There was a time when Peter Dickinson’s music was reasonably well served, as far as commercial recordings were concerned. Those EMI and Conifer discs fell out of the catalogue but were eventually rescued by Albany. The remaining refugee is Mass of the Apocalypse - previously on Conifer CDCF 167. These reissues have been reviewed here some time ago. The present release, again from Albany, aptly fills gaps in Dickinson’s current discography with new recordings of piano works played by the composer, two reissues and a sizeable bonus in the shape of a BBC recording of a substantial work never released commercially before.
The most recent work here, Bach in Blue (2004) was composed as a tribute to Michael Berkeley, but also pays homage to Lennox Berkeley and – of course – to JSB. It is a beautiful meditative piece that repays repeated hearings. It should be in every pianist’s repertoire.
Winter Afternoons, written for The King’s Singers, sets three poems by Emily Dickinson. All deal more or less directly with death. The settings are framed by a prelude and a coda for double-bass, and are linked by short interludes for the same instrument. The first song, One dignity delays for all evokes funeral rituals, with bittersweet irony. A short interlude leads into the second song There’s a certain Slant of light, a slow lament introducing a hymn tune. Another interlude ushers in the final song Departed. This opens with energy but ends calmly, if unappeased with bell-like chords from the double-bass. I had not heard this piece before, although it was recorded by EMI some time ago; but this is a very fine piece that deserves to be heard, especially in as fine a performance as this. The 1974 recording still sounds remarkably well.
Five Diversions were originally written for clavichord, but may also be played on any keyboard instruments: harpsichord or piano. They also exist in a scoring for chamber orchestra by the composer. They have much in common with their near-contemporary Four Easy Pieces (1965) and the somewhat later Eight Very Easy Pieces (1979), in that they are all short, neatly characterised miniatures of great charm. These three sets bear the mark of a true master who can devise short, fairly uncomplicated pieces for beginners or able amateurs, but with enough musical substance and technical challenge to make it all worth the effort. All these pieces share clarity of line, form and texture, lively rhythms often tinged with jazzy or bluesy harmonies.
Sonatas for Piano with Tape Playback is a quite different proposition. This substantial work is undoubtedly the major work here. Do not be put off by the phrase “Tape playback” which might suggest some avant-garde experimentation of the sort experienced in the radical Post-serial era. In fact, the live pianist dialogues with pre-recorded material on tape. This is particularly clear in the opening Prelude in which the pianist is echoed in the tape, which creates a fascinating multi-layered texture. It leads directly into the longest section of the work (Trance). Here the taped material includes an early piano piece by Dickinson (Dirge from Four Short Piano Pieces from 1955) and “a quasi-Mozart piece dreamed by the composer”. These undergo a series of transformations, the playback allowing the superimposition of the various sound layers, be they on tape or live. The music builds up a climax in the highly decorated third section (Confrontations). In the final section (Epilogue), the tapes are silent, leaving the pianist on his own, and Sonatas ends quietly with the Dirge and the Dream piece superimposed. This recording by the work’s dedicatee Eric Parkin was made by the BBC as far back as 1988. Curious that we have had to wait that long before being able to hear this major piece. Now, here it is in a superb performance and a very fine recording.
The present recording of The Unicorns here enjoys its third reincarnation. It was originally released on a Swedish LP (Bluebell BELL 153) many years ago, as part of an all-British programme of works for brass. It was then re-issued as part of Conifer CDCF 167. It was commissioned by the Solna Brass who recorded it soon after the first performance. For this piece for soprano and brass, Dickinson drew on an opera libretto by John Heath-Stubbs which he had commissioned but that had come to nothing. He thus used three songs from the opera libretto, preceded by an orchestral introduction and all interspersed with two orchestral sections. The work opens with vigorous fanfares (Fanfares and Choruses evoking “the rival teams going off in search of unicorns”). The Westland girl tries to lure a unicorn with a tender Lullaby, whereas the Eastland dancer opts for an energetic dance. However, the Westland girl and the Eastland boy fall in love, although they know that their love is impossible. The girl sings a bittersweet Interrupted Love Song. The capture of a unicorn is celebrated by a brilliant Celebration Fugue - again for brass only. The lovers finally decide to escape to the island of St Brendan. The work thus ends with The Ballad of St Brendan evoking an idyllic paradise where the lovers might for all their differences eventually be happy. A very fine work cast in a quite accessible idiom. Elisabeth Söderström sings beautifully throughout, and the 25-year old recording wears well.
Peter Dickinson’s music has been neglected for too long, so these Albany releases are all most welcome, putting his music firmly on the map again. It is good too to have some hitherto unrecorded works, particularly the masterly Sonatas. Dickinson’s admirers have thus many good reasons to rejoice; and I hope that some of his large-scale works such as Transformations and the Violin Concerto will soon be available in commercial recordings. In the meantime this is a most welcome selection.
Hubert Culot, Musicweb, 10/1/2006