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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

Cards on the table. I had never heard of Geoff Cummings-Knight before receiving this splendid CD from Duncan Honeybourne. And I would hazard a guess that his name is hardly commonplace, even amongst the staunchest of British music enthusiasts. Which is a pity. Certainly, based on the 57 minutes of piano music on this disc, his remarkable achievement for piano demands exploration and understanding.

A few biographical details may help. Geoff Cummings-Knight was born in the seaside resort of Colwyn Bay in 1947. His musical training was completed at the Birmingham School of Music (now the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire), Goldsmiths’ College and gaining his B. Mus and MA degrees from the University of Leeds. Between 1967 and 2000 he taught and lectured in several schools and colleges. Since 2002 he has been self employed as a composer and arranger, based in Cromer, Norfolk. His portfolio of compositions includes a piano concerto, two symphonies, Four Gaelic Moods for string quartet and clarsach, and the musical Seven Rides for Severn Lovers. Defining what (or who) his music sounds like is a harder matter. Let us just say that it is largely late-Romantic but sprinkled with novel modulations, and some surprising ‘harmonic twists.’ His personal website is unhelpful as far a list of works is concerned. Neither is it a particularly clear read on screen.

The opening work on the disc is the Piano Sonata No.1 in C sharp major, completed in 2011 and receiving its première performance the following year. The present pianist Duncan Honeybourne was the soloist at that recital. The liner notes explain that this work was written after the third piano sonata. Cummings-Knight apparently sees these compositions as a cycle: the present one being first in the perceived sequence, irrespective of when it was composed.
Strangely, this 25-minute Sonata only has two movements: the opening ‘Toccata’ is followed by a set of ‘Diversions’ on the medieval hymn ‘Pange Lingua’. This may seem an odd aesthetic basis for a piano sonata, but it does work. I loved the first movement. This is exiting vibrant music that, just like Elvis: ‘don’t sound like nobody.’ It is a subtle balance between passionate outbursts inherent in the title, and a thoughtful but balanced lyricism. The ‘Diversions’ pay homage to Monteverdi and Josquin des Prez without descending into parody. There is also an out of place but welcome ‘seguidilla’, which seems to owe more to Albeniz. The movement ends quietly after an exposition of the hymn tune. There is a splendid equilibrium of depth and intensity, extrovert passages and reticence. I would like to see the score of this piece. It is a valuable addition to the British Piano Sonata repertoire. I hope that the other works in this ‘Cycle of Sonatas’ will be recorded soon.

The two Russian Tableaux (there are three, in total) included on this CD were inspired by frequent visits to that country. They were composed in 1970 and represent Cummings-Knight’s first ‘mature’ composition. The liner notes explain that the first number, ‘Snowfall in Suzdal’, portrays the beautiful, historic town in the west of the country. Glancing at Google shows a remarkable place, full of historically important buildings. The music depicts the snow falling and lying on this magical medieval architecture and the surrounding rural setting. Yet this is not diffused music, but full of breezy energy. The second tableau ‘depicts’ the ‘Grand Palace of Kolomenskoe on a cloudy day’. This rebuilt structure lies to the south east of Moscow. It is a former royal estate once favoured by Peter the Great, Alexis I and Catherine the Great. Cummings-Knight has written a vast, impressive musical structure that surely will remind listeners of Mussorgsky.

There is an urgent need for a complete cycle of Cummings-Knight’s 24 Preludes. Based on an extrapolation of the timings for the three presented here, this would be a 2-3 CD production. That said, it would be an important addition to the corpus of British piano music. I understand that the entire series was published by Roberton Publications in 1987. The first Prelude on this CD is ‘La Sarabanda: Lento e mesto.’ This is an introverted piece that is slow-moving and sensuous in its impact, however, there is a more animated central section. This is followed by the ‘Medici Court Dance’ which is once again slow and thoughtful. This is no romp, but as subtle and reflective study of one of the most sophisticated and powerful families in history. The final extract from these preludes is ‘Mahlerian Adagio.’ Honeybourne describes this piece as ‘drenched in chromatic ambiguity and leavened by rhythmic vitality and contrapuntal ingenuity…’ It is not ‘pastiche’ Mahler but does present music that is visionary and ultimately powerful. The entire set of preludes were premièred at the now lamented British Music Information Centre in Stratford Place, London on 29 October 1991.

The final work on this CD is a Ballade. This was composed around 1973. The structure of the piece is ternary, with the outer sections presenting some ‘improvisatory’ explorations (in the best sense) before the central part explodes in Lisztian pyrotechnics. The literary inspiration behind this ‘Ballade’ is John Keats’s poem ‘To Autumn’. Yet, the music moves beyond this poem’s ethos with its intensity and drama. It certainly cannot be interpreted as a meditation on death, which is one possible interpretation of Keats’s poem. It is my favourite piece on this disc.

Duncan Honeybourne has produced the liner notes which are essential reading for anyone wishing to enjoy this amazing music. The late-Romantic ethos of Cummings-Knight is characteristically played by Honeybourne, who is clearly a splendid advocate and champion of this piano music. The recording by Prima Facie is superb. I guess that 57 minutes of music is a wee bitty mean. Surely the third Russian Tableau could have been included, as well as a few more Preludes.

I look forward to more of Geoff Cummings-Knight’s catalogue of music becoming available in the near future. For anyone who enjoys approachable, romantically tinged music, without a hint of Einaudi’s popular, but utterly vapid meanderings or references to ‘New Complexity’, this is a perfect investment.

John France

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