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John McLEOD (b. 1934)
Complete Piano Works
Murray McLachlan, Rose McLachlan (piano)
rec. live, August 2017, Stoller Hall Manchester, UK
MÉTIER MSV77207 [78:46 + 81:01]

For over forty years, John McLeod has been at the forefront of contemporary Scottish music and is still one of the UK’s busiest and most prolific composers. Born and educated in Aberdeen, he has lived in Edinburgh since 1970. McLeod first studied clarinet at London’s Royal Academy of Music with Jack Brymer, Reginald Kell, and Gervase de Peyer, but later changed direction and became a composition pupil of Sir Lennox Berkeley. Subsequently he came under the influence of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, who became a mentor. Conducting studies were undertaken with Sir Adrian Boult. McLeod has won many important awards for his work, including the prestigious Guinness Prize for British composers and, in 2005 and 2010, was nominated for a British Composer Award. Additionally, he has held a number of academic positions, including Head of Composing for Film and TV at the London College of Music, Thames Valley University. An Ida Carroll Research Fellow at the Royal Northern College of Music, he specialised in the works of Messiaen, Boulez, and Birtwistle.

The first of two CDs opens with McLeod’s Four Impromptus, among the earliest compositions he wrote, while a student of Sir Lennox Berkeley, and to whom they are dedicated. The second contains moments of tranquil beauty, while the third has a dance-like grace. By contrast the first and fourth are powerful, full of vitality and rhythmic energy, and demand a player who can bring all this to the table. The City of Aberdeen, Scotland’s third-largest city, is known as the Granite City, so called because nearly all its buildings are made of the pale granite that is quarried nearby. McLeod’s musical style, even at the start of his composing output, has almost that same granite-like craggy texture, though not without an immense range of colours, too, so, perhaps by trusting his score to fellow-Aberdonian Murray McLachlan, he could not have found a more suitably qualified exponent. McLachlan shows himself capable of moments of extreme power, but equally sensitive to the most delicate of pianissimos.

The Five Hebridean Dances that follow, appeared some twenty years later, and are performed here by McLachlan’s highly-talented young daughter, Rose. They were originally composed for, and dedicated to McLeod’s wife, who performed them on many occasions. A discernible Ravelian influence seems now to be present in some of the piano-writing. The first dance conjures up a ship negotiating the often choppy seas of the Western Isles; the second is a lively dance, while the enchanting Harp of Dunvegan is the emotional heart of the work. The last two dances – played without a break – suggest all the fun of a ceilidh.  There is an almost uncanny similarity between the playing of father and daughter, given the relative difference in physical proportions, but Rose’s exceedingly persuasive and totally capturing reading makes this for me, one of the highlights of this first CD.

Rose takes a well-deserved break to leave her father to perform the rest of McLeod’s music, which continues with Twelve Preludes, written some three years after the Hebridean Dances. As with other composers who wrote sets of preludes, McLeod uses a key-plan to decide the order. Bach employed an ascending chromatic sequence beginning on C, whereas Chopin used a system of rising fifths with their relative minors. However, in both Bach’s and Chopin’s case, it needs twenty-four preludes to work through before you are back where you started. McLeod wrote only twelve preludes, and his key-plan is a little less simple, but which is more fully explained in the sleeve-notes. Irrespective of the tonal relationship between each prelude, as with Chopin, and Bach before him, it is the very real variety in the writing from one prelude to another that makes McLeod’s set just as fascinating as that of his forerunners, albeit that the language is very much contemporary.

Three Protest Pieces, written in 1992 originally occurred as piano interludes in McLeod’s song-cycle Chansons de la Nuit et Brouillard, set to poems by French poet and novelist Jean Cayrol, who, in his writing, often depicts the damage that mankind has inflicted on the world, a topic just as sensitive and emotive today, as it was back in the 1990s, McLeod says that his Protest Pieces attempt to explore and highlight the universal themes of animal cruelty and environmental pollution. The three pieces are, as one might expect, poignant and often quite harrowing, with a great variety of textures and timbres, and a subtle use of onomatopoeia.

The Three Interludes from ‘Another Time, Another Place’ take their title from a 1983 British Drama Film of the same name. Set in wartime Scotland, it tells the story of a love affair between the young wife of an older man and an Italian prisoner-of-war sent to work on their farm. McLeod originally wrote an evocative score for the film, and later created these three piano pieces in 1997, the middle one of which is especially attractive, with its definite Italian love-connection.
CD 1 ends with Haflidi’s Pictures, twelve short pieces inspired by pictures created by Icelandic fellow-composer and cellist, Hafliđi Hallgrimsson. For these, McLeod wrote short humorous poems with a delightful surrealist touch, which he himself narrates on the present CD. As the composer says, ‘I have tried to extend the experience by attempting a musical, and, in the epigrams, a verbal impression of each picture – hopefully not to be taken too seriously!’ This set is great fun, despite the often terse musical language, and certainly not lacking in humour. For example, in A Devil in a Cupboard, McLeod manages to slip in a single quote of the Dies Irae, while in Tortured by Noise, he bases some of his material on the original Nokia ring-tone, which everyone and his dog seemed to have on their mobile phone. In An Italian Huntsman you’ll even hear a snippet of the Italian National Anthem, part of Mussorgsky’s Hut on Fowl’s Legs from Pictures at an Exhibition in A Witch on a Pedestal, and the opening of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben in the final picture – A Musician on the Move. Needless to say, McLachlan’s pianism is simply phenomenal throughout, yet he still just seems to take everything in his stride – definitely another musical highlight from the first disc.

The second CD contains all five of McLeod’s Piano Sonatas, composed over a period of thirty-five years from his Piano Sonata No. 1 (1978) to No. 5 (2013). As such they can be seen as pointers along the way, revealing the development and diversity of McLeod’s style and technique over the years. The original score of Sonata No. 2 was lost and the piece reconstructed in 2017 using music from an early Harpsichord Sonatina, so this, in one sense, is the latest of the Sonatas.

The First Sonata is cast in one single movement, and was premiered during the Edinburgh Festival of 1978. It is loosely based on another great one-movement sonata, Liszt’s epic example in B minor, but while. McLeod’s music has a similar demonic power, and also has an extended fugal passage in the final section, the harmonic language is still very much from the twentieth century.

The original Piano Sonata No 2 (1984 and 2017) was commissioned by British pianist Bryn Turley, who gave its first performance at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh in 1984, but sadly died in tragic circumstances a few years later, after which the manuscript disappeared. Unsurprisingly McLeod did not feel it right to try to rewrite the work, so he decided to resurrect the sonata by using material from a very early work, his Harpsichord Sonata. It is in three short movements, and opens with a mainly slow introduction that leads into a sprightly ‘Allegro vivo’. The ensuing ‘Adagietto’ manages to cram a multitude of emotions into a mere eighteen bars, while the finale, which makes a fair use of single lines played two octaves apart, is rhythmically powerful and almost jazz-like at times.

Piano Sonata No 3 (1995) reverts to the one continuous movement format, although it is not difficult to discern its structure as ABA plus Coda. Once more a slow introduction leads into an ‘Allegro agitato’ section, and, in the slow middle section McLeod introduces a theme by Scottish Renaissance composer, Robert Carver, his Dona Nobis Pacem from Missa l’homme armé.

Piano Sonata No 4 (2006) is in three movements again, and while this sonata has perhaps more in common with classical sonata-form than the others, the astringent harmonic language and frequent changes of metre that generate a restless energy are still very much McLeod fingerprints. Piano Sonata No 5 (2013) was actually commissioned by McLachlan, who, after its first performance in 2014, has since played it some forty times around the world. Like the first and third sonatas, the fourth is also in one movement, but cyclic as well. As the excellent and most comprehensive booklet written by the composer’s wife confirms, there is a decidedly ‘Puck-like’ feel to the opening, and while this playful little theme will reappear towards the end of the sonata, it is the deeply-emotional central section ‘Adagio espressione’ that will ultimately return to round the whole piece off in sombre mood, and at the most delicate dynamic imaginable.

The final work on this second CD is McLachlan’s own transcription for piano of Fantasy on Themes from Britten’s Opera ‘Gloriana’ composed originally for guitar. McLeod left it as late as 2010 before turning his attention to the guitar, and then opened his account with a Guitar Concerto. The soloist at its premiere went on to commission the Fantasy, the choice of themes from Britten’s ‘Gloriana’ inspired by the composer’s centenary and the Queen’s Jubilee in 2012. McLachlan then decided to make a transcription for piano in 2016, which resulted in this brilliantly virtuosic show-piece. McLachlan also shows off his prowess as a drummer during the unique percussive interludes, where he makes effective use of the body of the piano, during what must certainly be one of the highlights of CD 2.

If you want to know anything about the piano music of John McLeod, then you need look no further than this outstanding two CD-set, which, in itself is exceedingly generous in offering shy on 160 minutes of the composer’s works for the medium. For those coming to his music for the first time, then perhaps the best way might be to start out with the Hebridean Dances, then Haflidi’s Pictures, and then the First Piano Sonata. Like any rich food, it does need to be digested in smaller portions, but, if you stick with it, you will surely become smitten, because, unlike a lot of contemporary music, it has something to say, and there is a real consistency of style, which can clearly be seen to progress from the start of CD 1 to the final chords of CD 2. If only for the quite superb pianism and energy which Murray McLachlan brings to the performance – and to a very similar degree, his daughter Rose, this is very much a disc-set to be admired and enjoyed on so many different levels. How often do we go through life, saying we don’t like this, or we don’t like that, only to discover in later years exactly what we’ve been missing. This is very much the case with the music of John McLeod, I’d suggest – especially for us Sassenachs, or non-Scots.

Should you need any further convincing, both CDs were recorded at four live concerts given in the Stoller Hall, Manchester, as part of the 17th Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists in August 2017. This is surely what gives each track such a true sense of immediacy and spontaneity, rather like performing circus acrobatics without a safety net. August isn’t generally the time of the year for coughs and colds, but, apart from a slightly muffled cough heard during one of Haflidi’s Pictures, the studio-quality recording and piano sound was absolutely second to none, and completely unaffected by any audience noises.   

Philip R Buttall

CD 1
Four Impromptus (1960)
Allegro energico [1:47]
Lento e tranquillo [2:38]
Andante cantabile [2:35]
Allegro risoluto [2:19]
Hebridean Dances (1981)
Going West [1:11]
Dance to your Shadow [1:56]
The Harp of Dunvegan [0:47]
Barra Love Lilt and The Cockle Gatherer [1:44]
Twelve Preludes (1984)
Con brio [0:46]
Con moto e pomposo [1:20]
Adagio quasi una chorale [1:39]
Allegro martellato [0:51]
Adagio – Notturno mistico [1:48]
Grazioso non moto [1:06]
Giocoso [1:06]
Maestoso e grandioso [1:45]
Allegro agitato [1:09]
Adagio languido [2:18]
Allegro energico [1:22]
Lento sostenuto [2:52]
Three Protest Pieces (1992)
‘The fox, in agony, surrenders his blood to the night’ [3:54]
‘A mountain stream, poisoned and chocked by effluvium struggles to reach the sea’ [2:25]
‘The stag, its heart pierced by an arrow, disappears into the mist’ [3:04]
Three Interludes from ‘Another Time, Another Place’ (1967)
Dolente semplice [1:55]
Andantino semplice [1:37]
Allegretto scherzando [1:35]
Haflidi’s Pictures (2008)
A Fish can Sing [2:09]
Snakes in the Garde [1:30]
A Holy Man with a Cross [3:08]
A Devil in a Cupboard [1:46]
Fragments from a Picture [2:32]
Tortured by Noise [2:29]
Silence [3:21]
An Italian Huntsman [2:27]
A Winter Landscape [2:59]
A Witch on a Pedestal [3:16]
To the Heart of the Matter [2:06]
A Musician on the move [3:10]

Piano Sonata No. 1 (1978) [11:31]
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1984, 2017) [11:57]
Piano Sonata No. 3 (1995) [18:50]
Piano Sonata No. 4 (2006) [14:29]
Piano Sonata No. 5 (2013) [14:49]
Fantasy on Themes from Britten’s opera ‘Gloriana’ (2012) [9:13]



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