Monday, 15 September 2014

Mary Dullea’s new recording from Metier, realising Eric Craven’s fascinating and often captivating sonatas, is a very fine achievement

I have sought in vain for comprehensive biographical information about British composer, Eric Craven. Indeed it is only recently that his music has come to a wider public through the encouragement of pianist Mary Dullea and the recording company, Metier (a division of Divine Art Recordings) together with their associate, the publishers, Brandon Music . It appears that he taught music and mathematics in secondary schools in his home town of Manchester and has composed music since his teens.

On his blog site, the composer gives no biographical information but, more importantly, does explain his method of composition, stating that over the last fifteen years or so he has become increasingly focused on developing an experimental compositional technique which he refers to as Non-Prescriptive. Essentially this means a method of writing music which permits the performer to determine some or most of the musical parameters which normally constitute the bricks and mortar of a piece of music. Furthermore, the performer may opt to alter these parameters, the consequences of which result in the particular piece being open to any number of different interpretations. The performer thus becomes involved in the compositional process and, as a consequence, the historical relationship of the composer, the performer and the performance are realigned.

He goes on to state that his Non-Prescriptive technique allows him to give to his music a freedom of interpretation by not fixing or dictating any performance or outcome. There is a Lower Order of Non-Prescription where several parameters, pitch, rhythm and duration of the notes are given. The performer decides upon such omitted parameters as tempo, dynamics, phrasing, pedalling and the articulation of the notes. Then there is the Higher Order of Non-Prescription where only the pitch is given and this pitch is not fixed, it can be played at any octave above or below the given pitch. The pitches may be played in any order or repeated or omitted. They may be grouped together vertically to form chords or clusters. The realisation of the music can commence and end at any point on the score. This results in the duration of the piece being controlled and determined by the performer.

Metier has already issued a recording of Craven’s Set for piano realised and performed by Mary Dullea (MSV 28525). Now they have released a 2 CD collection of three of his piano sonatas, again realised and performed by Mary Dullea.

msv 28544

Given the degree of input from Mary Dullea in realising these sonatas, it is only right that I should give some biographical information about her.

A native of Ireland, she studied at The Royal College of Music, London, with Yonty Solomon and holds a MMus in Contemporary Music Studies from Goldsmiths University of London and a PhD in Performance from The University of Ulster

As a soloist and chamber musician, she has performed internationally at venues such as London’s Wigmore Hall, Casa da Musica (Porto), Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre, Phillips Collection Washington D.C., Symphony Space New York City, Palazzo Albrizzi Venice (Italy), Johannesburg Music Society and National Concert Hall Dublin.  She has appeared at many Festivals throughout the world and has broadcast frequently. She has recorded for record labels such as NMC, Delphian Records, Altarus, Col Legno, MNR, Naxos, Convivium and Lorelt, as well as Divine Art.

A sought-after interpreter of new music, she has commissioned and premiered works from composers as varied as Michael Finnissy, Johannes Maria Staud, Michael Nyman, Donnacha Dennehy and Gerald Barry. Mary Dullea is the Director of Performance at The University of Sheffield and is also on the teaching staff of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Craven’s Piano Sonata No. 7 is constructed as an arch with the fast outer movements sharing the same material based on the musical interval of a fifth. In this work Craven uses Low-order Non Prescription.

The first movement opens with some fine rhythmic playing as the music moves around tonally, seemingly not rooted other than by the phrasing that gives the music form.  A single high note opens the second movement, followed by broader motifs interspersed by high fragmentary notes. Subtle use of pedal allows the dying notes to sound beneath the slowly developing theme. Craven’s use of the piano has a percussive nature, just offset by longer phrases. There is some especially fine playing from Mary Dullea. Eventually the music develops into some richer, fuller sounds as the music becomes more dramatic though ending suddenly, the notes dying away.

The third movement opens with an oddly attractive, somewhat fragmented theme that develops some particularly fine moments with, at times, a playful nature to the skipping notes. The fourth movement brings limpid notes that are scattered around with strumming of the piano strings. The keyboard motif is interspersed by the gentle sounds of strummed and plucked strings. Slowly the keyboard phrases become more dynamic, though always returning to their gentler nature. There is a great delicacy to Craven’s writing before the music drops away to little fragments that end the movement.

The fifth and final movement brings some fuller, richer sounds before the music takes off in a more decisive theme which, like the first movement, moves around tonally and creates a sense of completion to the whole sonata, showing how much Craven retains a real sense of form within which to hold his creation. The music moves decisively forward to the coda.

There are moments in this sonata that some listeners might find challenging, but overall this is an enormously interesting work, full of fine moments, played brilliantly by Mary Dullea realising Craven’s ideas to remarkable effect.

Piano Sonata No. 9 retains an arch like sonata structure but brings more lyricism. The middle of the three movements uses Craven’s High-order Non prescriptive technique.

The first movement opens with an attractive theme that appears to have its roots in British music of an earlier era, though here given a modern free-flowing twist with harmonies of a more European outlook. This sixteen minute movement develops through some quite beautiful ideas, wonderfully realised by Mary Dullea. Craven’s endless outpouring of melodic ideas is really quite beguiling. Centrally, there is a particularly lovely section with bell like tones sensitively played by Dullea.

The second movement introduces a more skittish theme, underlaid by lower chords as the music dances around somewhat playfully. The deeper, firmer chords offset the lighter feel, eventually becoming more aggressive and taking the music into a dramatic passage. The music eventually falls back as it makes its way to the coda but, however, the violence returns leading to a spectacularly virtuosic and stormy coda.

The third movement retains a little of the nature of the middle movement but with more of the flow of the first movement, neither of which seems to be able to dominate, creating a tension and contrast. When the more flowing, melodic elements appear, they bring a warmth and assurance.

This is a particularly fine work played with great empathy and understanding.

The second disc in this set is devoted to just one work, the single movement Piano Sonata No 8. This work uses Middle-order Non- Prescription methods. Scott McLaughlin, in his essential booklet note, tells us that Craven’s notation in this sonata presents the player with snippets of music, presented as singular objects on the page separated by whitespace. These snippets or events are written in low-order notation with only pitches and rhythms given, but allow the freedom to vary or ignore that which is allowed with high-order notation.

As the design of the work is intended to be open ended, the duration will, of course, vary. Here Mary Dullea realises this sonata as a work lasting around 48 minutes.

A hesitant little motif built on two notes opens this work and is developed with, occasionally, elements of Messiaen. Soon the music broadens a little whilst becoming more dynamic. It moves forward in little surges as a melodic idea emerges, still broken up by little motifs in the right hand. The music becomes more skittish and descends into the depths of the keyboard before moving forward a little more melodically. The surges of melodic and fragmented staccato ideas continue with many intensely impressive still, quiet moments, beautifully realised by this pianist.

Eventually the music grows a little passionate but falls back leading to more staccato phrases. More dynamic deeper chords are sounded in music that, in the most tantalising way, holds one in its thrall, often waiting to see how it will develop, when certain motifs and themes will reappear. Towards the middle of the work, a rolling, vibrant melodic theme appears, growing faster before quietening and becoming more thoughtful, with some lovely harmonies. As the sonata moves forward, there are lovely chords that slowly become discordant.

The music continues to juxtapose the melodic with the shorter staccato phrases before arriving at some more attractive chords that resonate and overlay, showing more of Craven’s fine ear for sonority. Indeed, it is often the sustained resonance of dying chords that adds so much to the texture of many fine passages in this work. The repeated chords reappear, more gently this time, adding a magical simplicity before the staccato phrases return to dominate.  Towards the end the longer melodic phrases peer through again, but it is the broken staccato phrases that lead slowly to what might have been an open ended coda, except we are given a little spread chord that adds a conclusion.

This performance is an extremely fine creative achievement for both Craven and Dullea.

Indeed, all of these performances are a very fine achievement by Mary Dullea, realising these fascinating and often captivating works that have moments of real beauty.

The recording made at the Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales is excellent. Scott McLaughlin’s booklet notes are an essential addition to this release giving, as they do, detailed information concerning the music and its construction, interspersed with comments by the composer.

For those new to Eric Craven’s music, as many will be, I would recommend listening to his very fine Sonata No.9 first.

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