Samples & Downloads
Piano Sonata, Op.1 (1988/95) [21:18]
Sonatina No.1 Op.2 No.1 (1980s) [4:43]
Sonatina No.2 Op.2 No.2 (1980s) [9:25]
Sonatina No.3 Op.2 No.3 (1980s) [7:19]
Prelude and Fugue Op.6 (1992/99) [5:28]
Three Lyrical Pieces, Op.17 (2010) [7:03]
Miniature Suite, Op.18 (2010) [7:58]
Harvest Moon Suite, Op.19 (2009-10) [14:37]
James Willshire (piano)
rec. 17-19 July 2012, Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, Cumbria
DIVINE ART DDA25110 [78:10]
When I first received this CD I dreaded that is might be another
example of music inspired - if that is the word - by the Italian
composer Ludovico Einaudi. In spite of his popularity, he is
a composer that leaves me utterly cold. To parody Stravinsky’s
comment on Vivaldi, he appears to have written the same piano
piece at least three score times. The New-Age blend or fusion
of minimalism and pop is something that I cannot come to terms
with. I was wrong. David Jennings is a composer who is beholden
to no-one in spite of a number of trajectories in his musical
language. His is serious, well-structured music that I can do
business with. More to the point, many of these pieces are not
only impressive, but are interesting, satisfying and often moving.
No listener or composer could wish for more.
This present CD represents David Jennings’ complete ‘musical
offering’ for piano – so far. The earliest work is the impressive
Piano Sonata, Op.1 which was written back in the 1980s. The
most recent pieces are virtually ‘hot off the press’ having
been composed in 2009/10.
The composer’s website gives a brief biography, however three
things can be said that will help the potential listener approach
this music. Firstly, David Jennings is a Yorkshireman, having
been born in Sheffield in 1972. Nevertheless, he has crossed
the Pennines on a number of occasions including study at Manchester
University with John Casken and his membership of the Lakeland
Secondly, Jennings has had a wide range of musical and non-musical
influences. He has a great interest in art, especially the 19th
century English water-colourists – which he feels are ‘an inspiring
marriage of technique and expression’. It is a quality that
he exhibits in his music. The composer is stimulated by the
North Country landscape, particularly Yorkshire and Northumberland.
From a musical perspective, I mentioned ‘trajectories.’ These
include Frederick Delius, Kenneth Leighton, Gershwin and Frank
Bridge. In the Sonata I felt that the ghost of Sorabji was haunting
some of the music.
The first piece I listened to came as a wee bit of a revelation.
I noted above that I feared music by an Einaudi groupie. Nothing
could be further from this with the Prelude and Fugue, Op.6.
The Prelude uses twelve-tone procedures throughout. This section
of the work was composed in 1992 ‘as a response to newer musical
influences encountered at university’. The Fugue had to wait
a number of years before being written, with the complete work
being issued in 2010. The Prelude is written in a lyrical form
of serialism that also hints at jazz. Whereas the Fugue is a
tightly knit piece that is austere and musically sarcastic.
To my ear the fugue subject metaphorically ‘sticks out its tongue’.
Next, I decided to listen to the Three Sonatinas, Op.2. These
miniatures were composed in the late nineteen-eighties, when
the composer was still in his teens, although they have been
subjected to a little ‘mature’ revision. David Jennings suggests
that they belong to the tradition of Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen.
However, like the German master they are a considered balance
of innocence and subtlety. Nowhere is there any suggestion that
they are children’s pieces. These are urbane and nostalgic pieces
and never become mawkish. Technically, they appear to be demanding
and are always musically satisfying. Finally, David Jennings
has wisely chosen to cast this set as ‘sonatinas’ rather than
‘character pieces’: they deserve to be listened to as a ‘cycle’
and in the order presented on this disc. For the record, my
favourite ‘piece’ is the beautifully written Nocturne from Sonatina
The longest work on this CD is the Piano Sonata, Op.1 which
was composed around 1988 when the composer was ‘nobbut a lad’!
However, it is a magnificently impressive work for an Opus 1,
in spite of a little tinkering in 1995. This is a big work in
all senses of the word – lasting over twenty minutes, the music
fills out a grand canvas with its musical invention. I was reminded
of Sorabji in this work. Not so much in the sound of the piece
but in the ethos. The Sonata exhibits a certain waywardness
in the working out of themes – they seem to me to be derived
by a sort of continuous development rather than straightforward
eight bar themes. Much of musical background is complex: impressionistic
colouring is used. There is considerable ornamentation featured
in these pages. The music sounds difficult to play. The harmonies,
although largely post-romantic in their effect are wilful. Finally
there is a mystical quality to much of this music that could
be derived from a sense of landscape. Some of these attributes
often feature in Sorabji’s massive musical canvases.
The opening Ballade is deceptively serene but soon
becomes somewhat more aggressive in its tone. The jazz-coloured
Scherzo is as dry as a bone – but infinitely varied and intricate
as it explores a variety of time signatures. The third movement,
a ‘romance’ is deeply felt. This is introspective music that
explores considerable depths. Jennings well describes this as
consolatory music and he is correct. There is a little relief
in the ‘trio’ section; however the dominant mood is restored
towards the conclusion. Finally, the ‘Finale’ is cast as a rondo.
This is a noisy, splashy piece, which explores a number of moods
including jazz. There are a couple of episodes that present
a mood of calm, but the prevailing exuberance wins the day.
I loved this Sonata. It is surely one of the best examples to
have come from the pen of a British composer for many years.
The Miniature Suite, Op.18 is a wonderful piece of Bach parody.
The composer’s aim has been to recreate ‘aspects of Baroque
style in an updated form.’ The opening ‘Prelude’ is a little
‘toccata’, which nods to a well-known J.S.B. war-horse. Amusingly,
the liner-notes suggest that the composer was inspired to write
the ‘Air’ after watching a ‘remarkably lazy cat going in and
out of slumber.’ The third movement is a little ‘Invention’
that has some un-Bachian twists and turns. This is followed
by a gorgeous ‘Romance’ which was inspired by a walk along the
equally lovely Lancaster Canal: it is the most substantial movement.
The Suite concludes with a well-contrived fugue, which brings
this ‘modern’ piece to a rollicking conclusion. Jennings does
seem to be rather good at writing fugues – which is a breath
of fresh air in the post-modernist age in which we live.
The final entry is the important and impressive Harvest
Moon Suite, Op.19. This six movement work was inspired
by six nineteenth century watercolours. However, it is not a
North Country Pictures at an Exhibition: Mussorgsky’s
music was largely dramatic, whereas Jennings has opted for a
romantic, lyrical and often reflective mood. It is here that
I am reminded of York Bowen, although the composer assures me
that he had only heard a handful of pieces by this composer
before he set to work on the score. I believe that it is the
subtle balance between bitter and sweet and romantic that suggests
this similarity. The musical pictures include Aira Force,
The Haunted Abbey and Harlech Castle. It is
a very lovely sequence.
This is a beautifully produced CD in every manner. The sound
quality is outstanding, with each nuance of the music being
clear. The programme is considerable in both scale and concept:
the ‘complete piano works’ lasting over 78 minutes. The interpretation
of these pieces by James Willshire is everything that could
be wished. I loved the painting by Edward Richardson of ‘A Castle
in Yorkshire’ – although it is not too close to the composer’s
native heath. In fact, it is Barden Tower in Wharfedale. This
was a place beloved of Frederick Delius and has latterly become
one of Jennings haunts too. The liner-notes by David Jennings
are well judged and helpful.
This is a CD of piano music that is inspiring and challenging.
I have noted one or two musical signposts in the course of this
review. However, I do want to point out that David Jennings
has discovered his own voice. It is, as Jomar de Vrind has noted,
a successful balance between not being ‘ridiculously reactionary
and horrendously modern’. One can but hope that there are many
more inspired piano works to emerge over the coming years. In
addition, I would love to hear some of works in other genres,
such as the Lincoln Imp for Orchestra, the Oboe Sonata
and the String Quartet.