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Elisabeth LUTYENS (1906-1983)
Seven Preludes for piano, op.126, (1978) [19:58]
The Great Seas, op.132 (1979) [17:25]
Five Impromptus, op.116 (1977) [10:16]
Plenum I, op.87 (1972) [12:54]
La natura dell’Acqua, op.154 (1981) [6:54]
Martin Jones (piano)
rec. 28 April 2021, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
RESONUS RES10291 [67:39]

An interesting pointed fact reappears in previous reviews of this disc. The media and concert promoters strenuously emphasise the playing of women composers’ music but those tend to be composers alive today. One hears few works by a generation from the mid-to-late 20th century. These notables include Priaulx Rainier, Elizabeth Maconchy, Doreen Carwithen, Grace Williams and Elisabeth Lutyens. Gary Higginson has suggested that they may “scare the horses” if played too often, so are best avoided. This is especially the case with Lutyens. There is no doubt that her music is challenging and uncompromising, and sometimes just hard work. For enthusiasts of British music, it is a million miles away from much of the received repertoire. But – as Gary Higginson says wisely in his review – it is possible to like Lutyens and Finzi.

The earliest piece on this disc is Plenum I op.87 – not op.86 as stated in the text – completed in 1972. This was the first of four pieces devised for various instrumental forces (Plenum II is for oboe and thirteen instruments, Plenum III for string quartet, and Plenum IV for organ duet). The title means “fullness” in Latin, and this is appropriate. Lutyens once wrote that the title implied “Plenum Spatium – a space completely filled with matter…in musical terms, silence filled, emptied and refilled with sound”.

Three interesting points: the work has no bar lines, the entire piece is an example of a palindrome, one of Lutyens’s preferred formal devices, and there is a limited use of extended playing techniques such as “plucking or stopping the piano strings by hand”. The best description of what the music sounds like is “static soundscape”, where silence is as important as the notes. It is a truly beautiful work.

The Five Impromptus op.116 from 1977 were written for the Australian pianist Roger Woodward, who does not seem to have played them. Once again, there are no bar lines; that allows the pianist considerable rhythmic flexibility in their interpretation. It is suggested that the underlying structure may be a “compressed sonata” with “a discursive opening movement of accelerations and slowings-down, and a brief succession of quiet chords functioning as a central slow episode”. If this analysis is correct, the complete set of Impromptus must be heard in the order written rather than excerpted. It is easy to describe these pieces as “gritty” but they are approachable, and they present interesting and sometimes ravishing sounds. Anton Webern may be the inspiration. This is a magical work that suspends time. There are moments of repose, and even the odd hint of a common chord.

The next work chronologically, Seven Preludes op.126, was commissioned by Jeremy Brown, who first performed it in 1978. Several commentators have noted the influence of Claude Debussy. Lutyens herself had said that her music sat within the tradition of “French clarity” over “German expressionism”. Certainly, she had revolted against the diet of Brahms she had endured at the Royal College of Music! Like Debussy’s Preludes, each of Lutyens’s pieces has a descriptive subtitle. Hers come from John Keats’s writings, for example Strange thunders from the potency of song and The shifting of mighty winds that blow hither and thither all the changing thoughts of man. There is a good balance in these pieces between an incipient impressionism, vigorous energy and a despondent lyricism.

The Great Seas op.132 from 1979 is a major work by any stretch of the imagination. In its seventeen minutes, Lutyens explores her emotional response to the oceans in all their moods. I am not sure to what extent her twelve-tone technique is clear in this piece. There seems to be considerable flexibility in the planned progress of this music. The liner notes suggest that the “note rows were less closely tied to close-knit formal structures” than in her earlier music. There is a timeless atmosphere here: one feels that it could go on for ever.

The latest piece on this disc is La natura dell’Acqua (The Nature of Water) op.154, written in 1981. It was to be Lutyens’s final work for the piano. Once again, silence here is as important as the written notes. At times, the music sounds like a monody, but here and there she introduces chords of varying density. Sometimes, just single notes ring out and decay. There is artistic aesthetic behind this beautiful piece. Lutyens wrote: “If you look at five paintings Turner did of the same subject, the first is lush and naturalistic, the one he did late in life you can hardly see what it is. It’s like late Cezanne. I’ve noticed that with old age – with certain exceptions – people know what to leave out. There is just the skeleton.”

Martin Jones is an ideal interpreter of these revelatory and often enigmatic pieces. He brings a deep understanding and sympathy to this music, and that rubs off on the listener. Nigel Simeone’s excellent liner notes helped me greatly in the preparation of this review. They make essential reading for anyone who wishes to enjoy (yes, I did say enjoy) these remarkable works.

There is nothing to fear here. Despite Elisabeth Lutyens’s anecdotal fearsomeness in nature and in her work, all these pieces are approachable, even to those who enjoy what she despised as “cowpat” school of music. I would suggest that if you like Debussy and early Messiaen, then you will enjoy virtually everything in this recital. And one last thought. In some of her documentary film scores, Twelve Tone Lizzie herself resorted to cow-and-gate pastoralism.

I hope that this will be genuinely the first of several explorations of Elisabeth Lutyens’s piano music – both published and in manuscript.

John France

Previous review: Gary Higginson

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