Honeybourne Recital Features Welsh Composers and Whitlock Premiere

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Owen, Thomas, Moeran, Skempton, Mathias and Whitlock, Flowing Waters (premiere):  DuncanHoneybourne (piano). Gate Arts Centre, Cardiff. 6.5.2014 (PCG)

Luke Whitlock – Faust and Mephisto Waltz (2002)
Morfydd Owen – Four Welsh Impressions
Mansel Thomas – Eight Preludes (1979)
Luke Whitlock – Flowing waters (2014)
E J Moeran – Stalham River (1921)
Luke Whitlock – Suite antique (2012)
Howard Skempton – Saltaire melody: Chorale for the left hand: Tender melody: Second gentle melody (1974-77)
William Mathias – Piano Sonata No 2, Op.46 (1969)

In these days when many of the various churches in the Cardiff suburb of Roath have been converted into warehouses and shops, it is pleasant to be able to note that one at least has been transformed into an Arts Centre; and the Gate theatre boasts not only a superb grand piano but a resonant acoustic space which forms an ideal location for recitals, even if the original church pews lack the ideal sense of comfort. This recital centred around the world première of Luke Whitlock’s Flowing waters, commissioned by and performed by the superbly athletic Duncan Honeybourne whose CDs of British piano music have served to revive the fortunes of many neglected scores and composers.

Luke Whitlock described Flowing waters as an exploration of the “audio spaciousness created in musical minimalism,” a description explored in greater depth during a discussion before the performance with Beti George who (despite a heavy cold) introduced the works on the programme. In fact what we had here was what the Luke Whitlock afterwards described to me as “post-minimalism,” where the repetitions of figuration were subjected to a considerable degree of rubato which served to obviate the sense of monotony which can sometimes afflict minimalist works written for solo instruments and small ensembles. In fact the effect of the rubato was to bring the music more into the realm of Chopin, helped by the composer’s willingness to provide melodic material that was considerably more interesting than the harmony-based patterning that one finds for example in Philip Glass. Even so some of the transitions from one section to another, where the figurations speeded up or slowed down, were rather abrupt and could perhaps have been more smoothly managed; but the overall results, a depiction of the River Teign in the composer’s native Devon, were far removed from the naïve pictorialism of Smetana’s Vltava – and were indeed very beautiful indeed.

 Two other works by Whitlock featured in the programme were more lightweight in manner. The “humorous and satirical” Faust and Mephisto Waltz, derived from music originally written for a silent film, had a not inappropriate Lisztian style; and the coruscating fistfuls of notes were confidently handled by Duncan Honeybourne, even when the resonant acoustic tended to lend a suspicion of clanginess to the lower registers in the piano tone (this was much less serious elsewhere). The Suite antique was essentially light-hearted music, with the eighteenth century pastiches continually undermined and interrupted by more modern passages without ever completely abandoning the formal dance patterns. The gawky Gavotte, with its persistent changes of rhythm, brought chuckles from an appreciative audience. The music did not say anything very serious; but then, of course, it clearly was never intended to and more than Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.

 Duncan Honeycombe has made something of a speciality of the music of Moeran, and his performance of Stalham River brought out all the Delian undertow of the writing without stinting on the occasional passages of bravura which were superbly integrated into the whole. The four short Impressions by Morfydd Owen were more unexpected, and unexpectedly revealing to boot. Owen, who died young and has generally been remembered solely for her song settings, was clearly a force to be reckoned with; I welcomed a performance of her orchestral Threnody for the passing of Branwen last year, and these four pieces were far more than simple miniatures with shifting impressionist harmonies rising to heartfelt emotional climaxes. Indeed the pieces are miniatures only in length, not in content, reminiscent of Vaughan Williams as well as Delius; and in the last movement the light-hearted music made good use of a presumably parodistic citation from Wagner’s Tristan in the manner of Debussy’s Golliwog’s cakewalk.

  during his lifetime as a BBC administrator and conductor, and also for his many arrangements of hymns and folksongs which continue to form part of the standard male choir repertory in Wales. In his later years his style became more adventurous, starting from his male choir setting of Psalm 135 (with Helen Watts as soloist in the original performance) and his Anthem of Challenge composed in memory of the victims of the Aberfan disaster. These later works found less favour with audiences, and did not make much headway outside the realms of the more adventurous male choirs; and the Eight Preludes also come from this later period. They made much use of his trademark employment of one tonic chord piled on top of another as well as Bartókian rhythms, and these were highly effective during the first two movements. Unfortunately after that it became clear that the later movements did not have much more to say beyond ringing the changes on the material of the earlier Preludes, and the persistent series of unrelated bitonal chords succeeding each other – often in descending chromatic scales – became positively marmoreal, especially when the speeds of all the succeeding movements until the finale were so unremittingly slow. One found oneself wishing for a more comfortable seat by the end. Perhaps a selection from the Preludes – the first, second and last were the most interesting – would have given a better impression.

Skempton’s four early pieces, on the other hand, never threatened to outstay their welcome. His music, described as “experimental” in the informative programme notes, is unusual only insofar as it is at odds with the prevailing serial ethos of the 1970s. The Tender melody rather lacked the melodic profile that its title would imply; but the Second gentle melody with its Mahlerian ostinato oscillating between two notes had a more distinctive cut.

The barnstorming Mathias Second Piano Sonata which concluded the programme was a real eye-opener. This is a real bravura piece of writing – one is amazed to discover that the original performance was given by the composer himself – which in its one extended movement moves from heavy-hearted contemplation, through torrents of notes and glissandi which bid fair to rival anything else in the virtuoso piano repertory, back to a final resolution which is grim and resolved rather than consolatory. In his music Mathias sometimes had a disturbing tendency to reflect the music of other composers he had been listening to at the time, even to the extent of almost literal quotation from their works. I thought I had detected such a moment in the familiar-sounding suspended chords which formed what I suppose one could call the ‘second subject’ of the sonata, but after some racking of my brains I realised that he was (presumably deliberately) quoting the main theme of the second movement of his Harp Concerto on which he was working at the same time. That movement in the score is headed by a quotation from R S Thomas:

To live in Wales is to be conscious

At dusk of the spilled blood

That went to the making of the wild sky,

Dyeing the immaculate rivers

In all their courses…

It is certainly tempting to see these thoughts reflected and expanded in the piano work, which despite occasional echoes of Messiaen and Bartók in the writing is one of Mathias’s most personal and effective utterances. If the work itself were not so difficult to play, one suspects we would hear it much more often; not that the difficulties seemed to pose any problems for the rampaging Honeybourne, who has already performed the work several times in England although this was the first time he had given it in Wales. The audience, not over-large, was nevertheless very enthusiastic – and rightly so.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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