Edward GREGSON (b. 1945)
Complete Music for Solo Piano
Murray McLachlan, Rose McLachlan, Edward Gregson (piano)
rec. January 2020 Stoller Hall Manchester, UK
NAXOS 8.574222 [71:59]
Almost a year ago, I had the great pleasuring of reviewing a CD from Scottish pianist and pedagogue Murray McLachlan, with some assistance from his daughter, Rose, featuring the music of John McLeod (b. 1934). McLeod has been at the forefront of contemporary Scottish music for over forty years, but had, until then, escaped my radar. It did, however, prove a most fortuitous find.
The father-and-daughter team has just released a new CD, this time celebrating the complete piano music of Edward Gregson on NAXOS, which also marks their debut on the label. Unlike McLeod, I was at least aware of Gregson’s prolific output in other genres, and he is arguably best known for his contribution to the wind and brass repertoire, especially the latter in his role as composer-in-association with the famous Black Dyke Band in 2016.
Not only does the new CD luxuriate in the supreme pianism from the McLachlan clan, Rose participating in the Piano Duets, the added bonus is that McLachlan has penned the highly-informative sleeve notes, which not only provide a fascinating background and insight into each piece heard, but also provide this from the pianist’s perspective as well as the listener’s.
So it would seem an ideal point of departure, to consider what Murray McLachlan has to say about Edward Gregson’s piano music, its content, and context. (Gregson)’ knows all about the importance of restraint and control; nothing is overly stated, repeated or extended. Concentration and craftsmanship permeate every bar that the composer has penned.’ Just for the record, Gregson studied composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music with British composer, pianist, conductor, teacher, as well as political activist and committed communist, Alan Bush, while on the academic front, Gregson was Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) from 1996 to 2008.
The CD opens with An Album for my Friends – a collection of ten miniatures dedicated to some of Gregson’s friends, and consisting of eight dances with titles taken from the keyboard suites of the Baroque, topped and tailed by Paul’s Prelude, and Phil’s Postlude respectively – Gregson’s brief being to write pieces that would suit the technique of mature pianists, as well as those less advanced, while still ensuring the absolute musical integrity of each one. Stylistically the set is a real gem, and each individual item, is so much more than a merely clever pastiche. From the simple, yet highly-effective triadic design of the Prelude and Postlude, the unbounded humour of Adam’s Allemande, with its fascinating twist of scales and key, the plaintive sounds of Clare’s Courante, to Gaynor’s Gavotte, and the sheer exuberance of Gavin’s Gigue, the set deserves to be given far-greater prominence, both by pianist and teacher alike. To all intents and purposes, it’s a modern-day ‘Enigma’ Variations, dedicated ‘to (his) friends pictured within’, but minus the ‘enigmatic’ theme as such.
The Three Études that follow are the most recent of Gregson’s compositions on the CD. The first, a virtuoso, toccata-like piece with much syncopation, a passing reference to Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto, and an ending full of angst. Its dedicatee was, in fact, Mark Ray, former Head of Keyboard Studies at the RNCM, who died in tragic circumstances in 2006. The following two Études were composed specially for the present recording, the first, an ethereal wistful examination of textural balance, is dedicated to McLachlan, who treats it with such loving affection throughout – three minutes of absolutely blissful calm. The third of the set is dedicated to pianist and organist Jonathan Scott, another RNCM alumnus, and attests to Gregson’s admiration for Bartók, in the way he writes for the instrument here.
Lullaby dates back to the composer’s student days, and was written for the birth of his niece in 1965. It’s a most ingratiating miniature, with its gently lilting rhythm. In McLachlan’s intimately delicate performance, though, don’t be surprised if you wake up, only to find that the CD has finished playing already.
However, this would be a real pity, as you’d miss another equally charming little number of the same vintage – A Song for Sue (1966) – which Gregson himself performs on the CD. McLachlan informs us that the composer’s first attempt at concerto-writing was a Concertante for Piano and Brass Band. It was, in fact, an engagement present for his wife-to-be, where Gregson has fashioned the main theme from the slow movement into yet another enchanting little number, nocturne-like in style, and imbued with some lovely little modal touches in the melodic line. The music becomes more passionate, before falling back into the gentle lyricism of the opening. If wife-to-be Sue had any slight reservation about her forthcoming marriage, Gregson’s wonderfully persuasive rendition here would have induced a great sense of reassuring euphoria, as indeed, it still does, when hearing it for the first time some 55 years down the road. Pianists among us will surely be queuing up now to get a copy, for our own respective Valentines, partners, and wives.
Gregson’s two sons provide the inspiration and dedication for the next short set of pieces – his Four Pictures for piano duet (1982). None of the duets has a title as such, merely a general tempo indication, which then allows children to paint their own pictures for each. To this end, Gregson ensures that each one has a strong, yet unique character of its own. The first (…majestic) suggests brass fanfares, which build in density until the whole ‘band’ is involved, while the second (…thoughtful), is a melancholic slow waltz with more than a nod in the direction of the world of Satie, and his French contemporaries. The third (…lively) is a spirited folk dance which, as with Gregson’s Third Étude above, has more than a hint of Bartók about it – at just over a minute long, it would prove an ideal encore, or final encore, for any young aspiring piano duo. The final piece (…slow and sad) is a model of simplicity and invention from a repeated ostinato on the note ‘D’. Twice as long as its predecessors, father and daughter play here in perfect unison and empathy in one of the CD’s most moving tracks.
The title of the next offering on the CD, says more than the mere title – Six Little Pieces (1982, rev. 1993) – might possibly suggest. In 1913, Arnold Schoenberg had published his own set of Six Little Pieces, Op 19, where he’d additionally included the word ‘piano’ in the title. Both Gregson’s and Schoenberg’s examples certainly qualify as far as the word ‘little’ goes – Gregson’s weigh in at just over nine minutes, while Schoenberg’s are considerably shorter at under six minutes in total. But, it’s not the semantics of the title, or scale of miniaturization involved, that puts these two works on the same page musically-speaking. While Schoenberg maintained a lifelong love of Romantic music, the extreme contrast between these Six Piano Pieces, and his more romantic works came from his modernist desire to find a new means of expression. For him, works like Verklärte Nacht fulfilled the tradition he loved, but it was works like Op 19 that attempted to reach beyond it.
In similar fashion Gregson’s Six Pieces show the composer’s desire to move his style forward in a new direction. Gregson just uses tempo indications and strict metronome markings to identify each of the six pieces, something which his Austrian predecessor had also done, though without metronome markings. As McLachlan also confirms, in his short, but pithy analysis of each piece, Gregson adds elements of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique to the mix.
I would so that any listener who has been finding the CD so far, immensely entertaining, immaculately crafted, and superbly performed, might notice a small ‘hump in the road’, as the first of the Six Little Pieces unfolds, with its unmistakeable Schoenbergian attributes. Piece Two has a distinct humorous element to it, while the third is involved more with broader textures and soundscapes. The fourth is cast as a brisk toccata-like Étude, while Piece Five is an expressive, somewhat melancholic slow waltz. The sixth and final piece (‘with energy’) is a tour de force, which, as McLachlan comments, often uses jazz-inspired chords and impulsive rhythm changes to great effect, all of which the pianist despatches with such great élan and control.
Friday a.m. is the somewhat enigmatic title of the next track. By way of explanation, on its title page Gregson has written the inscription ‘with apologies to Gustav’. This we are informed, derives from the much-loved Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. McLachlan calls the result ‘deliciously expansive’, and I feel I simply could not better his description. As the composer comments, the music moves from somewhere in Central Europe perhaps to ‘a Manhattan jazz club’, as he so subtly integrates a more jazz-inspired piano texture, and harmonic palette. It’s just another highlight on the CD, which, particularly if you’re a pianist, you’ll really want to get your hands on.
The CD closes with its longest single offering, Gregson’s Piano Sonata in one movement (1983), and ‘dedicated to Michael Tippett, with admiration’. Furthermore, Gregson makes no secret of the fact that his work was inspired in particular by Tippett’s Piano Sonata No 2 (1962). Basically Gregson’s piece uses six different musical units, which he calls ‘tempos’, each tempo having its own character and emphasis; McLachlan’s brief analysis then gives a clear insight into the compositional processes in greater detail.
This is an extremely valuable CD which investigates a completely different facet of Edward Gregson’s music output over a number of years, and can be warmly welcomed on so many different levels. The composer’s music is fascinating and easy to live with – yes, even those two works which ‘come after the Watershed’.
The performances from the composer, and Rose McLachlan respectively, are totally committed and so well delivered, but I doubt that there is anyone better qualified or equipped than Murray McLachlan to sound equally at home in the granite-like crags of the Piano Sonata, as in the gentle intimacy of any of the shortest miniatures on the disc.
Even with this embarrassment of riches, and the first-rate piano sound, so faithfully captured by NAXOS, what I hear first and foremost are three good friends coming together to make music, and you can really sense the empathy and bonhomie between them, in every note played.
Whether you’re a listener, or pianist too, there is so much to enjoy here, that, in the unfortunate event of another pandemic lockdown, you could certainly make the most of the enforced isolation, by getting to know more about Edward Gregson, and his fascinating piano music in particular.
Philip R Buttall
An Album for my Friends (2011)
Paul’s Prelude [1:48]
Adam’s Allemande [1:10]
Clare’s Courante [1:57]
Stefan’s Sarabande [2:00]
Gaynor’s Gavotte [1:27]
Brian’s Bourrée [0:38]
Bethan’s Bourrée [0:55]
Brian’s Bourrée (repeat) [0:43]
Maggie’s Minuet [2:42]
Gavin’s Gigue [1:35]
Phil’s Postlude [2:01]
Three Études (2020)
Fast and Rhythmic [2:00]
Not Too Slow, Gently [3:08]
Fast, with Energy [1:59]
Lullaby (1965) [2:58]
A Song for Sue (1966) [3:57]
Four Pictures for Piano Duet (1982)
Quite Fast, but Majestic [1:03]
Quite Slow and Thoughtful [1:12]
Quite Slow and Sad [2:14]
Six Little Piano Pieces (1993 Version)
Quite Slow and Precisely [1:26]
Fast and Playful [0:46]
Not Too Fast [1:23]
Gently and with Expression [2:04]
With Energy [2:08]
Friday a.m. (1981) [6:23]
Piano Sonata in one Movement (1983)
Tempi I-4 [4:45]
Tempi 1-3, plus Tempi 5-6 [7:54]
Tempi 1-5 [6:18]