This is another of The Divine Art’s intriguing delves into the repertoire. All are first recordings and repay interest. Leighton’s Prelude, Hymn and Toccata was written in 1987 and embeds, pretty well unrecognisably, Abide With Me in the central movement. The opening movement employs double-dotting heavily and the effect of this, the vaguely DSCH effect it promotes and the ensuing bell grounds are all highly evocative. In the disguised hymnal of the second movement it is the intense oscillation, quiet and intense, that gives it a distinctive drive. The close, meanwhile, is elliptical and still. The palate is cleansed in the last movement – syncopated and with some jazzy lines tracing through it. Though Leighton’s work is one of strong intensity the bulk of pieces here are actually by Anthony Hedges. His Three Explorations (2002), which gives the disc its title, are representative of his best work in its sense of romanticism deliberately constrained by means of formal concision. The slow second movement for example is an extremely fine piece of composition in its seemingly improvised compression and the finale (Flowing) is full of triumphant drive.
His 1974 Sonata is in three movements and though, as Hedges makes clear in his notes, it’s not cast in traditional sonata form his structural acuity and sense of emotive pull are such that we always feel that we know where we are. The free flowing second movement hints at March themes and baroque features amidst the veil of Scriabin’s influence and the finale is one that immediately lightens the texture whilst simultaneously – and triumphantly – reconciling earlier themes in powerful proximity. A stirring and notable work, this. His Five Aphorisms are brief and incisive pieces; the second is flecked with treble sonorities and the fourth, a Lento, contrasts static chords with perkier motifs and is entertainingly mobile.
The Japanese Suite of Holst is here in the arrangement by Berlin-born Vally Lasker, who joined the staff of St Paul’s Girls’ School in 1907 and stayed for fifty-five years. She was also an exceptional help to Holst, who was Director of Music there from 1905 until his death, not least as occasional amanuensis. The separate piano parts of the suite are in Lasker’s hand though it’s conjectural whether these parts were copied from Holst’s own two-piano score (as with the Planets) but, in any case, no such score has survived. The Dance of the Marionette is genuinely aerial and balletic and the Dance under the Cherry Tree has, by contrast, the formal allusiveness of a haiku. But it’s the Prelude (Song of the Fishermen) that touches the deepest nerve – a really beautiful folk song, full of the most plangent delicacy. Appropriately we also have Stevenson’s Two Chinese Folk-Songs of which the Song of the Crab-fisher is ebullience itself, full of life.
The excellence of the recording serves only to enhance this production, which has the advantage of authoritative notes (especially from Hedges and Stevenson). There are significant things here – not always easily prised open, it’s true, but all the more valuable for that very reason.