Classics Today

In an era where contemporary composers exercise self-promotion beyond belief, Eric Craven shuns the limelight, works in isolation, and gives few biographical clues along the way. We basically know that Craven taught math for years in his hometown of Manchester (UK) and, having survived cancer, gave up his proverbial day job to concentrate on composing.

Craven works in what he calls a “non-prescriptive” style of notation. In Low-order Non-Prescription, pitches and rhythms are fully written out, but without information in regard to tempo, dynamics, phrasing, or articulation. High-order Non-Prescription offers only notes and chords written in black noteheads with no stems to indicate duration or groupings. Moreover, the performer can observe, repeat, reorder, or even ignore the notes at will. In Middle-order Non-Prescription, short musical fragments with pitches and rhythms are presented on the page in a disconnected manner with no implied sequence or ordering. This means, of course, that no two performances are alike, and that pianist Mary Dullea’s recorded “realizations” of Craven’s Piano Sonatas Nos. 7, 8, and 9 are unique events. Be that as it may, what we hear on these two discs is fluid, cogent, pianistically idiomatic, alternately energetic and lyrical, and just plain beautiful.

Sonata No. 7’s five movements feature jagged yet forward-moving chords in fifths, introspective one-line melodies, and dissonant punctuations. By contrast, Sonata No. 9 is cast in a classical three-movement structure. Its outer movements hold the most interest: the first’s slow-moving chords could be mistaken for Copland at times, while the third movement’s abrupt, stabbing phrases and wide interval leaps wouldn’t be out of place in a Rzewski variation set.

The nearly 50-minute-long Sonata No. 8 is a kind of musical mobile where the disparate elements dangle in the air, not touching, but nonetheless relate to one another. From the music’s gentle repeating Morton Feldman-like cluster chords and luminous pentatonic musings, to sparse yet petulant outbursts that Messiaen or Boulez might recognize as their own, the listener may not know what to expect, yet the changes in mood, sonority, and texture are easy to absorb and process. The sureness of touch, variety of nuance, and impressive flexibility that Dullea brings to her gorgeously engineered performances reveal a deep level of commitment and care to Craven’s aesthetic. Scott McLaughlin’s extensive annotations are valuable to those interested in Craven’s compositional process.
Ten points out of ten for both musical content and sound

—Jed Distler