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Howard SKEMPTON (b. 1947)
Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues (2019) [22:52]
Three Nocturnes (1995) [6:57]
Reflections (1999-2002) [12:44]
Images (1989) [29:56]
William Howard (piano)
rec. 2019, St. Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC100116 [72:28]

If you’ve heard anything by Howard Skempton then it’s likely to have been the vast Brucknerian excellence of his orchestral masterpiece Lento recorded and released on the NMC label, but while there are occasional whiffs of the distinctive harmonies of this piece, such as in the Prelude and Fugue No. 4, the piano pieces here are in Skempton’s miniaturist mode, few of them longer than a couple of minutes.

Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues is described by the composer, among other works, as a ‘breakthrough’. Skempton set himself strict frameworks, each prelude and fugue had to fit onto a single A4 page, the preludes are all canons and quicker in relation to the fugues, and the tonality runs seamlessly and systematically through every key, alternating major and minor through a double up-and-down run of the chromatic scale. There are of course negative aspects to such restrictions, playful and useful though they are. One of the joys of Bach’s 24 is the unexpected expressiveness and sheer variety in terms of emotional arc in both sets, and here we know that, whatever happens, it will be over before the wind has filled the sails and we’re allowed to take off on a significant journey with any individual prelude or fugue. This is however not what these pieces are about. All of them are inventive and delightful; little jewels in a big box, jostling for attention but each with its own character and importance. With such a resource of high-quality aphoristic forms it will be interesting to see which of these becomes lifted out for expansion elsewhere. Some of the preludes really sound just like the start of something destined for expansion.

The Three Nocturnes were commissioned by the BBC for “British Music Year, 1995”. In the booklet Skempton describes the “Ronnie Scott’s – after hours” feel he was seeking to capture, and the jazz vibe is indeed present from the outset: late-night lounge and a touch of Gospel in the first, the second growing out of repeated notes around which the material turns like an old long-player, the third setting up a two-part march on which some gentle syncopations are allowed to poke a little fun at the shade of Shostakovich.

The eleven brief pieces that make up Reflections were written for William Howard, and in this way follow a tradition for the composer, who has composed several such sets for other friends and colleagues. The pieces alternate in character, from reflective and introvertedly melancholy to lighter in shade and playful, impressionistic to dance or even folk-music-like. You know Skempton is never going to break out into post-Romantic pianistic gestures of fury or tragedy, but neither is he going to descend into Satie-like pastiche. Some of these pieces are like beautiful shells you could pick up and take home with you, and others are like a stunning view or vista which you can only keep in your mind’s eye.

It’s hard not to read Images in a French pronunciation in this context, but even given the beautiful atmospheres created here you won’t confuse Skempton with Debussy. Other piano works by Skempton can be found on the Sony label (review) in a recording by John Tilbury that also includes Images. Given the instruction that ‘The performer of Images is free to play any selection of pieces in any order’ and that Tilbury and Howard are equally brilliant with an entirely different ordering means they are more complementary than in competition with each other. Composed in 1989 this was another breakthrough for Skempton, whose earlier works were “in alignment with the Experimental tradition of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley and others.” Finding your authentic expressive voice takes time and experiment, and Images with its contrasts between carefully honed profundity, music-box enchantment and minimal-minimalism sometimes created with simple canon techniques can indeed be heard as a platform from which much of Skempton’s future work would grow. None of these pieces outstays its welcome, and many of them could easily be very much longer. Given the instruction on the score, I could imagine a selection of just a handful these pieces repeated quasi-endlessly and filling up one of those lie-down minimal concerts that have become popular in some quarters. In short, this is a lovely recording of some superb piano music which, working in my imaginary record shop, I wave hopefully under your nose while playing Images: Prelude 8 over battered loudspeakers, watching carefully for that distant, dreamy look to appear in your eyes…

Dominy Clements



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