MusicWeb

I don’t know whose idea this CD was, but it was a brilliant one. There is a large and splendid repertoire of 20th century piano music written with children or beginners in mind, and we have here a collection of some of the best. The fascinating thing is how the personalities and styles of these great composers are instantly recognisable, despite the comparative simplicity of the material.

Not that all of this music is simple to play; some of the Bartók pieces in particular are very difficult, requiring considerable technical and rhythmic control. Raymond Clarke, an experienced recitalist who now teaches at the University of Bristol, has made a name for his performances of Szymanowski, Havergal Brian and other 20 th century composers, so that it is no surprise to find him at home with the idioms here. It goes without saying that he is technically well in command of this music, and his performances are poised, imaginative and strongly characterised.

Of the seven composers represented, there are four Russians, (Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian), one Hungarian (Bartók), one American (Copland) and one Austrian (Webern). The most impressive are the twelve Prokofiev pieces from ‘Music for Children’, which are extraordinarily poetic within their tiny limits. Take The Rain and the Rainbow, with its gently clashing harmonies and wide ranging melody, or the jumpy rhythms of March of the Grasshoppers. Some listeners will recognise the lovely Evening and the perky March, which appear orchestrally in the suite Summer Day.

Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts (The Five Fingers) belongs to the same period as The Soldier’s Tale, and you can hear that clearly in the twitchy rhythms and modal melodic lines. Khachaturian’s attractive Pictures from Childhood were composed at various times between 1926 and 1947, while Copland’s Piano Album contains pieces from the later stages of his career. These Copland items differ slightly from the rest of the music here in that they are not specifically intended as teaching material, though they are still straightforward in style and texture.

Webern’s Kinderstück (Children’s Piece) is something of a curiosity, in that, though it was intended to be one of a whole set of such works for young pianists, the composer soon abandoned the idea, and the present piece wasn’t publicly performed until 1966, over twenty years after the composer’s death. Shostakovich’s Children’s Notebook of 1945 are the simplest and easiest to play of all the music here, but still highly characteristic of the composer. Clockwork Doll is probably the finest of them, looking forward as it does to the ‘magic toyshop’ music of the Fifteenth Symphony.

The best-known music is found in the numbers from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, six volumes of incredibly varied and resourceful graded pieces, assembled between 1926 and 1939. The amazing From the Diary of a Fly is here (look out for Huguette Dreyfus’s new recording on Harmonia Mundi of this and other Mikrokosmos items on the harpsichord!), as well as the wild Ostinato, a violent whirlwind of a Vivacissimo.

The CD is accompanied by a learned and informative booklet of notes by Raymond Clarke himself, and the piano is the excellent Steinway model D at Newcastle University. Clarke has only scratched the surface here; there are dozens more Bartók pieces, as well as wonderful works in the same vein by Kodály and Kabalevsky, to name but two. More please!

Recording of the Month, March 2004

—Gwyn Parry-Jones