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Geoff CUMMINGS-KNIGHT (b. 1947)
Piano Sonata No.1 in C sharp major (2011) [24:53]
Russian Tableaux (1970) [8:57]
Three Preludes (from Book 1 of the 24 Preludes) (1985) [15:50]
Ballade (1972-3) [8:10]
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
rec. 2019, Gransden Hall, Merritt Centre, Sherborne Girls, Sherborne, UK

This is one of the most interesting and rewarding CDs to have come my way for a long time. I first came across the music of Geoff Cummings-Knight in May this year when Duncan Honeybourne (the pianist in this recording) introduced one of his Preludes as part of a “Piano Soundbites” series on YouTube. I had not previously heard of this composer, which is remarkable considering the quality of the music on this disc.

It is puzzling why this composer’s output is so little known. The music is warm, lyrical, attractive and idiomatically laid out for the instrument. Cummings-Knight also has a good ear for harmony; he instinctively places interesting chords and unexpected harmonic progressions in just the right place for maximum effect. On my first hearing of this disc, I did wonder if his structural sense in longer pieces (such as the Piano Sonata) was as finely developed as the other qualities noted above; however a closer acquaintance with these works has corrected this initial impression and I now feel that the composer’s treatment of musical form is very resourceful. This is music of real quality and I feel that the reason it is not well known is that the very lyrical and melodious features that make it appealing now were qualities that were dismissed out of hand in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Fortunately, we live in a musical climate that is much more inclusive than it was between (about) 1960 and 1990.

Stylistically, the music on this disc is individual. I feel that Cummings-Knight has been influenced by English music of the early twentieth century such as Moeran, (early) Howells and perhaps even William Baines. I should also add the influence of Russian romantics such as Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky and perhaps even Borodin. Despite this, the composer’s style is recognisably his own; it is remarkably consistent throughout this disc, despite the fact that the pieces were composed over a period of forty years. This music often contains unexpected twists and turns in a way we don’t find in some of these earlier romantic composers and this is a feature that makes the music sound more contemporary.

The first work on the disc, the Piano Sonata No. 1, has a magnificent first movement, which opens in a most arresting manner. The central portion of this movement is pleasingly rhapsodic rather than argumentative. Brahms may have developed the opening theme more compellingly here, but Cummings-Knight handles his material very poetically and shines new light on his ideas in unexpected ways. The recapitulation is beautifully handled.

This Sonata is in just two movements, which is quite unusual. Haydn, Beethoven and Scriabin composed a number of piano sonatas in two movements, but what makes this sonata’s structure even more unexpected is that the second movement is almost twice as long as the first. This movement is a set of ‘Diversions’ on the medieval hymn ‘Pange Lingua’. There is a good deal of stylistic variety here and this keeps the music fresh and interesting. The quiet (and rather understated) ending is another imaginative touch.

After the sonata, we have two “Russian Tableaux”; the first of these, “Snowfall in Suzdal”, is very attractive. The second tableaux “Kolomenskoe on a Cloudy Day” has a much darker mood; John France, in his review of this disc for MusicWeb, is right to pinpoint the influence of Mussorgsky in this impressive and eloquent movement.

The pieces that most impressed me on this CD were the Preludes; I should love to hear the complete cycle of 24, as they could well constitute a significant addition to the piano repertoire. We get the chance to enjoy three of them here and all are extremely rewarding. “La Sarabanda” from Book 1 is a beautifully sustained slow movement of considerable gravitas. The “Medici Court Dance” is perhaps the most immediately attractive track on the disc and is an absolute winner; the performance here cannot be bettered. The last of the Preludes on this recording, the “Mahlerian Adagio” does not particularly remind me of Mahler; the opening somehow reminds me more of William Baines, perhaps because of the rich and resourceful use of harmony.

The final piece on this disc, a Ballade, is a wonderfully rhapsodic piece inspired by Keats’ “Ode to Autumn”. Cummings-Knight’s Ballade does not seem to be much related to the famous Ballades of Chopin and Brahms; I do, however, hear touches of Scriabin in the central section and Rachmaninov in the poetic ending.

Duncan Honeybourne is an ideal interpreter of these works. He brings out the drama and poetry in this music with total conviction and it is hard to imagine better performances; Geoff Cummings-Knight is fortunate indeed to have such a persuasive advocate. These fine performances are captured in superb sound, which is both clear and warm.

All in all, this is a splendid CD, which I recommend with much enthusiasm. Prima Facie are to be commended for showcasing this unfamiliar but highly rewarding music, which demonstrates clearly that the romantic tradition is alive and well. I wish this new recording every success and hope that it leads to greater appreciation of this unjustly neglected composer.

David Jennings

Previous review: John France

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