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Patrick OZZARD-LOW (b. 1958)
Piano Sonata No. 2 (2007) [32:58]
Sonata: In Opposition (1988/2015) [34:02]
Andrew Zolinsky (piano)
Elisabeth Smalt (viola)
rec. 2015/17, Henry Wood Hall, Southwark, London; Philharmonie, Haarlem, the Netherlands

Frank Denyer’s introductory note for this recording might seem misleading if you were only to listen to the first movement of Patrick Ozzard-Low’s Piano Sonata No. 2: “Initially we seem to find ourselves in the world of high modernism, but as we become accustomed to the air this impression quickly dissolves.” Ozzard-Low’s own notes commence with his eureka moment of hearing the Sonate pour piano by Jean Barraqué (review), which took him on the path towards his own style of composing.

The Piano Sonata No. 2 is a tour de force. Divided into five tracks, it is in fact a single, unbroken movement. Ozzard-Low talks of the structure in terms of “pitch-fields, distinct phases and embrace”, but while there is a distinct character to each section there is also a dual nature of basically ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. The first movement is powerful and angular, Andrew Zolinsky demonstrating remarkable dynamic control and accuracy over the range of the piano, but also in working the lower strings like an imperturbable but discomfortingly irregular milling machine - not always loud, but always intense. This is atonal, unforgiving avant-garde music, but with a compulsive energy and a strange fascination as to what will come next. The second section is softer in nature with intervals that introduce enigmatic cadence and tonality, the low notes of the piano coming to rest almost tenderly on moments of resolution. The brief third section might be considered the scherzo of the piece, its notes dancing like moths of widely differing sizes in the air, but it in fact acts as an introduction to the fourth section that reminding us a little of the opening but more often in a higher and more transparent range, and with more space between the notes. The ‘rugged’ conclusion of this part was at one point the end of the piece, but a fifth section appears, “reaching a plane very different to where we began… a coda that opens a door onto new vistas.” With its suggestion of Messiaen in its touches of impressionist colour and nocturne against birdsong, my feeling is that this final section doesn’t really belong, the integrity of the sonata being weakened somewhat. It could be a separate piece, performable subsequent to the sonata if desired, but its effect is like a Papal robe hanging from a sculpture by Eduardo Paolozzi. I have a feeling I know what my teacher would have told me if I’d stuck this pretty a tail onto such a juggernaut of a work.

Sonata: In Opposition for solo viola was started in 1988 as a single-movement work, but 19 years of gestation turned it into the six-movement piece on this recording, and this is only one of two versions of the piece. The six movements are alpha to zeta, with long silences in between each as the player moves from one desk to the next in its theatrical stage version. The ‘oppositions’ at work here are multi-faceted, with technical contrasts between movements, use of quarter-tones and extremes of range within them, from expected angularity to surprising hints of romanticism. Ozzard-Low also invokes Sophocles’ Antigone as an association if by no means representing the play’s narrative. The piece “...ultimately seeks to invoke, through but a solitary voice/instrument, analogous extremes of opposing energy - eschewing synthesis, compromise and reconciliation.”

This is another stretch for the player, and Elisabeth Smalt is magnificent throughout, with perfect control, remarkable technique and the kind of musical flair that makes such a work convincing at every corner and as a whole. This is the kind of piece that you won’t assimilate in one go, but even its gnarliest difficulties start to take on a poetic nature the second time around. This is a work that has its own rather special atmosphere, and as a result its own rewards.

Patrick Ozzard-Low’s music will for sure not be everyone’s cup of tea, and you will have to give this time to assimilate and be absorbed. I was initially sceptical but, as Frank Denyer suggested I might be, was won over after time. This is a composer whose catalogue is apparently rich in works that remain incomplete, and this might be one reason he is still relatively unknown in the wider musical world. This very well recorded and performed release will hopefully go some way towards addressing this state of affairs.

Dominy Clements

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