Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Twists and Turns: Music by Rob Keeley

I have not (consciously) heard any piece by Rob Keeley before receiving my review copy of this fascinating disc. There is one advantage to this omission: I come to his music with an innocent ear. I am grateful to the liner notes on which my comments and musings depend heavily.

A few notes about the composer. Rob Keeley was born in Bridgend, Cardiganshire in 1960. He studied with Oliver Knussen at the Royal College of Music, and later with Bernard Rose and Robert Saxton at Magdalen College, Oxford. There were further studies abroad at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome with Franco Donatoni.
At present, he is Senior Lecturer in Composition at King's College, London. Before this appointment in 1993, Keeley was a free-lance pianist and repetiteur, working with the Opera Factory, Almeida Opera and Garsington Opera. As a pianist, he has had several works written for him, including music by Gordon Crosse, Harrison Birtwistle and Michael Finnissy.  Over the years, Keeley has composed more than 100 pieces: these include two symphonies, two piano concertos and many chamber works, songs and piano pieces. I understand that he has issued two CDs to date: ‘Songs, Chimes and Dances’ (NMC D179) and ‘Dances with Bears’ (LNT 138).

In the liner notes, written by the composer, Keeley states that he is preoccupied by unusual and small-scale instrumental combinations. This probably ensure regular performances denied (perhaps) to his major symphonic and concerted works. The opening piece is a case in point. He has combined clarinet and harpsichord: not a common coupling. The title, Four Anachronistic Dances, sums up this sound world. There are four movements. The first is a jerky allegro full of rhymical difficulties and hints of jazz. This is followed by a ‘kind of’ minuet: this is really a ‘deconstruction’ of the historic form. I liked the ‘intermezzo’ which is slow, restrained and quite lovely in its exposition. The finale finds the harpsichord indulging in something out if era – accompanying a ‘sleazy tango’. All good fun. Four Anachronistic Dances was composed in 2015.

The Three Inventions for harpsichord were developed over a six-year period (2008-14). The composer explains that the first and second inventions are written in old-fashioned two-part writing, using canonical devices. The third nods to Byrd and Sweelinck, with is development of five note scale, C-G and back again, then subjected to development and variation. There is a timeless feel about these pieces, that defies categorisation.

The next work on the track listings, but not in the programme notes, is the ‘Interrupted Melody’ and the witty ‘Breathless Scherzo’ (2015-16). These were presented as a gift to the present soloist, John Turner. They are attractive pieces that showcase the recorder’s timbres and its many possibilities to great effect. It is superbly played by the dedicatee.

Twists and Turns is just too short. The work was composed in memory of Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013). It is scored for recorder, clarinet and harpsichord. Keeley indulges in some spectacular sounds effects for the recorder, brilliantly realised by John Turner. Occasionally, the clarinet sounds as if it wants to join a ‘big band.’ Altogether a captivating little piece.

The Diptych for two violins inhabits a more traditional sound world. It is designed to mirror a Beethoven sonata ‘allegro’ balanced by an ‘andante’ that owes something to Benjamin Britten. The composer has certainly achieved this ‘homage.’ I think it is the most approachable work on this CD, despite its relatively unusual instrumental combination. This work was composed in 2012.

For my money, Some Reeds in the Wind (2011), despite the ‘clever title’ outstays its welcome. Nearly thirteen minutes of music for just three oboes is just too much of a ‘good’ thing. There are five contrasting movements: ‘Fanfare’, ‘Pastorale’, ‘Interlude’, ‘A Keening’ and ‘A Final Fanfare’. The work is well played and does create a unique effect, but I guess I wanted more instrumental contrast than is possible with the chosen ensemble.

This desired contrast is provided by Rob Keeley in this Seven Studies for wind quartet (2014-5). They are composed for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Keeley explains that he has not used the French horn. Not all seven studies utilise all four instruments. There is a duet for oboe and bassoon and a trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon. I enjoyed these pieces which show variety and imagination. I think that they should be heard as a set and not excerpted.

The Saraband: ‘The King’s Farewell’ by Harrison Birtwistle was originally a piano piece presented to Rob Keeley. It was latterly arranged by Keeley for recorder and seven solo strings. It is a dark and lugubrious piece, with the only light being cast by the recorder. Even this is disturbing.

The final work on this retrospective of music by Rob Keeley is Interleaves, composed for John Turner in 2014. Keeley writes that it is a miniature concerto for (several) recorders and seven solo strings. Although the work is played without a break there are several sections, including a gentle andantino, an allegro in 6/8 time, a short slow movement, the return of the allegro and a final fast movement. At the end of the work material from the opening movement is heard: this results in a satisfying ‘cyclic’ formal construction. It is an impressive work full of remarkable devices, light and shade, but ultimately sunshine and sheer pleasure. Interleaves in my favourite piece on this CD.

The recording quality of all these works is excellent. The playing is outstanding from all the soloists and the ensembles. Rob Keeley certainly has splendid advocates for his music. The liner notes, by Keeley, give brief, but most helpful information on each work, as well as the usual biographies of the composer and soloists. 

Stylistically, it is refreshing to hear a composer who has not succumbed to minimalism or a post-modern ‘pop’ style such as perpetrated by Einaudi and his cohorts. Keeley’s music is probably in a trajectory that includes jazz, Erik Satie, Harrison Birtwistle and Ligeti. It is music that is simultaneously modern, traditional, enjoyable and challenging.

Track Listing:
Rob KEELEY (b.1960)
Four Anachronistic Dances (2015)
Linda Merrick (clarinet) and Rob Keeley (harpsichord)
Three Inventions for harpsichord (2008-14)
Rob Keeley (harpsichord)
Interrupted Melody & Breathless Scherzo for recorder solo (2015-6)
John Turner (recorder)
Twists and Turns for recorder, clarinet and harpsichord (2015)
John Turner (recorder) Linda Merrick (clarinet) and Rob Keeley (harpsichord)
Diptych for two violins (2012)
Caroline Balding and Ruth Ehrlich (violins)
Some Reeds in the Wind for oboe trio (2011)
Pipers 3: Julian West, Jessica Mogridge and Mark Baigent (oboes
Seven Studies for Wind Quartet (2014-15)
London Myriad: Julie Groves (flute), Fiona Myall (oboe) Nadia Wilson (clarinet), Ashley Myall (bassoon)
Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b.1934) Saraband: The King’s Farewell arr. Keeley (2015)
Interleaves for chamber ensemble (2014)
John Turner (recorder) Manchester Chamber Ensemble/Rob Keeley
MÉTIER msv 28568 

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