Saturday 6 December 2014

A new release from Heritage Records featuring performances of concertos makes a first class introduction to the music of Peter Dickinson as well as a valuable addition to the catalogue

Peter Dickinson (b.1934) was born in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, England and now lives in Suffolk. He was an Organ Scholar of Queen’s College, Cambridge before spending three years in New York, initially at the Juilliard School, then working as a critic and freelance performer. After a period as a pianist at the New York City Ballet, where he played for George Balanchine, he became a Lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey.

Since then Dickinson has been active as a pianist, notably in recitals, broadcasts and recordings. Active as a writer on music, Peter Dickinson’s publications include the first book on Sir Lennox Berkeley (Thames 1989, much enlarged 2nd ed. Boydell 2003); a study of the popular pianist-composer Billy Mayerl (OUP 1999); Copland Connotations: Studies and Interviews (Boydell 2002); CageTalk: Dialogues with and about John Cage (University of Rochester Press 2006/14); Lord Berners: Composer – Writer – Painter (Boydell 2008) and Lennox Berkeley and Friends: Writings, Letters and Interviews (Boydell, 2012) (reviewed by The Classical Reviewer in November 2012) . Dickinson has written chapters for various books, dictionaries and periodicals; for over thirty years he was a regular contributor to BBC Radio 3 and is a critic with Gramophone.

Dickinson was first Professor at Keele University (1974-84: now Emeritus) where he started the Department with its Centre for American Music; the Chair at Goldsmiths College, University of London (1991-97: now Emeritus); he was Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies, University of London (1997-2004); and has lectured at many American universities. He is chair of the Bernarr Rainbow Trust and has edited and contributed to several Rainbow publications.

Dickinson’s compositions, which include choral, vocal, orchestral, chamber, instrumental, organ and piano works, have been regularly performed and recorded, featuring in 1988 on the British TV arts programme, The South Bank Show. Many of Peter Dickinson’s compositions have responded to popular music or jazz. His Piano Concerto, which contains a ragtime ensemble, made a strong impact at the BBC Proms in London and his Violin Concerto was a BBC commission written in memory of the British violinist Ralph Holmes (1937-84).

It is Dickinson’s Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto that are featured, with his organ Concerto and orchestral work, Merseyside Echoes, on a new release from Heritage Records with the BBC Symphony Orchestra  conducted by David Atherton  with Howard Shelley (piano) and Jennifer Bate (organ) and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Clark Rundell  with Chloë Hanslip (violin) . 

Dickinson’s Piano Concerto (1979-84) is in thirteen sections played without a break and is here performed by Howard Shelley and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Atherton. The opening Adagio has firm chords rising across the keyboard, rather dissonant, that give way to a hushed delicate percussion. There are more chords from the piano before the delicate percussion return only for the piano chords to return before the orchestra slowly rises with brass outbursts.  The contrasting hushed section appears again, to be followed by more piano chords with continued outbursts, until the music falls to a hush as we go into Solo where the piano gently picks out a motif related to the opening chords, creating an icy, hushed atmosphere.

With the Lento the orchestra quietly re-join as the piano continues to provide a delicate rippling theme and various instruments appear out of the orchestral texture. Both piano and orchestra very slowly increase in dynamics as the theme is developed into Variation I, Variation II and Variation III with the piano providing an increasingly complex pattern over the insistent, laden orchestra building towards a tremendous peak with some terrific playing from Howard Shelley before an orchestral outburst introduces the Adagio with tinkling bells and piano that alternate with orchestral outbursts before timpani signal the Quasi Cadenza, a jazzy fast moving section pointed up by drums against a more flowing orchestral accompaniment.

Cymbals herald a change as hushed strings lead into the Tranquillo section. The piano is heard in a gently rippling motif with the delicate sound of the celeste in a most distinctive, haunting section over hushed orchestra.

A rapid descending motif on piano leads into a lighter rhythmic Moderato with orchestra and piano skipping over the longer held theme for high strings before the theme fragments on the piano and we are led into the Meno mosso where the piano part becomes increasingly animated with some absolutely terrific playing from Shelley.

Brass play short staccato outbursts and the piano plays broad chords for the Molto allegro with some terrific rhythms as the orchestra scurry around with brass outbursts, percussion and piano, keeping a steady, slow beat of chords. The music slows and quietens, keeping the same rhythm but with more delicacy with celeste as it leads into the final section Absolutely Tranquil introduced by a gentle piano theme. Soon the delicate filigree piano theme is heard before a hushed end.

This really is a terrific concerto brilliantly played by Howard Shelley and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Atherton.

The Violin Concerto (1986) is in a single movement but in twelve sections, again played without a break. Here violinist Chloë Hanslip is joined by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Clark Rundell.

Side drum and trumpet open the fast moving Allegro as gently and quietly the solo violin enters leading into the L'istesso tempo where the violin brings a flourish over a gentle orchestra playing a lighter theme, soon running into the Waltz with the violin gently playing its intricate motif over a more flowing orchestra, pointed up by a piccolo. The concerto runs through more variations Variation II and Variation III that has the feel of Charles Ives as though a popular melody is being contrasted over a strange orchestral accompaniment.

There is another outburst before the following Adagio where a rhythmic pulse in the hushed orchestra supports the soloist who plays a wistful melody, Hanslip providing a beautiful tone. A quiet drum slowly beats as the orchestra falls lower for the Lamentoso. The solo part becomes more agitated with upward and downward slides and percussion adding their part.

Hushed tubular bells sound as the Tranquillo arrives with lovely woodwind passages in this hushed, gentle, atmospheric section with Chloë Hanslip weaving lovely sounds around the orchestra before a rapid violin motif leads to into Grave where edgy violin chords respond to orchestral statements before Ritmico when the soloist assumes the mantle of a jazz violinist over pizzicato basses with little orchestral interventions. This is a particularly attractive moment becoming increasingly dissonant and strange.

Drums and an orchestral outburst herald Pesante with a broad romantic theme mainly on brass before the soloist is left alone as we enter the final Meno mosso with a theme for the violin weaving over quiet percussion and pizzicato strings and celeste. Eventually the violin becomes ever more agitated as the orchestra swirls around rising up to a sudden coda.

There are some memorable moments in this fine concerto which Chloë Hanslip and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Clark Rundell perform spectacularly well.

Dickinson couldn’t have a better soloist for his Organ Concerto (1971) than Jennifer Bate who performs this work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Atherton. The composer tells us that this concerto is based on a single blues setting of a Byron text that he had previously written.

Again in a single movement, there are nine sections. The organ of the Festival Hall sounds a loud chord to open Grave before a hushed orchestra plays over a timpani beat. Brass intone before the organ repeats the chord and the hushed orchestra and timpani appear again. The organ quietly sounds in the orchestra before rising up majestically with a longer chord. Woodwind scurry up and down as the Allegro arrives with the organ quietly providing little chords.

A bass drum and celeste introduce the Adagio where the organ plays a theme quietly and very high up over the hushed orchestra, another one of Dickinson’s magical moments, before the organ slowly descends as we go into the Adagio with broad organ chords over timpani strokes.

The Allegro molto has a descending motif for the organ with stabs of brass and percussion before the Adagio where the organist holds a single quiet note and a flute joins with quiet timpani rolls.

A drum announces the Allegro molto with scurrying orchestra and organ flourishes. The orchestra soon becomes more dynamic over a terrific, long held organ outburst right into the next Adagio where a crash from the tam-tam brings the music to a hush. The organ provides little drips of sound over a clarinet theme before the organ motif continues with the celeste and hushed orchestral accompaniment. A cor anglais joins before the organ plays a solo that speeds up and varies over the manuals becoming quite aggressive.

A hushed organ and celeste lead into the Grave where a deep held organ note is played over the hushed orchestra. There is a timpani roll before another hush with the celeste bringing about the end.

Merseyside Echoes (1986) was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and is a short tribute to the sound of the early Beatles. A brass fanfare opens the work before the orchestra join. There is a momentary hush that precedes a rhythmic section with a buoyant melody reflecting a Beatles tune. The brass sounds out between hushed passages that show Dickinson’s lovely orchestration.  Soon a pizzicato bass introduces a jaunty melody, beautifully scored with the brass dominant.  There is another hushed section before the music picks up buoyantly again to take the tune to the unexpected and light-hearted coda. 

This is a first class introduction to Peter Dickinson’s music as well as a valuable addition to the catalogue. The recordings from three different venues are all extremely good and there are excellent notes by the composer. 

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