Friday, 4 October 2013

David Jennings: 'Harvest Moon' Suite for piano

A few months ago I reviewed the CD of the ‘complete’ piano works of David Jennings for MusicWeb International. After fearing that this may be another album ‘inspired’ by the ‘new age, pop, minimalist’ style of Ludovico Einaudi, I approached it with trepidation. I was wrong to have been alarmed. Jennings work is in a direct trajectory of British/European music of the twentieth century.  I noted that all the works are ‘not only impressive, but are interesting, satisfying and often moving.’ It is a successful balance between not being ‘ridiculously reactionary and horrendously modern.’
The composer recently informed me that his ‘complete’ piano works had been issued by Goodmusic Publishing Company. I asked him if he would send me a copy of the ‘Harvest Moon Suite’, as I had found this to be a ‘lovely sequence of pieces.’ I wanted to see what the score looked like. 

David Jennings is a West Riding composer, who was born in Sheffield in 1972. He studied music at Durham University under the auspices of the Barnsley-born composer John Casken (b.1949). Later he was to continue with post-graduate studies across the Pennines at Manchester University, again with Casken.  At present he lives and works in Lancashire. Jennings has been inspired by a wide range of influences including his native art and landscape. He declares that Northumberland and Yorkshire are particularly important, however, I can feel the sea breezes from Morecambe Bay in some of his music.

‘Harvest Moon’ was composed recently, between 2009 and 2010. It was inspired by six nineteenth-century watercolours:

  1. Stags in Knole Park, Robert Hills (1769-1844)
  2. Aira Force, Edward Richardson (1810-1874)
  3. The Haunted Abbey, William Payne (1760-1830)
  4. Harvest Moon, George Barret Jr. (1767-1842)
  5. Harlech Castle, Thomas Miles Richardson Sr. (1784-1848)
  6. Innisfallen Lake, George Fennell Robson (1788-1833)

It would be very easy to imagine ‘Harvest Moon’ as some kind of North Country reworking of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. However, this would not be entirely fair. The Russian’s music is largely dramatic in character with moments of grandness, romance and grotesque humour.  On the other hand, David Jennings has chosen to indulge in a romantic, lyrical and sometimes reflective style. The exception to this is ‘The Haunted Castle’ which could easily have come from Mussorgsky’s pen.
It is not particularly helpful to try to describe ‘who Jennings sounds like.’ Anyone listening to these six pieces will be reminded of Claude Debussy (particularly in the ‘Claire de Lune’ mood of the opening ‘Stags in Knole Park’). Delius is probably never too far from these pages, neither is Frank Bridge or sometimes even Maurice Ravel.  I noted in my review of the CD of Jennings ‘complete’ piano works that there is even a hint of the quixotic Kaikhosru Sorabji. The main sentiment of all these pieces is one of romance and introspection which largely matches the mood these late 18th/early 19th century watercolours. Like all music that has a pictorial, topographical or textual inspiration, these images can be discarded from the listeners’ mind and the result is equally satisfying. Jennings art is holistic: the water-colourists play an important part in the genesis of this piece, so it is to our advantage to take time to ‘discover’ what it was about these six paintings that moved the composer.

I was generally impressed with the presentation of ‘Harvest Moon’ as a piece of ‘sheet music’. There are a number of important features about this edition that makes it extremely useful to performer, critic and listener alike. Firstly, there is a mini-biography of David Jennings presented. I have reams of piano music in my collection by composers who are just a name to me: I would love to have just a few biographical notes to set the pieces into context. Secondly, the composer has provided a ‘programme note’ for the six pieces which is extremely helpful and illuminating. I am not sure if performers would be allowed (copyright) to quote these directly in their concert programme book, however they give a good basis for a musical author to produce useful notes. Again there are so many pieces of music that have been published that give no clue to the genesis or content of the music.

I do wish that Jennings had given the dates of the artists which inspired him: I was able to find this information on the ‘net. Also it would have been good, if a thumbnail picture or even a ‘hyperlink’ to an image of each watercolour could have been provided. Fortunately, the cover of this score gives a picture of George Fennel Robson’s beautiful “Innisfallen Lake.” Furthermore, it would have been interesting if the location of all the places mentioned had been given. For the record, Knole Park is near Sevenoaks in Kent, Aira Force is close to Ullswater in the Lake District, the ‘Haunted Abbey’ could be anywhere, as could the ‘Harvest Moon’. Most people will know that Harlech Castle is on the west coast of Wales and finally ‘Innisfallen Lake’ is to be found in the South West of Ireland in County Kerry.
Musically, the printing of the score is clear, and involves a minimum of page turns. One thing I did notice is that David Jennings has penchant for writing notes on ledger lines above and below the staves. Typically, anything more than three of four are deemed to be difficult to read by pianists. ‘Aira Force’ stretches this to five ‘lines’ and ‘The Haunted Abbey’ to 6! Perhaps ‘8va’ notation ought to have been used a wee bit more often?
The difficulty of these six pieces is hard to gauge. I would suggest that they probably range from Grade 6¾ upwards. ‘Harlech Castle’ is probably the easiest to play, but not to interpret. Any pianist including these pieces in their recital needs to present them as a whole: I do not believe that they should be excerpted. There is a developmental sequence that is only apparent when they are heard played from start to finish. The total duration is around 15 minutes.

Goodmusic Publishing have a considerable catalogue of printed music, representing virtually every genre, including choral, orchestral, keyboard, chamber and brass music. At the moment they are a little bit thin on piano pieces, with only two out of a hundred page catalogue devoted to it.  This appears to be an expanding catalogue, so I look forward to seeing many more contemporary and ‘recent’ compositions being published.

Meanwhile, all of David Jennings piano works are available for purchase at a reasonable cost. There is a catalogue of Jennings works with musical examples available from the publisher. Finally, the CD of this music is available on the Divine Art label (dda25110). The pianist is James Willshire.

David JENNINGS (b.1972)
‘Harvest Moon: A Suite for Piano’, Op.19
Goodmusic Publishing GM109 £5.00
This sheet music can be purchased from Goodmusic Publishing: David Jennings Page

No comments: