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Stephen DODGSON (1924-2013)
Chamber Music with Harp and Guitar
Septet Variations (1975) [14:38]
Pastoral Sonata (1953/1954, rev.1959/1998) [14:50]
Solway Suite (1974) [16:08]
Echoes of Autumn (1998) [5:35]
Sonata for Three (1982) [12:50]
Capriccio and Finale (1952) [17:00]
rec. 2015, Wathen Hall, St. Paul’s School, London
NAXOS 8.573857 [81:57]

Musicweb colleague Michael Wilkinson, writing about this disc, said ‘This is music to admire and enjoy – if not quite to love’. I can understand exactly what he means and why he reacts in that way. Stephen Dodgson’s music, for all its remarkable craftsmanship and richness of invention, can sometimes hold the listener at arm’s length. You might feel emotionally short-changed. I find, however, that the more you listen to it the more intimate the relationship with the listener becomes. But then, I have another reason to love this music. Stephen Dodgson was my teacher for four years, three of them at the Royal College of Music and one more at his home in South-west London. He never managed to transform me into a great composer, but he did teach me, in the most informal and spontaneous way, more about music than any other person I have encountered in my lifetime. He was a remarkable character who cycled around London, brewed his own beer and had a most peculiar laugh. But looking back, what he had to say about such composers as Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Debussy and, more than any other, Janáček, was wisdom itself.

Anyone who has read about Dodgson knows that he excelled in writing for the guitar even though he did not play the instrument. The guitar features in three of the works on this disc, and the instrumental groupings of all the pieces are relatively unusual. Another issue dear to him was that a composer must take into account the characteristics of any instrument for which he or she is writing. He showed me many instances of where this most basic of instructions was ignored. He was particularly scathing about composers who wrote for the harpsichord as if it were a piano.

The first work on the disc is the Septet Variations of 1975, scored for the same forces as Ravel’s celebrated Introduction and Allegro, flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet. Only very occasionally, however, are Ravel-like textures to be heard. Dodgson takes a different approach to writing for this particular ensemble. Over the course of the work’s ten short variations he takes advantage – and uses to his advantage – the possibilities afforded by the seven players at his disposal. Each variation is not only different in its musical outlook and aim, but also in the use to which he puts the instruments. The musical language is quite advanced, though the work ends on a clear major triad. You could characterise this music, indeed most of Dodgson’s work, as music that is immediately attractive and enjoyable, but which only fully reveals everything it has to say on repeated hearings.

‘The key to understanding the [Pastoral Sonata]’, writes Graham Wade in his comprehensive booklet notes, is the designation of “pastoral” suggesting sunlit fields and grazing sheep’. I have to say I do not hear much of that in this work, composed early in Dodgson’s career and revised more than forty years later. It is more immediately melodious than the later works, and the musical language keeps a closer hold on tonality. But the textures are busy, almost neo-classical in atmosphere, and this applies even in the calmer second movement, an ‘Elegy’ that is more tranquil than tragic.

In many ways the Solway Suite is the typical Dodgson work. In five short movements, each perfectly proportioned, the work explores a wide range of moods and ideas. The musical language is accessible, a little astringent, and with traces of the Baroque creeping in from time to time. I hear more conventional pastoral atmosphere in the flute writing of the third movement – entitled ‘Pastorale’ – than I do in the Pastoral Sonata, and the composer is to be found in an unaccustomed solemn mood in the fourth movement, ‘Ground’. The work was dedicated to Andrzej Panufnik.

Echoes of Autumn, composed for the French guitarist Olivier Chassain, is based on a piece by Spanish composer Antonio Ruiz-Pipó that had also been dedicated to Chassain. It is an intriguing, short piece, decidedly autumnal at the outset, the mood established by extensive use of a drone figure. Towards the end, however, the mood changes, to remind us that the colder seasons always lead to something warmer.

John Williams once said that he appreciated Stephen Dodgson’s guitar writing for its ‘twangy’ quality. There is, indeed, a fair amount of twangy guitar writing in Sonata for Three, especially in the first movement, and indeed, the word, at least the sense of the word, could describe much of Dodgson’s music. This seems to be a less approachable work than the others in this collection – I had never heard it before – and the rather stop/start finale makes it difficult for the listener to enter into the work. But, like all Dodgson’s music, it will grow on me.

The final work on the disc is also the earliest, the Capriccio and Finale of 1952. The booklet notes quote from the composer many years later when he expresses his dissatisfaction with the work. The Wigmore Ensemble, who commissioned it, followed up with a request for another work, so it clearly pleased the musicians for whom it was written. But with its extended, almost romantic lines, and its sumptuous scoring, it could almost be by another composer. Dodgson’s displeasure can be seen as the consequence of a lifetime’s experience of composition.

These fascinating and rewarding works are brilliantly performed by the different members of Karolos, and the programme is beautifully recorded. Stephen Dodgson would have been delighted.

William Hedley

Previous review: Michael Wilkinson

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