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Elisabeth LUTYENS (1906-1983)
Piano Works Volume 1
Preludes, Op 126 [20:00]
The Great Seas, Op 132 [17:25]
Impromptus, Op 116 [10:16]
Plenum I, Op 86 [12:54]
La natura dell’Acqua, Op 154 [6:53]
Martin Jones (piano)
rec. 28 April 2021, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
RESONUS RES10291 [67:39]

I firmly believe that it is perfectly possible to enjoy and understand the music composed with serial technique alongside what Elisabeth Lutyens infamously, if tactlessly, called “the cowpat school”. If music is well composed, imaginative and even evocative, then it is worth your time and energy. Loving Finzi and Lutyens is just fine. They are, I think, two sides of the same coin.

The BBC, in all their bluster about promoting music by female composers, are running scared of Lutyens, and indeed of Priaulx Rainier who is even more ‘difficult’. These women will “scare the horses”, so are best avoided!

Lutyens was in fact versatile. She composing music for films, some light-hearted songs, stage works and choral music – to name but a small amount. The works on this new disc all are from the last decade or so of her life, when her textures were becoming even more sparse, aphoristic and impressionistic.

If you have ever seen or played over a score of Lutyens’s piano music, you will know how incredibly difficult it appears to be both musically and technically, but Martin Jones is foot perfect on all counts. Richard Dearing performed four works at a Wigmore Hall recital in 1976 as part of a 70th-birthday tribute to the composer, and an LP recording of the event came out on Pearl. Otherwise, very few have tackled these pieces commercially.

There are five works on this disc, each separately tracked. The Seven Preludes, perhaps the most easily approachable work here, testify to Lutyens’s love of Debussy. There are titles such as ‘Night Winds’ and ‘Starlight’ given at the end of each brief piece. It is a trait in her music that the natural world is often an inspiration; the opening delicate prelude with its many trills is entitled ‘Whose name was writ in water’. Water, as you will read, is a feature of further titles.

The Great Seas is a vast canvas of over seventeen minutes. Michael Finnissy, who was the first to play it, rightly describes the music as “extremely sensual”. As Nigel Simeone adds in his excellent booklet essay, the music has “pain, darkness, even violence but also delicacy and fluidity”. Not hide-bound by the strictest twelve-tone technique, it is free and expansive.

Whilst the Five impromptus have some beautiful moments, especially in the fifth, they fall too easily into gestural pointillism, mimicking Webern (whom Lutyens had known) with every “gesture pared down to its functional minimum” as the booklet notes say.

Lutyens wrote four works entitled Plenum (Fullness). Plenum I, the earliest piece on the disc, dates from 1972. It is full of pain, loneliness and regret, as the composer was desperately missing her late husband Edward Clark. Like the Impromptus, it does not use barlines and employs at times the inside of the piano. This also appears on the Pearl LP.

By the time we reach La natura dell’Acqua, Lutyens’s last piano work, we find music reduced almost to a skeleton punctuated by silences. This results, one might say, in gestures with heightened sensitivity to metre, stress and musical punctuation, yet flowing like water without inhibition. All quite magical.

Martin Jones is a perfect advocate for this sensitive music, and he is beautifully and spaciously recorded. It is good to know that at least one more volume will be out before too long.

Gary Higginson

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