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Andrew DOWNES (b. 1950) Daybreak in the Fields
Sonata No. 1 (1976) [13:06]
Sonata No. 2 (2002) [29:49]
Sonata for Two Pianos (1987) [19:34]
Sonatina (1974) [8:03]
Seven Preludes (2005) [29:04] In Memoriam Herbert Howells (2008) [9:22]
Seven Postludes (2015) [20:31]
Duncan Honeybourne (piano) Katharine Lam (2nd piano)
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales, 2016 EM RECORDS EMRCD040-41 [60:35 + 67:15]
This two-disc set is my introduction to the music of the English composer, Andrew Downes, and I have been quite taken by it. Born in Birmingham, Downes won a scholarship to study music at St. Johns College, Cambridge, where he earned a MA in composition. He then went on to the Royal College of Music, where he studied with Herbert Howells (a composer I have a great fondness for) who saw Downes as one of his brightest and more promising students. Downes was head of composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire from 1992 to 2005, only standing down due to ill health.
Downes’s website suggests that, apart from a couple transcriptions, this disc represents the entirety of his piano music. The music is quite varied is style, from the Op. 3 Sonatina which dates from just after he finished his studies with Howells. The Sonatina opening is a flurry of notes that are contrapuntal in style. This gives way to the more tender second movement before the final toccata-esque final movement. The teaching of Howells is in evidence, especially in the shorter pieces. The Preludes and the Postludes bring to mind the suite The B’s. Just listen, for example, to the charming Summer Calypso or Daybreak in the Fields from the Preludes. These are, like the Howells, works of a descriptive nature. There are other influences to be heard in this music — Britten and even the brilliance of Poulenc — but all these influences are subliminal. Downes is very much his own man. This comes through strongly in his music as he uses these influences merely as a springboard for the development of his own style.
Of all the piano works presented here, it is the sonatas that make the deepest impression, and especially the Sonata No. 2 which was composed for the present performer. The longest work on the disc, the Sonata is influenced by the writings of Thomas Hardy, especially the second movement which employs thematic material from the composer’s Hardy song settings. It is a richly rewarding work. Although rooted in the English pastoral idiom, it has a darker and at times more menacing texture too, one that brings to life the full nature of Hardy’s characters. In comparison, the earlier Sonata No. 1, less than half the length, opens with a more relaxed music which gives way to a more intense faster music. This sonata is in a way cyclical, as this thematic material reappears in the final movement.
For the Sonata for Two Pianos, Duncan Honeybourne is joined by Katharine Lam. The work was composed for use in benefit concerts for the Interdenominational Society for Soviet Jewry. It takes lines from the Psalms as the starting points for the movements. It is a strongly powerful work although shot through with a sense of longing. A deeply tonal piece, as all the works on this disc, this Sonata is included firmly on its merits. It is no mere makeweight, but a strong and at times thought-provoking work.
Duncan Honeybourne has had a longstanding professional relationship with the composer. His playing is excellent throughout, and the same is true of Katharine Lam. The recorded sound is pleasing, not as reverberant as some recordings from the Wyastone Concert Hall. Honeybourne has also contributed, along with Cynthia Downes, to the booklet notes. These are detailed and informative, and add greatly to the enjoyment of this music.
This is music that has made me want to hear more. I am glad to say that there are other CDs available but offered at exorbitant prices by a certain online retailer. Still, they can be tracked down for a much more sensible price from the composer’s own website, something I intend to investigate further.