly enjoys Peter Dickinson’s most serious piano music, the Paraphrase II and Vitalitas Variations, and is less fond of the ragtime pastiches and other tribute pieces. I found the rags lovely and enjoyed the jazz fusion of Bach in Blue and the Three Satie Transformations, but felt my patience tested by the Paraphrase and Vitalitas. The moral here is that Dickinson’s versatile piano style has something for everybody.

It’s not hard to notice that the most serious works are also the earliest; Vitalitas dates from 1957, when Dickinson was 23 and a brand-new arrival in New York. Paraphrase II comes from a decade later, while the rags and parodies stretch from 1970 to 2004’s Bach in Blue. The Paraphrase begins with a rather stern theme, not at all melodic but still sharply outlined; variations follow, but they’re not so much variations as digressive ideas inspired by the original theme. Vitalitas Variations was, in fact, made into a fifteen-minute ballet with piano accompaniment in the late 1950s, although I can’t quite imagine what that must have been like. There is a sort of stark wintry beauty about some of the music, and the abrupt ending is rather ear-catching.

The rags and blues are more sugary. They’re not quite as distinctive and confident as William Bolcom’s rags (consider Bolcom’s rag suite “The Garden of Eden,” reviewed here), but a few of them reach great heights, especially the minor-key “Concerto Rag,” a darkly mischievous classic which is in fact written into the score of Dickinson’s piano concerto. Also worth admiring is the “Patriotic Rag” wittily punning on “God Save the Queen” and “Rule Britannia,” the “Hymn Tune Rag” which is downright sacrilegious in its bustling cheer, and the three Satie Transformations, all importing that composer’s Gnossiennes into the world of blues, the last of them daringly uptempo. Others don’t quite scale the ragtime summits: the second theme in “Wild Rose,” for instance, sounds a lot like the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Up Around the Bend.” The enjoyable Five Diversions were apparently composed for clavichord and premiered on harpsichord, but disappointingly appear here on a regular piano.

Bach fans will be intrigued by the six-minute expansion and bluesification (not a word) of the famous C major prelude from Well-Tempered Clavier. Nearly unrecognizable in the mood lighting at first, this successfully bears out Dickinson’s conviction that “there must be a blues lurking somewhere beneath Bach’s chords.” To prove it, halfway through he marries his darkly jazzy tune to the original in counterpoint.

As for the production: the back lists almost the entire disc as being “world premiere recordings,” and while that is technically true, the recording history is complicated. Four of the works were initially recorded for Conifer in the 1980s, six were recorded by Albany Records in 1999 and 2004, the Vitalitas Variations were set down by Naxos engineers in 2010, and the Paraphrase was set down live in 1975 (its release history is unexplained; I would assume it was preserved in the recordings archive of the university where Dickinson played it). Over 35 years Peter Dickinson’s pianism has clearly not faltered, and he is unflaggingly sensitive to the blues and rag idiom (not to mention his own!). The recorded sound varies pretty widely: the Paraphrase’s live recording is in not bad analog sound, but a couple of the items recorded in 1985 for Conifer Records are in pretty poor shape. The Albany and Naxos parts of the album are perfectly fine.

So there’s something for everyone here. A more versatile listener than I will likely enjoy all of it, but Peter Dickinson is a composer comfortable in an impressive range of styles and able to play it all. This album is a pleasure.

Brian Reinhart

Rather sternly modern music set aside rags and pastiches. An odd combination but everyone will find something to like.

See also review by John France