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Elisabeth LUTYENS (1906-1983)
Piano Works Volume One
Seven Preludes for Piano Op.126 (1978) [20:00]
The Great Seas Op.132 (1979) [17:25]
Five Impromptus Op.116 (1977) [10:16]
Plenum I Op.86 (1972) [12:54]
La Natura dell’Acqua Op.154 (1981) [6:53]
Martin Jones (piano)
rec. 28 April 2021, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth UK
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
RESONUS RES10291 [67:39]  

There is no getting round the fact that this is an austere album but there is great beauty in its austerity. It is important not to mistake austerity for intransigence for this is not music that is wilfully difficult. It is, instead, music that says difficult but important things. Neither is it dry or unfeeling music for all its severity. It touches on parts of the human emotional experience that can be reached only through high seriousness of purpose, which should not be mistaken for posing earnestness.

Martin Jones has clearly passed through the rather forbidding exterior of this music to illuminate for us its mysterious, intoxicating interior. He plays it as if these were the most famous pieces by Chopin, with melting eloquence. He clearly understands that this music is not about the technique which underpins it but is about the inspiration of Keats’ poetry or the sea. I particularly like Annika Firkert’s description of Lutyens’ much earlier cantata O Saisons, O Chateaux! as ‘Magical Serialism or Modernist Enchantment’, which seems appropriate for the works recorded on this disc.

All the pieces included on this first volume of what I hope will be a complete series of Lutyens’ piano music are from late in her career. By this stage, she had begun to enjoy some recognition after years of neglect exacerbated by the difficulties of being a woman composer at that time. Sadly, that interest has waned over time, which makes releases like this so important. Lutyens isn’t a neglected woman composer nor a neglected British composer but a great neglected composer full stop.

A daughter of the architect Edwin Lutyens, she was an almost exact contemporary of Shostakovich, yet her own musical development took the path of Schoenberg’s 12-tone system. Indeed, she was, apparently, one of the first British composers to write 12-tone music.

There is a pared-back, crystalline stateliness to her writing by this stage in her life, which reflects complete command of her own voice. These are not inferior imitations of Berg, Schoenberg or Webern though she is probably closest in style to the latter. I found myself thinking of Britten almost as often as the composers of the Second Viennese School, but most often I thought about Lutyens rather than influences.

The most astonishing piece on an album full of astonishing music is The Great Seas. There could be no better illustration of 12-tone music’s capacity to go beyond the merely academic than this richly poetic and hypnotic work. Whilst it is constructed from the ongoing development of motifs, it presents them as a series of tableaux presumably intended to illustrate various seas. Alongside a spare, ascetic storm, we also get a frozen seascape and, at the beginning, a delicately drawn marine dawn. It is a magical distillation of Lutyens’ art and it is hard to imagine a better performance than this one.

In the second of the Preludes, Night Winds, Jones’s prowess as an interpreter comes to the fore in finding all manner of different timbres and textures to colour the music. He is aided by magnetic sound from the Resonus engineers, set in a much more generous acoustic than is usual for more modernist pieces.

The faltering steps of the penultimate prelude, Labyrinths, reminded me of Des Pas sur la Neige from the first book of the Debussy Préludes before descending into a quivering, murmuring, mysterious darkness at the heart of this particular labyrinth. Out of the maze, the unnerving world of the last prelude starts off like Messiaen but loses the certainty of its momentum, interrupted by dark resonant chords which seem to open up the abyss. Based on the inscription from Keats, ‘the shifting of mighty winds that blow hither and thither all the changing thoughts of man’, we are shown the experience of depression from the inside. It is a remarkable end to a singular set of pieces.

The Five Impromptus are more abrasive in character yet full of Lutyens’ laser-focused sensitivity for sonority. Jones evidently relishes this aspect of the music. Every note has a reason to be there and there is no waffle of any kind. This is the musical equivalent of the fiery taste of an excellent single malt whiskey – pure, uncompromising, but heady and intoxicating.

Plenum I, as the name suggests, was the first in a series of pieces scored for a variety of different instruments. According to Lutyens it is intended to portray fullness, followed by an emptying to nothing then a refilling. In musical terms, she said, this means silence filled, emptied and then filled again. As the sleeve notes point out, the 12-note series in the first half is presented in retrograde in the second, giving the pieces a technical balance to mirror the metaphor of filling and emptying. It is the only piece included on this recording that uses, very sparingly but tellingly, extended piano techniques such as plucking the piano strings with the hand. It has a patient, unhurried eloquence accompanied by Lutyens’ characteristic elegance. This is a lofty, mysterious piece that might be seen as the doorway to the later pieces included on this recording. For all its severity, listening to it is a hypnotic experience. There is a tension of emotion in it which is met in an unflinching manner, which is ultimately and surprisingly very moving. Not least because of the total absence of sentimentality.

The title of the final piece, La Natura dell’Acqua, could be the name of this entire collection which has in all sorts of ways explored the liquid in music. Lutyens’ exploration owes nothing to Liszt or Debussy or any other previous composers who have explored this idea. Whether it is the sea or, as in this piece, the nature of water itself, she finds unique ways of getting musical notes to flow like water. In this piece alone we have a mighty deluge and spattering rain drops, the serenely flowing surface of streams and deep currents.

The first track of this CD references the quotation on the gravestone of the poet Keats ‘whose name was writ in water’. The meaning of the quotation is that fame is transitory. Lutyens also seems to be referring to the fleeting nature of music itself, which sounds and then is gone, lingering in our memory. There is a cruel irony here in that this music has largely been as though it too were written in water. That Martin Jones has let it flow again is a truly special thing. Water may flow past and be gone but we are glad of it as it passes and I, for one, am most grateful to have had the piano music of Elisabeth Lutyens flow past me.

Contrast this with an extraordinary quotation from Steven Walsh in a 1966 issue of The Listener and you will get some idea of what Lutyens was and continues to be up against: “To my ears there has always been an element of dryness about her music and it doesn’t take an anti-feminist to suggest that it may have something to do with her sex”. My thanks again to Annika Forkert’s excellent piece on Lutyens in Twentieth-Century Music for drawing my attention to this particular article. It would be easy to regard such nonsense as a thing of the past and yet the neglect of Lutyens’ music continues, often accompanied by accusations of dryness. The best riposte, it seems to me, is this defiantly liquid and bracingly unapologetic recording.

David McDade

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