On record: Stephen Wilkinson – A Celebration of Conductor and Composer (Prima Facie)

stephen-wilkinson

William Byrd Singers, *BBC Northern Singers / Stephen Wilkinson

Dickinson Late Afternoon in November (1975)*

Ellis Sequentia in tempore Natali Sancti (1965)

McCabe Siberia; Visions (both 1983).

Traditional (arr. Wilkinson) Four Choruses from Grass Roots (2003); Betjeman’s Bells (2012)

Wilkinson That Time of Year (1976)

Prima Facie PFCD147 [60’55”] English texts included

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The always enterprising label Prima Facie releases an album to celebrate the centenary of the conductor and composer Stephen Wilkinson (b1919), whose many decades of work with both the BBC Northern Singers and the William Byrd Choir is appropriately commemorated here.

What’s the music like?

The selection begins with Peter Dickinson’s Late Afternoon in November, a setting of a poem he himself wrote and one whose distanced, often desolate imagery inspires music in which the underlying slowness of pulse and stark emphasis placed on certain words or phrases yields an anguished tone rare in the composer’s output. This performance by the BBC Northern Singers was indeed the world premiere and emphasizes Wilkinson’s assured direction of a demanding piece, the commitment in whose realization hardly something that could be taken for granted.

The remainder is sung by the William Byrd Singers, of whom Wilkinson was the director for almost 40 years. It duly makes the most of Visions, John McCabe‘s elaborate and often eight-part setting of a poem by James Clarence Mangan whose ranging across mellifluous vocalise and visceral chant is conveyed accurately and with not a little sensitivity. If that of the same poet’s Siberia encourages a more direct and (understandably) plangent response, the overall textural variety in this four-part chorus is felicitously judged throughout what is another responsive reading.

For many years a senior producer for BBC Radio in Manchester, David Ellis is also a notable composer, witness his resourceful and often imaginative response to the traditional sequence for Christmas time Sequentia in tempore Natali Sancti. In its astute alternation between full choir and solo voices, it makes for an admirable foil to the straightforward approach adopted by Wilkinson in That Time of Year – a setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXIII that enfolds its autumnal musings within a sound-world that is monochrome while luminous in character.

The programme is interspersed with Wilkinson’s arrangements of four folksongs taken from his collection Grass Roots – being Welsh, English, Irish and Scottish respectively. Thus, the ruminative As I walked out is followed by the gentle eloquence of Rowing down the Tide, the winsome melancholy of The Lark in the Clear Air, before the steadily accumulating vivacity of The Piper o’ Dundee. Also included here is the charming Betjeman’s Bells, three settings of texts by the Poet Laureate whose music was ingeniously derived from traditional sources.

Does it all work?

As an overall sequence, very much so. While none of these pieces makes use of the extended techniques encountered in much post-war choral music, they are rarely easy technically and the care in preparing these performances (including several world premieres) is evident from every bar. A pity that full recording details have not been included, though the quality of the remastering means that few, if any, allowances need be made for presumed older recordings. The booklet notes place each of these pieces within a meaningful as well as relevant context.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. That Wilkinson is still active as composer, and reader for his daughter’s early-music ensemble Courtiers of Grace, is itself gratifying. This archival release goes much of the way towards explaining why his presence on the English choral scene has been a beneficent one.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Prima Facie Records website, and for more on Stephen Wilkinson click here

On record: Meriel & Peter Dickinson: An Erik Satie Entertainment (Heritage Records)

satie-dickinson

Meriel Dickinson (mezzo-soprano / reader), Peter Dickinson (piano / reader)

Heritage Records HTGCD171 [68’09”] French texts included
Producer Antony Hodgson
Engineer Tony Faulkner

Recorded 6 October 1975 at All Saints’ Church, Petersham (Unicorn LP only) Remastered by Peter Newble

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Heritage label continues its worthwhile excavation of overlooked ‘deep catalogue’ with this selection of Erik Satie’s piano pieces, songs and prose as performed by Meriel and Peter Dickinson, whose recitals were a notable fixture of the UK music-scene over several decades.

What’s the music like?

After the lively and rumbustious march Le Piccadilly (1904), Trois melodies (1887) show the composer’s poignant take on domestic song-writing from the period. The haunting Deuxième Gnossienne (1893) is followed by the hieratic plangency of Hymne: ‘Salut Drapeau!’ (1891), while the Deuxième Pièce froide (1897) anticipates the quirky humour to come. Tendrement (1902) ranks among Satie’s most disarming songs, as does the amiable Proudre d’or (1900/1) within his piano music. Two winsome songs from incidental music for the play Geneviève de Brabant (1899/1900) precede two piano pieces – the mystically aloof Première Gymnopédie (1888) and the demurely anarchic Vexations (1893) – which, between them, outline the extent of Satie’s creative thinking. Similarly, the gently facetious humour of Trois melodies (1916) affords pointed contrast with the introspective mystery of the early Chanson (1887) then the considered evocation which is Chanson medieval (1906); further reminders that demarcation between this composer’s seemingly serious and humorous sides cannot be taken as absolute.

An undoubted bonus of the added live material is the Dickinsons’ readings from Satie’s own writings. Thus, there is Peter’s deadpan rendering of Satie’s Self-Portrait as provided for his publisher, its barbed whimsy duly complemented by brief piano interludes from his comedy Le Piège de Méduse (1913), while those gnomic expressions that are Quatres petites melodies (1920) inhabit similarly elliptical domain. Peter reads from the composer’s fanciful outline of his ‘routine for living’ in A Musician’s Diary, while Meriel tells of his ironic attitude towards Beethoven in Satie’s Fakes; between them, she sings the compact confessionals that are Trois Poèmes d’amour (1914). The gnomic song-cycle Ludions (1923), among Satie’s final works, makes a suitably telling foil to Peter’s reading of the archetypal Satie text In Praise of Critics. The selection concludes with a brace of songs – the blithely sardonic La Diva de l’Empire (1904) then the quintessentially Satie confection Je te veux (1897), its deftest interplay of charm and guile with a knowing sentimentality evidently to the pleasure of those listening.

Does it all work?

Very much so, given that Meriel and Peter are so attuned to the facets of Satie’s inimitable genius. At the time of this LP and its attendant recitals, its sheer extent had still to be fully assessed, which does not lessen the significance of the Dickinsons’ efforts (as with Satie’s younger contemporary and English counterpart Lord Berners) in championing this music at the highest artistic level. Both the transfer of the original Unicorn disc and the live extracts (mono) have been capably done – revealing few, if any, limitations in the source-material.

Is it recommended?

It is, not least as an informed and appealing introduction to this music by artists for whom its advocacy was clearly a labour of love. A pity that English translations of the song-texts were not included, though these are mostly accessible online, and their omission is a minor caveat.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Heritage Records website, and for more on Meriel and Peter Dickinson click here

On record – Martyn Hill, Meriel Dickinson & Peter Dickinson: James Joyce’s Favourite Songs (Heritage)

Chamber Music: Thirty-Two Songs by G. Molyneaux Palmera The Joyce Book: Thirteen Songs, by Moeran, Bax, Roussel, Hughes, Ireland, Sessions, Bliss, Howells, Antheil, Carducci, Goossens, C. W. Orr and van Dierenb

bMeriel Dickinson (mezzo-soprano), aMartyn Hill (tenor), Peter Dickinson (piano)

Heritage HTGCD175 [71’28”]

Producer Jillian M. White
Remastering Engineers John Marsden, Peter Newble

Recorded 7 December 1981, BBC Broadcasting House, London (The Joyce Book); 18 November 1986, St. George’s Brandon Hill (Chamber Music)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Heritage further expands its Peter Dickinson discography with these song-cycles in which he appears as pianist, setting poems from James Joyce’s two collections of verse; both heard in recordings which were first broadcast in the 1980s and now rescued from the BBC archives.

What’s the music like?

The major rediscovery here is an almost complete traversal of Chamber Music by Geoffrey Molyneaux Palmer (1992-1957), English born but long resident in Dublin where he worked as church organist and composer. Despite the author’s enthusiastic endorsement, Palmer was never to finish the project, despite his leaving blank pages for those four poems (Nos. 12, 29, 32 and 33) still awaiting music. Through the tenacity of Myra Teicher Russel, the manuscript was located at Southern Illinois University in 1981 with a studio broadcast on BBC Radio 3 seven years later (preceded, as this author recalls, by a fascinating introduction on the Music Weekly programme). Thanks to the foresight of BBC producer Jillian White, that broadcast was subsequently archived and can finally enjoy a welcome if belated commercial release.

In stylistic terms, Palmer settings are very much ‘turn of the century’ in their melding of an inherently English lyricism with harmonic subtleties redolent of Fauré or early Debussy. As ordered by Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, these 36 poems pursue an ‘innocence to experience’ trajectory via a relationship which is tentatively envisaged before being passionately lived then regretfully abandoned. Throughout the sequence, Palmer is acutely attentive to those flights of fancy with which Joyce opens out his poems’ expressive potency – tailoring his response to the intricacies of the text at hand while running several songs together so as to accentuate cumulative intensity overall. A pity the climactic XXXIII remained unset, but    the composer’s response to the stark seascape of XXXVI yields a suitably plangent close.

Also included is The Joyce Book, 13 settings taken from Joyce’s subsequent collection Pomes Penyeach which was published in Paris in 1927 and accorded musical treatment thanks to the prompting of Irish editor Herbert Hughes. That the resultant settings included two American, a French and an Italian composer confirms the international standing Joyce by then enjoyed; further underlined by the deluxe edition with which this collection was issued in 1933, a year after its public premiere in London. Stylistically the settings are as diverse as the composers represented: among the most distinctive are the lilting wistfulness of Hughes’s She weeps over Rahoon, easeful rapture of Arthur Bliss’s Simples and suffused ecstasy of Bernard van Dieren’s A Prayer on which both this ‘cycle’ and Joyce’s collection reach their close.

Does it all work?

It does, given the expressive consistency of Palmer’s settings as also the diversity of those in the later miscellany. Martyn Hill was among the leading lyric tenors of his generation, with Meriel Dickinson seldom equalled for her conveying of the emotional sense behind the text.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least when Peter Dickinson is an insightful accompanist and provides the detailed commentaries, while the sound has come up well in remastering (the latter collection a shade reverberant). Required listening, not only for admirers of Joyce or the English song tradition.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the Heritage Records website, where you can also purchase the recording.

Read

You can read about Peter Dickinson at his website

On record – Peter Dickinson: Chamber & Instrumental Music (Toccata Classics)

Peter Dickinson
Violin Sonata (1961)
Air for solo violin (1959)
Metamorphosis for solo violin (1955, rev 1971)
String Quartet no. 1 (1958)
Fantasia for solo violin (1959)
Lullaby for violin and piano (1967)
String Quartet No. 2 (1976)
Quintet Melody for solo violin (1956)
Tranquillo for violin and piano (1986, rev. 2018)

*Peter Sheppard Skaerved (violin); **Roderick Chadwick (piano); ***Kreutzer Quartet [Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Mihailo Trandafilovski (violins), Clifton Harrison (viola), Neil Heyde (cello)]

Toccata Classics TOCC0538 [71’26”]

Producer Peter Sheppard Skaerved
Engineer Jonathan Haskell

Recorded 27 July & 29 November 2017, 16 January & 26 March 2019

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics turns its attention to Peter Dickinson (b.1934), whose impeccably crafted and stylistically wide-ranging music has enhanced British music over almost seven decades – not least these chamber and instrumental works that are all recorded here for the first time.

What’s the music like?

Dickinson might consider the Violin Sonata to be among his more challenging works, but its serial technique is subtly embedded into outer Fast movements whose rhythmic tensility has an engagingly Bartókian impetus, while the central Slow movement alludes to Greensleeves near the start of its spare yet eloquent and at times impassioned course. At the other end of the scale, Lullaby is one of several warmly attractive and immediately accessible pieces derived from the abandoned opera The Unicorns, while Tranquillo is a recasting of part of the central section from the Violin Concerto (recorded on Heritage HTGCD276 along with concertos for organ and piano) Dickinson wrote as an In memoriam to Ralph Holmes – with whom he often gave recitals, not least of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata which makes a belated appearance here.

Dickinson’s output for solo violin is hardly less significant – whether with the folk-inflected plaintiveness of Air or the deftly accruing velocity of Metamorphosis (that both were initially conceived for flute makes this idiomatic new guise the more striking). More ambitious is the Fantasia with its grandly (but never wantonly) rhetorical gestures and vaunting passagework that aptly evokes the skyline of New York – in which city the composer studied during 1958-61, a time of considerable social and cultural upheaval. No less affecting despite (or perhaps because of?) its brevity, Quintet Melody is all that has survived from a quintet written when a Cambridge undergraduate. Dickinson has composed music for solo instruments throughout his composing career, of which those featured here constitute some of the most appealing.

Surprising that Dickinson’s string quartets have only now received their first recordings. The First Quartet opens with an intensively argued Allegro whose energy is the more palpable for its formal concentration, then the haunting ‘night music’ overtones of the central Lento – not least its quietly ecstatic solos and trenchant rhythmic ostinatos – carry over to a final Allegro whose ‘misterioso’ marking denotes its speculative progress to an eruptive climax and highly equivocal close. Unfolding as an eventful and often ingenious single movement, the Second Quartet evokes Ives in the way strings wend their leisurely yet methodical way to a rendition of the ‘rag’ that piano – heard on tape – has been sounding fragmentarily all the while. That this arrival is anything but decisive only makes the process of getting there more intriguing.

Does it all work?

It does, not least as Dickinson is a master of ‘less is more’. The longest of these pieces is little over 15 minutes in length, but this does not detract from the variety of incident and expression that the composer has invested into their content – not to mention their technical challenges.

Is it recommended?

It is, given the all-round excellence of the performances and the ideal ambience in which they have been recorded. A fluent author, Dickinson’s own observations on each piece are nothing if not apposite, and it is to be hoped that a follow-up disc might yet emerge from this source.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording.

Read

You can read about Peter Dickinson at his website