Peter Dickinson (piano)
rec. 16-17 April 2021, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk
SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD0644 [68:37]
The advertisement for this CD announces that it is “the perfect escape from Lockdown Blues with a collection of appealing piano miniatures compiled and performed by Peter Dickinson to chase all your cares away.” Depending on personal situation, health and wealth, just how “blue” this period has been, is an open question. Certainly, for musicians deprived of opportunities to concertise, teach and record, it must have been (and to an extent still is) terrible. Add to that the draconian restrictions on travel, visiting family and friends, hospital care, shopping and eating and drinking out, it has been a problematic time for all of us.
For me, the periods of lockdown have been made bearable by reading and listening to music - especially catching up with what I have always meant to tackle.
Peter Dickinson’s superb piano playing, and artistry has produced an album of (mostly) soothing pieces, with more than a hint of jazz and blues. In some respects, this CD is a retrospective of his career. For example, he knew
John Cage (and several other legendary American composers) when he was living
and studying in New York. Along with his sister the mezzo soprano Meriel Dickinson, he introduced music lovers to the enigmatic work of Erik Satie - the duo made recordings and gave live “entertainments” during the 1970s, when Satie was still a closed score. As a composer, Dickinson’s eclectic works often include jazz, pop, ragtime and blues.
Much of this disc majors on American music, with contributions by Edward MacDowell, George Gershwin, John Cage and Duke Ellington. This last-named is represented by twelve arrangements made by Dickinson. These feature several of (as Eric Morecambe would have said) “The Greats.” We hear masterpieces such as Solitude, Sophisticated Lady, Mood Indigo and Prelude to a Kiss. They are based on the popular sheet music redactions, rather than the worked-out improvisations from back in the day. For me, it is like my sitting in a cocktail lounge with the house pianist entertaining the patrons - and with an “Old-Fashioned” in hand.
Surprises on this disc for me were the Gershwin songs. Who Cares? was originally featured in the 1931 Broadway musical Of thee I sing. It is a smoochy, smoke-filled lounge (remember those days?), late night meditation. The Three-Quarter Blues is subtitled an Irish Waltz; it is gentle and hardly that blue. Barber’s Canzonetta is the slow movement of his unfinished Concerto for oboe and orchestra - his last composition. Dickinson’s arrangement for piano solo is heart-breaking and perfectly reflects Barber’s musical farewell. I am ambivalent about John Cage’s 1948 piece, In a Landscape. It was devised “to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.” I know it is a good piece; I just don’t get it!
British interests include Constant Lambert’s minor masterpiece, Elegiac Blues, written by a composer who really understood jazz. Lennox Berkeley’s mildly bluesy Andante (from Six Preludes, op. 23) is always welcome. These were written in 1944 and dedicated to Val Drewry at the BBC. Eugene Goossens’ sad Lament for (or is it to?) a Departed Doll is taken from his delightful collection of imaginative piano pieces, Kaleidoscope, op. 18, published in 1917. Although subtitled a Suite for Children, it is hardly music for the tyro. Every piece is marked by craftsmanship and subtlety.
Erik Satie is represented here by his overworked Trois Gymnopédies and Trois Gnossiennes and it is good that Dickinson has chosen to include two delicious pieces by Frenchman Francis Poulenc. The tiny Nocturne No. 4 in C minor ‘Bal fantôme’ (Ghost Ball) was written around 1934. Hinting at the seventh of Chopin’s op 28 Preludes, this piece exudes a moody and strange atmosphere; certainly, there are supernatural goings on at the hop. Poulenc’s Pastourelle is from the one act ballet L'Éventail de Jeanne (Jean’s Fan). This charming children’s ballet was a combined French affair with contributions by Ravel, Ibert, Auric, Milhaud and five others. In its orchestral version, the entire work is evocative of the creative individuality of Parisian music in the 1930s.
Finally, we have three “blues” by Peter Dickinson himself. Freda’s Blues was composed in memory of Lady Berkeley, widow of Sir Lennox Berkeley. It is based on Berkeley’s 1936 song How Love Came In. Secondly, Blue Rose. This was devised in 1978, and is designed to follow Edward MacDowell’s perfect miniature, To a Wild Rose. Scriabin’s mystic chord features here too. Lastly, there is Lockdown Blues, which borrows from Bach’s First Prelude from Book I of Bach’s ‘48’ – The Well-Tempered Clavier.
The liner notes for this new CD are ideal. First is an introduction by the veteran television presenter, broadcaster, TV director, producer, impresario, lecturer and biographer of musicians, Humphrey Burton, then, Peter Dickinson’s detailed programme notes on all the pieces. Finally, there is a brief biography of the performer. The CD cover is adapted from a 1928 Art Deco advertisement for the New York fashion house Schwarzenbach (not Swarzenbach, as printed on the rear cover), Huber & Co. and it complements this music perfectly. One other thing: Lennox Berkeley’s dates are wrong; he died in 1989, not 1981.
Do not listen to this CD from end to end; pick bits out. Enjoy it slowly. Most of this recital is lugubrious, often cool and always captivating. It should be savoured in a relaxed manner.
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934)
Freda's Blues (2016) [2:48]
Edward MACDOWELL (1860-1908)
To a Wild Rose, from Woodland Sketches op. 51 No. 1 (1896) [1:15]
Blue Rose (1978) [2:17]
Constant LAMBERT (1905-51)
Elegiac Blues (1927) [2:45]
Lockdown Blues (1920) [2:41]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Nocturne No. 4 in C minor 'Bal fantôme' (c.1934) [1:21]
Samuel BARBER (1910-81)
Canzonetta arr. Peter DICKINSON (1977-78) [5:31]
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-89)
Andante (from Preludes, op. 23) (1945) [1:45]
George GERSHWIN (1898-37)
Three-Quarter Blues (c.1925) [1:04]
Pastourelle (L'Éventail de Jeanne no. 8) (1927) [2:21]
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Trois Gnossiennes (1890) [6:51]
Who Cares? (1931) [1:16]
Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962)
Lament for a Departed Doll (from Kaleidoscope, op. 18) (1917) [1:13]
Trois Gymnopédies (1888) [6:27]
Edward Kennedy “Duke” ELLINGTON (1899-1974)
Twelve Melodies (1932-43), arr. Peter Dickinson [21:32]
John CAGE (1912-92)
In a Landscape (1948) [7:38]