Monday, 29 September 2014

Eric Craven: Piano Sonatas

I was not quite sure what to make of this music when I first read (or tried to read) the liner notes before listening to the CD. However, after hearing an insipid and monotonous piano piece by Ludovico Einaudi on Classic FM, I realised Eric Craven is a composer who has imagination, a principled compositional technique and last but not least, a sense of continual development denied to the Italian. This is a worthy recording that is not quite as formidable as it may first appear.

Who is Eric Craven? Alas, neither the liner notes nor the Internet tell us much about his life, work and achievement. He has declared that this hermetic state is deliberate: he desires ‘to work in isolation without reference to, or connection with, any other musicians.’ (Presumably he needs the present pianist and recording engineers etc. to realise his music?)  He does admit to having taught maths and music in his home town of Manchester. Craven has composed music since his teen years: he is cagey about revealing his date of birth-he doesn’t. Finally, it was only recently that his first album of piano music was released on Metier MSV28525. The present recording is his second CD.

Fortunately, Eric Craven has a ‘blog’ where he gives some account of his musical procedures. He has developed what he calls Non-Prescriptive Compositional and Performance Technique. It has been established over the past 15 years or so. On first examination, it would appear that he is using an ‘aleatory’ procedure where the performer has greater or lesser control over the progress of the work, altering a number of parameters which will result in different interpretations of the music each time it is performed.  This is not new. His take on this form has given rise to three levels of Non-Prescription. The ‘Lower Order of Non-Prescription’ sees pitch, rhythm and duration committed to the manuscript paper. The performer is free to decide on tempo, dynamics, phrasing, pedalling and the articulation of the notes. Then there is the ‘Higher Order of Non-Prescription’ where only the pitch is given. Interestingly this is effectively a ‘pitch set’ where the notes can be played at any octave above or below the notation. Additionally, these ‘sets’ can be grouped together ‘vertically to form chords or clusters.’  Formally, the music can begin or end at any point in the score. Consequently different performers will extract longer or shorter durations when this is used.
To confuse the issue slightly, there is also a ‘Middle Order Non-Prescription’ where ‘short musical fragments with pitches and rhythms are left disconnected and free-floating on the page with no implied ordering.’

I guess that the downside to all this is that it is unlikely that lots of recordings of these Sonatas will ever be made, and therefore highly improbable that listeners will venture to compare them in detail to see how they have been individually ‘realised.’  Additionally, it is possible that various performers may overlay their preferred musical style on the written notes – classical, romantic or impressionistic. And who is to say that they are right or wrong? Certainly not the composer.

What does this music sound like? I note the composer’s wish to be ‘isolated’ from musical tradition, but Kaikhosru Sorabji was a name that sprang to mind.  And I hope that Mr Craven takes that as a compliment, as I see that composer as bordering on genius, if a little flawed.
I do not intend to try to tease out the progress of these three sonatas (or what ‘technique’ each one utilises), save to say that my ear tended to hear much that sounded similar. Clearly first and second subjects and classical recapitulation are not obvious elements of these works. The overall effect is like perpetual development with little for the listener to get their bearings. Yet, I enjoyed listening to these three sonatas. They are full of interest and certainly do not sound forbidding. Another reviewer has suggested that this music is ‘tuneful enough’ and it is fair to say that at one level these three works are simply a long unfolding of melody. Certainly, these are timeless works that could have been composed any time over the past sixty years.

I cannot fault the sound quality of the recording: it is clear, balanced and dynamic. Whether one enjoys this music or not, this CD presents detailed, nuanced playing/realisation from Mary Dullea that explores a wide range of dynamics, invention and pianistic technique.
The presentation of this disc does raise a few issues.  I was less than impressed with the liner notes. Firstly, I find the small, fussy font overprinted on the cover design replicated on each page difficult to read. It would have been good if Metier had provided a link to a .pdf file of this information. Secondly, as noted above the biographical details of the composer are virtually non-existent: it is hard to contextualise him within musical history; however this is his stated intention. Thirdly, there is way too much verbosity in the discussion about each of these three sonatas written by the writer Scott McLaughlin: it is more of an esoteric dissertation than programme notes. This will be studied only by enthusiasts and I imagine that most listeners will give up after a few lines. I believe that all one needs to understand and ‘enjoy’ these Sonatas is the knowledge that the performer is more or less responsible for their realisation. And the dates of composition and recording would have been of interest too… 

Eric CRAVEN (?)
Piano Sonata No.7
Piano Sonata No.9
Piano Sonata No.8
Mary Dullea (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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