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Paul HENLEY (b. 1960)
The Complete Works for Cello and Piano
Cello Sonatas: No. 1 (2003) [15:16]; No. 2 (2005) [12:15]; No. 3 (2016) [20:25]
Voice for cello and piano (2016) [5:10]
Ruth Henley (cello)
​Ilya Chetverikov (piano)
rec. 2017, Compton House, Shropshire

Paul Henley is an English composer whose music I had not heard prior to this disc. Each of these four works is dedicated to Henley's cellist wife, Ruth who is the cellist for this CD delivering a cleanly expressive but not voluptuous tone. Both musicians play with great empathetic feeling and this is only tempered by the piano which is this recording sounds boxy rather than ample.

The First Sonata is candidly laid out with a transparency of texture and, between the instruments, a community of mood. There's some lovely melodic material at 4:07 and this rises to a statement of florid nobility. The second movement sports a syncopated intensity and a sanguine outlook. It reminded me of Howells. The finale comprises some very grave music from which rises serene simplicity. The substance of what Henley has to express here is large in scale even if the whole sonata runs to only a quarter of an hour.

The Second Sonata is in four movements, the first of which draws on a well of Shostakovich-style darkness. From this emerges a deliciously mobile idea and a quiet carillon from the piano. A troubled pił mosso is a prelude to a brusquely exciting allegro con brio which smacks of Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto. A five-minute Lento (feeling like a Nocturne) - as long as the two preceding movements put together - is thoughtfully pulsed before a modest march. The final movement is an epilogue - conjuring distant horizons half wished for and half feared.

The Third is the longest of three sonatas and relates to Ruth Henley's former accompanist Anna Roberts who was killed in a cycling accident in 2011. The first movement is excellent with a delicious carillon from the piano; Henley seems rightly fond of that bell-like inspiration. There are many delightful ideas here and they are collegiate in spirit rather than diversely disruptive. In another central and long Lento Henley resorts to grave yet tremulous modesty. There's a sense here of reaching out despite overwhelming inimical forces. The last movement is an Allegro energico. By now you know what to expect: that Shostakovichian determination is laced with victory, turbulence and then chiming peace. An exciting pay-off is very nicely executed.

Voice is a piece that ponders along lanes dark with overarching trees. One wonders whether, at the end of the lane, there will be a jetty from which the traveller can board a ferry to Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead. The music skates close to the Dies Irae but at 2:50 a melody of worth and endurance sings out.

Henley is from Worcester. He had his training at Birmingham School of Music where he studied composition with that very fine composer, Andrew Downes (review review). As a singer Henley involved himself in performing contemporary music including the song cycle Casterbridge Fair by Andrew Downes, The Fall of Lucifer by Geoffrey Burgon and in the first London Performance of Richard Blackford's opera Gawain and Ragnall. Henley began composing during his teenage years. In addition to much else there are two piano sonatas and two piano concertos. His music, on the showing of this disc, is expressed with a good sense of not overstretching his material. It's all very English and most approachable.

A single sheet insert is folded into four pages: front cover front, two pages of commentary about the musicians and the composer and a last page talking briefly about the music.

Rob Barnett


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