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Nightlight
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) 
Fantasia in D minor, K397 (1782) [7:29]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Piano Sonata No 2 in G-sharp minor (pub.1898) [11:59]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Consolation No 1 in E major, S.172 (pub.1850) [1:34]
Consolation No 2 in E major, S.172 (pub.1850) [3:51]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in C minor, D 958 (1828) [28:09]
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656)
A Sad Pavan for these Distracted Times (1649) [6:03]
Bill EVANS (1929-1980)
Peace Piece (1958) [7:12]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Gesänge der Frühe, Op 133 (1853) [13:10]
Cordelia Williams (piano)
rec. 11-12 December 2020, Turner Simms, Southampton
SOMM SOMMCD0639 [72:30]

The advertising blurb states that Cordelia Williams was inspired to create this disc because of her “experience mothering her two infant children in the isolating dead of night while the world around her slept.” Nightlight is dedicated, she says, “to the many people who… feel alone in the darkness. To those who experience despair or sublime melancholy during the hours before the dawn, who are searching for solace, peace or impossible hope. To anyone lost who is waiting to be found by the light”.

We all react to nights of sleeplessness in different ways. Some people I know tackle a long novel: others watch a bit of all-night telly. I would get up and make a cup of tea. I certainly would not listen to music that seems to be designed to depress me.

There is no doubt that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor, K397 (1782) has a nocturnal shadow over it. It has been described as the “simplest of means express[ing] the deepest of emotions.” It is characterised by premonition, lament, angst and death. However, it closes with an allegretto that “at least hints at the promise of dawn” and possible redemption. This is not all. The Fantasia was left unfinished; Cordelia Williams has provided her own conclusion, “allowing the Fantasia to dissolve again into the depths, just as it gradually emerged from them”.  I wish she had left the “traditional" D major conclusion.

Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No 2 in G-sharp minor (1898) has always been a favourite of mine. In my mind (rightly or wrongly), I associate it with the Mediterranean in all its moods. That said, the Baltic may have been the actual inspiration, or possibly the Black Sea in the Crimea. There is little that is relaxing about this stormy music. It is presented in two movements. The Andante begins with a menacing introduction and is followed by an evocation of the “dark agitations of the deep, deep, sea” replete with controlled explosions of sound so typical of the composer. There is a middle section, written in the “cool blue” key of E major that seems to conjure up moonlight. The second movement, Presto, is intense in its portrayal of the ocean in a wild and stormy atmosphere. It is characterised by constant triplets and an emergent, sweeping melody. Stylistically, this sophisticated Sonata owes much to the Romanticism of Chopin and Liszt with not a few original ideas from Scriabin himself.  It is not something I would want to listen to in the middle of the night when I was feeling a bit down.

The six Consolations by Franz Liszt need little introduction. There were two versions of this collection: 1844-49 and the 1849-50. It is the second incarnation that is usually played and is heard here. The first two, both in the key of E major, are simple, straightforward and restrained. I prefer to hear all six numbers played at a recital.

The shadow of Beethoven hangs over Franz Schubert’s Sonata in C minor, D 958 (1828) written during the last days of his life. Even the key is poignant in its evocation of soul-searching and lost opportunity. The entire work seems to me to be clothed in gloom. The menuetto and trio is untypically lugubrious. Rarely is there a glimmer of light and the finale does not relieve the mood. This is more a dance of death than a welcome to the dawn and is the longest piece on this CD.

Thomas Tomkins’s A Sad Pavan for these Distracted Times (1649) was a good choice. Musically, it seems to sum up these Covid-dominated days. The composer’s own distraction was caused by the execution of King Charles the Martyr. It is exquisitely melancholy and totally lacking in hope. I guess Tomkins could not begin to imagine the Restoration under Charles II in 1660 and alas, he did not live to see it.

Bill Evans’ Peace Piece was originally an unrehearsed improvisation made at the end of the recording sessions for his Everyone Digs Bill Evans LP (1959). Despite the simplicity of its structure (it is based on a two-chord ostinato) it explores considerable musical depths. A pastoral melody contrived in the right hand is subject to a wide variety of moods complete with some edgy dissonance. The result, however, is one of perfect tranquillity. The original inspiration would seem to be a combination of Chopin’s Berceuse and a short chordal progression from Leonard Bernstein’s musical On the Town.

The final work certainly pushes up the misery stakes. Gesänge der Frühe, Op 133 (1853) was one of the last compositions from Robert Schumann’s pen, as he succumbed to mental and emotional decline. In fact, he attempted suicide only a few months after completing it. Even the composer’s wife Clara felt that these “dawn songs, [were] very original as always, but hard to understand, their tone is so very strange.”  The composer himself wrote that “These five pieces are more than mere picturesque description – they are the expression of a feeling.”

To be sure, these often-beautiful “songs” are stylistically unbalanced. The overall impression seems to be one of depression, with each one containing at least a glimpse of peace and contentment. It is only in the final “melody” that the sunlight bursts forth and Schumann establishes inner contentment. I find it hard to separate this final masterpiece from the composer’s tragic illness. It is not a work that I would play to chase away the blues in the wee small hours – if a cup of tea was not available.

Cordelia Williams’ playing is remarkable throughout and is complemented by a superior sound quality. The liner notes by Michael Quinn are helpful but tend to elaborate on the general despondency inherent in this album’s genesis. The CD cover photograph is a little too wistful in its design, trying perhaps to hype up the atmosphere.

Perhaps, I am not the right person to review this album. I have worked many nightshifts over the years and thoroughly enjoy the dark hours. Even if suffering from a touch of insomnia, I regard it as an opportunity to do something, rather than wallow in the “dark night of the soul.” We are (thankfully) all different in our reactions to life and music. So, this album may act as a balm and solace to some listeners.

I enjoyed all the music on this CD. It is a remarkably inspired recital; I just did not need it presented to me as a “concept album” glorifying the night’s “myriad exhortations to introspection, its excitations of emotional extremes, its enveloping sepulchral isolation…”

John France



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