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Contemporary Piano Soundbites: Composers in Lockdown 2020
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
rec. 27-28 July 2020, Gransden Hall, Merritt Centre, Sherborne Girls’ School, Dorset

Covid-19 has been unbelievably horrid for all of us but, as Duncan Honeybourne (see interview) writes in the booklet, “Britain’s professional musicians are facing unprecedented hardship in the current situation and the ‘Help Musicians, UK Coronavirus Hardship Fund’ is helping many.” So, he came up with a brilliant idea.

Honeybourne was posting a daily video on the Facebook page of the Weymouth Chamber Concert series. It suddenly occurred to him, since he has a long association with contemporary music, to ask several composers of all styles and ages to write him a brief ‘lock-down’ piece, and to present others which had been written for him over the years. He invited donations for the ‘Help Musicians UK’ fund. He raised a quick 800 and so launched a second online series devoted to premiers. Twenty-three of these pieces are now recorded on this very well filled CD. Who knows, another may follow in due course.

It would become tedious to describe each of the pieces but one thing really stands out. This music, mostly written over the period of March-June, is the wonderful stylistic disunity between us living composers. This is all to the good. And if you are to purchase this disc, as one hopes you will, then there are bound to be some pieces you will enjoy more than others. More established figures in modern life rub shoulders with names you will not have come across before. So John Casken heads the field with his deeply penetrating Tempus Plangendi. The minimalist composer Graham Fitkin produced R Zero, the longest work on the disc. He was inspired, if one can say that, by the so called ‘R’ number with its repeated chords pulsating gently and colourfully.

But, alongside those names one meets Philip Cooke with his beautiful transfiguration of the wonderful folksong The Turtle Dove. You may know it in a Vaughan Williams vocal arrangement. Here you will find Paul Henley’s elegant, easy-going Adagietto.

Writing the perfect miniature is a real technical challenge. One of the significant successes of this disc is the work by David Jennings, Melancholy. A Fragment. In his early work, in part, he gained a reputation as a composer of watercolour-like impressions of the natural world. Here the complex harmonies and figurations which need considerable compositional control rise to a perfectly placed and intense climax before falling away in a mood of loss and sadness As a contrast the Devon born Clive Jenkins writes one of the liveliest and exuberant works, the well-named Quicksilver.
The standard of the compositions and their interest and accessibility are all high, and there are no duds. But each listener will have preferences and pieces which strike them differently. Francis Pott’s Poem of the Air has a sound language all of its own but has also a distinct English quality. I found it very moving. But do not think that all of the pieces are like this. In contrast, it is good to have David Power’s brief but exuberant Joy even if it is rather forced. Liz Dinot Johnson responds with a folksy miniature A Little Lockdown Lyric acting, pleasingly, as a possible nostalgia link back into happier times. And the disc ends with a wild, virtuosic tour de force in Diabolical Dance by Peter Facer.

But perhaps the whole lockdown experience can be summed up, tellingly if rather naively, by Hayley Jenkins and the two tiny movements of her I hear you Mr.Blackbird. The first part reminds us of life pre March 23rd, hectic, consumerist and with no ‘time to stop and stare’. The second part, after March 23rd, mixes a chirrupy right-hand melody and unpretentious harmonies with a real recorded blackbird. That is just how it was for many of us; we could hear nature as never before.

How much these pieces will concur with your own lockdown thoughts, I cannot say. I find it intriguing that the music demonstrated by these composers shows how they, and we, have adjusted, adapted and accepted the restraints put upon our lives, often with sadness but sometimes even with a sort of pleasure at the prospect of a more quiet life, resulting in lack of work pressures. But what they mostly seems not to embrace is another emotion, which surely cannot have been far from our real deep feelings: anger and resentment. As exceptions, I would add that this is not true of the violent chords, which create a menacing atmosphere in Ludo Geloen’s Paralysis and certainly in the second half of Rona by Zoe Sones. Still a student, she is directly affected by restrictions and isolation as I write, especially now in this second wave. She writes: “The use of harmonics ringing over the fragments is an eerie sound to depict this uncertainty.”

The recording is natural and warm, with an ideal sense of atmosphere and resonance. The booklet essay gives excellent background information on each of the composers and on their pieces.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: John France

John CASKEN (b.1949) Tempus Piangendi [2.55]
Philip COOKE (b.1980) The Turtle Dove [3.04]
David JENNINGS (b.1972) Melancholy. A Fragment [3.31]
Marcus BLUNT (b.1947) Prelude to Better Times [1.57]
Clive JENKINS (b.1938) Quicksilver [4.18]
Francis POTT (b.1957) Poem of the Air
John McLEOD (b.1934) A Dark Waltz [2.10]
David LANCASTER (b.1960) Angelus [5.47]
David POWER (b.1962) Joy [1.23]
Sadie HARRISON (b.1965) In the Air [3.04]
Simon CLARKSON (b.1964) Everyone Sang [3.33]
Adam GORB (b.1958) After the Darkness [5.23]
Graham FITKIN (b.1963) R Zero [6.12]
Liz Dinot JOHNSON (b.1964) A Little Lockdown Lyric [1.57]
Benjamin OLIVER (b.1981) From the sublime to the Ridiculous [5.31]
– 17. Hayley JENKINS (b.1990) I hear you Mr.Blackbird [3.46]
Charlotte MARLOW (b.1992) Wayfaring [2.42]
Zoe SONES (b.1998) Rona [3.59]
Luke WHITLOCK (b.1978) Refractions of light [4.52]
Ludo GELOEN (b.1962) Paralysis [3.39]
Paul HENLEY (b.1959) Adagietto [3.05]
Peter FACER (b.1987) Diabolical Dance [3.33]

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