Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

British-wise, I grew up pianistically on the likes of Frank Bridge, William Baines, Joseph Holbrooke and John Ireland – once, in a professorial Victorian drawing room in Kenway village, Earl’s Court, black Blüthner concert grand by the window, attempting The Towing Path, a spectacled figure in the shadows: Ireland himself, to my chagrin, then about eighty. John White and his Piano Sonatas caught my early interest. (I considered composition lessons with him but they didn’t happen). Then Ronald Stevenson came into my life. Sorabji, too, from a distance. John Ogdon and Ronald Smith, inevitably. Stevenson stimulated. Sorabji baffled. 

With Neglected British Composers on the mind – – Colour and Light, a follow-up to Nathan Williamson’s Great American Piano Sonatas, reviewed on Classical Source, is timely. Likewise his booklet essay, as superior an example of cogent thinking and elegant writing as you’re likely to find. Williamson is a man who quietly, meticulously, does his own thing. A colourist and sculptor at the keyboard. A composer. An imaginer of projects steering wide of the obvious.

Necessarily, a release like this has to be selective. Exploring encounters, ideas and vocabularies transitioning Delius to Lutyens, scanning similarities and differences, is one of its challenges. “What”, Williamson asks, “is [the] stance of composers with regards to the traditional and the progressive?”. One important thesis is that “music drawn from a conventional soundworld can often be as radical (if not more so) in intention, structure and process than a piece using less familiar harmonies” (something the Glock/Darmstadt/Boulez agitators of my generation broadly disdained). Contemplating this album’s generous seventy-eight minutes, you come away with a vision and voice of twentieth-century British music that, whatever the overhangs, show it clearly on a trajectory of its own, independent of anything going on elsewhere. The insights are refreshing.

William Alwyn’s Twelve Preludes (1958, recorded by Ogdon for Chandos in 1984) come across with a special nuance and phraseology. Williamson, a poetic advocate, speaks of their “peculiarly English combination of both tonality and modality [with a nod to serial compositional processes] which allows the composer very free relationship between dissonance and consonance.” Fragile and emotional in a Russian way (think of the E-major Étude from Scriabin’s Opus 8), the lyrical fifth was written in memory of the New Zealander Richard Farrell – who, three months before his death in a road accident near Arundel, aged thirty-one, gave me my first taste of the ‘Emperor’, at the Royal Albert Hall under George Weldon. Peter Dickinson’s polystylistic Paraphrase II (1967, first studio recording), written for John McCabe, is typical of its author, Ivesian-style strandings, ‘cream brick’ architecture, Americana and Satie meeting in discursive, salty, occasionally acid, civilised debate.

Ravel’s transcription of two extracts from Delius’s verismo lyric drama Margot la rouge (1902) – “love extinguished and re-ignited before ending in tragedy” – won’t be familiar to many. Mores the pity. Williamson, marginally slower and more pensive, better recorded, than Charles Abramovic’s 2008 DTR release, dreams long within its pages. Similarly in the quixotic hypnotically beautiful Nocturne from the Florida Suite (1887, in Robert Threlfall’s 1986 arrangement – piano writing at its alluring best).

On the face of it, Lutyens’s The Ring of Bone (1975, the title from a prose text by Samuel Beckett) could not be greater contrasted. A work, she explained, that’s “an interplay between two types of material: quasi voce (as in singing); quasi strumenti (as in instrumental). These two elements are mostly antiphonal but, sometimes, combined”. Consider, however, atmosphere, “colour and light”, “heartfelt gesture”, “romantic and revolutionary spirit” – and concordances more than oppositions emerge. “She was seemingly fascinated by colour-in-sound, her piano-writing is, above all, extremely sensual”, reminds Michael Finnissy. “The sensuality includes violence, darkness and pain as much as it does delicacy and fluidity. Liz honed away at her sounds, sculpting, polishing them rather than covering them with varnish.” One of the unique aspects of the work is the overlay of a spoken poem, to words by Lutyens herself (omitted from Peter Lawson’s 1982 premiere recording). Arabella Teniswood-Harvey’s 2011 Australian realisation (Move Records), to an extent favouring Lutyens’s later declared preference, opts for an independent speaker (the actress and singer Helen Noonan). Quicker (10:16 against 13:28, the prescribed timing of the score thereabouts), Williamson is his own reader, in the process proving himself an eloquent thespian, not a trace of self-consciousness, each word spaced and framed in a bloomed, balanced acoustic.

Rounding off the peregrination are first recordings of pieces by Anthony Herschel Hill – his Litany (1992), written for Lucy Parham (a former Guildhall student of his wife, Joan Havill), and Toccata (1985). Ternary designs, Williamson believes, “displaying the clear expressive bent of the concert piece, a peerless command of every colour and sound of the piano, and some of the most gorgeously idiomatic and exhilarating piano writing of any late-twentieth-century composer I have encountered.” They make for a spiritual, spectacular pairing, tailored with all the expensive class of a gentleman from the Howells/Boulanger stable. Williamson, a warmly hued Fazioli 278 at his disposal (Menuhin Hall), is an artist of lavish palette and etched Indian-ink detail, spurning “glib virtuosity”, seeking after infinite inflexions and subtleties. Colour and Light is an admirable undertaking – on SOMMCD 0196.