I greatly admire any composer who can develop a wide variety of musical styles yet manage to create a body of works that are challenging, satisfying and typically enjoyable. A BBC Proms Prospectus (Christopher Palmer) summed this up: ‘Conflicts, juxtapositions, attempted syntheses – Peter Dickinson’s work is full of them, all shook-up, all mixed-up, all jazzed up…yet always keenly imagined and meticulously reasoned and realised.'
I have noted some of Dickinson’ stylistic traits in past reviews on MusicWeb International: these include ragtime, jazz, musicals, rock and pop, coupled with electronic playback, serial music, aleatory and traditional forms. It is redundant to try and present an idea of who Dickinson ‘sounds like’, but for the record, influences include Igor Stravinsky, Lennox Berkeley, Eric Satie and Charles Ives.
One tool to understanding Peter Dickinson’s music is the concept of ‘style modulation’ where ‘popular’, ‘serious’ and even ‘avant-garde’ sound-worlds are mixed together. Yet this ‘mixture’ always works. It is a considerable achievement: there is never any confusion in the listeners mind.
A good biography of the composer is available in his excellent .
This CD is the first of two aiming to explore Dickinson’s early chamber works. A glance at the track-listings shows two pieces that were written in 2016 and one that was revised in the same year. But I get the idea. The composer has explained that he destroyed several early compositions, which, based the music heard on this CD, is a shame.
The earliest work on this CD is the Sonatina for recorder and piano, composed in 1956, some 62 years ago. Fortunately, this piece did survive. This work is as fresh today as it was when first composed. This three-movement work was originally conceived for flute and piano and was written when Dickinson was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. Several years later, John Turner suggested that the Sonatina would work admirably for recorders. The three movements are diverse in structure – sonata form, a canon between instruments and a comedy ‘overture.’ The clever thing about the middle movement is the deployment of two different modes, major and minor for each voice of the canon. It has a beautiful effect. The last movement is a riot of fun from end to end.
The Threnody for cello and piano, which was written around the same time as the Sonatina, has a totally different mood. The word ‘threnody’ implies ‘a song of lamentation for the dead.’ This is a deeply felt work that achieves what it sets out to do. There is nothing challenging or ‘modern’ about this heartfelt piece. It is played here with a moving intensity.
The third of the early chamber works that survived the composer’s cull is the Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano (1956). It was not published until 2000 and was premiered in 2014. This is a delightful piece of neo-classicism that owes much to Lennox Berkeley. It is often cool, thoughtful and lyrical in its exposition. Just a wee bit too short to accommodate the ideas that Dickinson has generated.
Six years later, (1962) the Four Duos for flute and cello were composed. Dickinson tells us that they were begun when he was running a ‘cello class for beginners at a school. According to the liner notes, three of these pieces use a twelve-note row from Charles Ives’ Three Page Sonata (1908). It is a splendid example of a (largely) serial work, which certainly does (should) not put the listener off. I thoroughly enjoyed these interesting pieces. This may be music of its time, but these Duos are highly successful and approachable. There are four movements: Moderate – Lively and Precise – Slowly, with Foreboding – Bright, well-articulated. The Four Duos are attractively played here.
One of the longest pieces on this CD is the Sonatina for Solo Bassoon (1966). Personally, I am never sure about how effective solo wind pieces are, but in this case any misgivings were misplaced. The composer explains: ‘This solo sonatina started when my wife and I stayed with some friends in Paris and there was a bassoonist practising on the top floor of the house.’ Work on this piece began immediately, however it was replete with many ‘high notes’ which the French soloist in the room above was clearly able to produce with ease. When shown to British players they ‘recoiled in horror’ at these extreme notes. The work remained un-played. Several years later the high notes were excised. Even with this concession, it is an extremely difficult-sounding piece. All difficulties are smoothed away by the present soloist, Rosie Burton.
The short ‘Lullaby’ for Clarinet and Piano was written in 1967 and revised in 1982. The piece was culled from sketches for an opera that was never completed, The Unicorns. The liner notes explain that the original storyline was ‘about two competing countries who wanted to secure unicorns for research.’ Grrr! One of these countries (not stated which) ‘played’ the poor animal like a bullfighter, and the other (not stated) used the voice of a girl singing. Hence the present ‘Lullaby’. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful piece.
Another incarnation of this same ‘Lullaby’ is included as the final track on this CD. Clearly Peter Dickinson knows when he is on a good thing. It is a lovely, ‘cocktail,’ piano version which is much more elaborate than the 1967 embodiment. It is played here by the composer in an expressive premiere performance.
The main event on this CD is Translations for Recorder, Gamba and Harpsichord (1971). It is the most challenging work on this disc. Translations was commissioned by, and written for, the early music specialist David Munrow. Munrow considered that early music instruments should generate their own repertoire of modern compositions, and not simply be restricted to ‘museum pieces.’ Translations is characterised by ‘extended techniques’ for the recorder and the gamba, including ‘noises off.’ This pushes the style well into the 1970s. On the other hand, there are some lovely moments when the listener perceives an almost ‘pop’ melody trying to establish itself: and then disintegrating. There are moments of jazz, rock figurations, fugue and ecstatic cadenzas. I have never really ‘dug’ the early music scene. Yet this avant-garde ‘take’ is right up my street. A fine composition splendidly played. My favourite work on this CD.
Two other little piano pieces make up the rest of this programme. Both were composed in 2016. The Waltz for Elliot Schwartz was written as a birthday tribute to this American composer. I may add, that he is a fantastic composer. Alas he died on 7 December of that year. Freda’s Blues was composed as a tribute to Lady Freda Berkeley’ who was Lennox Berkeley’s widow. The waltz is a bitter-sweet ‘reminiscence’ on Berkeley song ‘How Love came in’, a setting of Robert Herrick written in the mid-1930s.
The sound quality is excellent. The liner notes by Peter Dickinson are concise and extremely helpful. I have noted the high standard of performances throughout.
This is a great CD. It does what it says on the tin and provides a conspectus of ‘early’ chamber music written in 1950s-1970s with two later numbers thrown in. Everything here points to Peter Dickinson as being one of the most important composers of his generation, yet he is often sadly overlooked by concert promoters and the media. This first CD is a welcome addition to several important recordings devoted to his music. I look forward to the second volume in this series.
PETER DICKINSON (b. 1934)
Sonatina for Recorder and Piano (1956)
Lullaby for Clarinet and Piano (1967/82)
Translations for Recorder, Gamba and Harpsichord (1971)
Threnody for Cello and Piano (1956)
Four Duos for Flute and Cello (1962)
Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano (1956)
Sonatina for Solo Bassoon (1966)
Waltz for Elliott Schwartz for Piano (2016)
Freda’s Blues for Piano (2016)
Lullaby from ‘The Unicorns’ for Piano (1967/2016)
Rosie Burton (bassoon), Harvey Davies (harpsichord), Peter Dickinson (piano), Joseph Havlat (piano) (Lullaby & Fantasy), Lydia Hillerudh (cello), Stuart Eminson (clarinet), Peter Lawson (piano) (Sonatina), Rosanna Ter-Berg (flute), Richard Tunnicliffe (gamba); John Turner (recorders)
Rec. Carole Nash Recital Room, Royal Northern College of Music, 7-8 November 2017 PRIMA FACIE PFNSCD009