Sunday, 7 August 2011

Peter Dickinson: Piano Music on Naxos

I cannot quite recall the first piece of music by Peter Dickinson that I heard. Something tells me that it was probably the Three Statements for Organ. At least I have a copy of that work in my library which I recall buying at Biggars Music Shop in Glasgow in the early ‘seventies. However, whatever the piece was, it would hardly prepare the listener for the piano music on the present CD.
I noted in a review of that particular work that ‘they seem to hold a middle ground between improvisation and control. The three pieces use note-clusters, wide melodic leaps and chords built on fourths for their effect. They are interesting, if a little dated in their sound-world.’ Certainly this sound world could not be further removed from the Rags, Blues and Diversions on this CD. Yet in some ways this is typical of the composer.

It is not necessary to give a biography of Peter Dickinson here: I have already given a thumbnail sketch in my review of his complete solo organ works, also released by Naxos. However one point needs to be clearly made. Dickinson is not a composer to be readily classified. Some artists develop linearly: for example Stravinsky with his romantic, neo-classical and serial periods. Other composers write in the same style all their musical careers with only subtle changes of emphasis. Peter Dickinson explores a number of trajectories at one and the same time. Now, I do not claim to know the entire sweep of his compositions, but I do understand that his works cover the gamut from jazz to serialism and from aleatory writing to electronic manipulation and playback. And then there is Ragtime...

The Naxos sleeve notes give a succinct resume of what this CD is all about: - it is simply a collection of his eccentric and often amusing rags, blues and take-offs. Perhaps any danger of taking these works too seriously and trying to ascribe some higher meaning is negated by the word ‘take-off’. Pastiche can be a difficult and sometimes dangerous art. It is often used pejorative by critic in the manner say that Bloggs has written a pastiche of Delius’ in the sense of ‘an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.’ On the other hand these works are not parodies, which can be defined as ‘an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect’. Pastiches these works may be, but parodies certainly not.

However, the blurb on this CD is on one sense misleading. There are some very serious pieces of music presented here that demands the listener’s full attention. For example, the Paraphrase II which began life as a motet is not really about ragtime, blues or any other popular genre. It is deeply thought out work that is serious intent and execution. In the same manner the Vitalitas Variations, which is the earliest piece on the CD is a work that is not immediately approachable. However, this piece is perhaps one of the most important presented here. In fact, it had another life as a ballet score, having been choreographed by the Mexican dancer Gloria Contreras. There is a chamber and orchestral versions of this work in Dickinson’s catalogue. And certainly the Three Satie Transformations, in spite of being billed as a send-up of a composer who sent up Clementi and others, is actually an extremely effective work in its own right that will hardly make ‘Top of the Pops’, but certainly is attractive, rewarding and often moving.
However, I guess that it is the pieces such as Bach in Blue, the Patriotic Rag, the Wild Rose Rag that will get played on Classic FM (assuming that they ‘discover’ this CD). These are all accomplished examples of the art of pastiche. Perfectly done, never over-stated and never ‘knocking’ or destroying the original models. More serious, but equally approachable are the gorgeous Four Blues which are ‘trance-like versions of hymn-tunes. Perhaps the Five Diversions are a little bit more challenging than the ‘rags’ and are certainly often reflective and introverted but even here the fun and the humour are apparent and lead to a ‘lively and brash ‘ conclusion.

The composer plays all these pieces in a convincing, satisfactory and ultimately enjoyable manner. It is perfectly clear that he is at home as a composer and a performer in this plurality of styles.
As these are mostly ‘World Premiere Recordings’ it is not possible to compare versions. Suffice to say, that virtually any one of these works would make an excellent addition to any concert programme as a main item of perhaps as a novel encore.
This is an excellent CD. However as noted above there is a serious side to what is billed as ‘eccentric and often amusing.’ I like virtually every track on this disc. However I could just about manage to get by without the rags and the blues. The Paraphrase and the Vitalitas are much more enduring and demanding works that deserve to be in the repertoire for all time.

Track Listings:
Peter Dickinson (b.1934)
Wild Rose Rag (1985);Blue Rose (1979);Paraphrase II (1967);Concerto Rag (1980);Quartet Rag (1976); Vitalitas Variations (1957); Three Satie Transformations (1970); Bach in Blue (2004); Hymn-Tune Rag (1985); Patriotic Rag (1986); Four Blues (1973); Five Diversions (1963)
Peter Dickinson (piano)
NAXOS 8.572654
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared

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