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Colour And Light - 20th Century British Piano Music
Nathan Williamson (piano)
rec. 2018, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK
SOMM SOMMCD0196 [78:17]

I was once told that, when it came to piano music and especially piano sonatas, nothing worthy of note had come from the pen of an English composer. I tried my best to dissuade the person of their idea, and gave plenty of examples to back up my argument, none of which included the pieces included here. This is a varied and interesting collection of British piano music. From Delius’s impressionism, we travel through various genres, including serialism, to the more modern idiom. Each composer has something different to say.

The disc opens with William Alwyn’s Twelve Preludes, which themselves show a variety of compositional styles. We have Alwyn’s take on serialism, his own unique modernism, as well as a nod to the recent past. This is a kaleidoscope of his musical journey; one could almost think that these pieces were composed at various points in his musical development. I know Ashley Wass’s performance of Twelve Preludes (on Naxos 8.570464); he is overall a little quicker than Nathan Williamson his. This is mainly due to the slower tempo Williamson chose in the Prelude in B (No. 7). It is nearly a minute slower than Wass’s, but I like this more relaxed approach; it reminds me more of French impressionism, and especially of Debussy. Williamson’s version is a good companion to Mark Bebbington’s disc of Alwyn’s piano music (SOMMCD 0133).

Peter Dickinson composed his Paraphrase II for piano shortly after writing its counterpart, Paraphrase I for organ. As its predecessor, it presents an original theme from his motet “Mark”, followed by a series of variations. The motet was composed to celebrate his association with the College of St. Mark and St. John where he taught. A theme from the corresponding motet “John” was used in Paraphrase I. The opening theme reflects Dickinson’s postmodernist interests. It is quite strident at times. The opening declamations lead to a calmer and more relaxed second central theme. I particularly like the fifth variation in the form of a static waltz, a homage to Satie. The sixth and final variation, the longest piece, begins in toccata form. It soon re-announces the opening declamations before changing into a quite moving statement of the main theme from the motet.

Frederick Delius may be the most familiar of the composers on this disc, but even this is something different: three pieces in arrangement for solo piano. The first is Nocturne from the Florida Suite, in a great arrangement by Robert Threlfall, who was one of the great Delian scholars. The other two pieces come from his French opera Margot la Rouge, sensitively arranged in 1902 by none other than Maurice Ravel. Ravel’s hand occasionally shows through, but this is wonderful Delius from one of his all-but-forgotten works.

Elisabeth Lutyens’s The Ring of Bone is sometimes sparse. Some may find that grating, but the piece deserves its place in this survey of British piano music. Lutyens seeks here “new expression through unusual, often instinctive, musical structures”. She applied serialism, which she claims to have derived totally separately from Schoenberg. The work’s sparseness is interwoven with the pianist called upon to deliver the spoken text of the composer’s own poem, which gives the work its title. The work is the most challenging on the disc, and at times I skipped through to the next track. Listen to it at the right time, though, and it becomes very rewarding.

The final two pieces come from a composer of whom I never heard before, Anthony Herschel Hill. Litany dates from 1992, Toccata from 1985; there is a bell-like quality to this music. His teachers, Cyril Smith, Herbert Howells and Nadia Boulanger, are not much evident in these pieces, but he did, the excellent notes tell us, identify with the “tradition on the virtuoso pianist-composers”. I think that a touch of Bartók can be found in this music, but this is strongly individualistic and intriguing music; I wish to hear more.

Nathan Williamson’s playing is excellent throughout. He rises to each of the challenges posed by the diverse compositional styles, and surpasses them with aplomb. Even when called upon to recite the Lutyens verse, he does it with ease, although it is not clear whether this is a separate track overlay, or simultaneous recitation. Williamson’s booklet notes are also excellent, informative and succinct, and prove to be the ideal introduction to this music. The recorded sound is also very good. The Somm engineers did the usual high-quality job in producing a clear and natural sound. A worthy addition to any collection of twentieth century British music.

Stuart Sillitoe

William Alwyn (1905-1985)
Twelve Preludes (1958)
1 in E flat [2:23]
2 in A [2:02]
3 in A [1:42]
4 in F [1:34]
5 in D (in memoriam 'RF') [3:45]
6 in G and F sharp [2:38]
7 in B [2:44]
8 in E flat [1:42]
9 in C [1:20]
10 in D [2:09]
11 in D flat [1:25]
12 in D [2:41]
Peter Dickinson (b. 1934)
Paraphrase II (first studio recording) (1967)
13 Theme [1:55]
14 Variation 1 [1:00]
15 Variation 2 [2:44]
16 Variation 3 [1:10]
17 Variation 4 [1:26]
18 Variation 5 [1:55]
19 Variation 6 [4:17]
Frederick Delius (1862-1634), arranged 1986 by Robert Threlfall
20 Nocturne [8:48]
Frederick Delius, arranged 1902 by Maurice Ravel
Margot la Rouge
21 Prelude [3:11]
22 Duet [2:46]
Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983)
23 The Ring of Bone [10:16] (1975)
Anthony Herschel Hill (1939-2016)
24 Litany (first recording) [6:57] (1992)
25 Toccata (first recording) [5:21] (1985)

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