Graham Whettam is one of Britain’s elder statesmen of music, whose larger-scale work flourished in the 1950s and 1960s with a number of symphonies. The Dance Concertante for piano duo Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick, was performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the opening concert of the 1959 Proms. I have to admit that, as a listener at least, Graham Whettam is a new name to me, so as always I looked forward to freshening my ears to a new musical voice.
Night Music was requested for the 1968 Cheltenham Festival and intended as a single-movement companion piece to the Prelude and Scherzo Impetuoso. The composer soon found the piece growing beyond its remit, and so a four-movement sonata-form emerged. The nocturnal character is maintained throughout with the exception of the third Scherzo Frenetico movement whose source of clattering fury was the Whettam’s angry reaction to the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968. This powerful movement forms a kind of ‘golden section’ climax to what is otherwise largely introspective and atmospheric music. Despite the slow character of much of the outer movements, Whettam always leads the listener on a voyage of logical development, full of character and emotional contrasts. This is in no-way any kind of ‘new age’ wandering around the keyboard, although the spectre of Messiaen peers through the window now and again – especially on the second Notturno Lunare movement. My favourite is the final ‘Infinito, andar del tempo’ (‘Infinite, as far as time’), whose deceptively simple lines and harmonies really do express the unknown depths of infinity.
Ballade Hébraïque was originally written for violin and piano and called simply ‘Ballade’. Violinist Yossi Zivoni’s international performances gave rise to comment on the music’s Jewish qualities, and a subsequent orchestration was given the Hebraic title. This adaptation was made for duo Goldstone and Clemmow. The opening is a kind of recitative which blooms into a more lyrical character. There is a percussive central section which forms the climax to a mirror-image conclusion. As you might expect, a strong melodic character with an orchestral sounding ‘player 2’ works very well in piano duet. The piece has a strong sense of power and inevitability, and at its most expressive a sincerely poetic sensitivity.
Prelude, Scherzo and Elegy shares a similar structure to a number of Whettam’s other chamber works, contrasting a strong central scherzo with a lyrical concluding movement. The Prelude has its own arch form, developing onto an assertive central toccata from more restful, but mysterious outer sections. The scherzo is a compact, staccato ‘molto vivace’ which builds in tempo towards its ‘presto con forza’ end. The final Elegy is almost a pre-echo of some aspects in Night Music with recognisable fingerprints such as slow trills, wide, open intervals between the hands and gently repeating bell-like notes also appear in this movement.
Fantasy from 1956 was an adaptation from a piece for flute, oboe and piano written the year before but appearing for the first time in this form, having ever after remained unpublished and unperformed in the composer’s ‘doom cupboard’ – we all have them – mine’s full! This piece contrasts nicely with some of the others, having a more contrapuntal nature. Aside from a thoughtful conclusion, the music is lively and energetic, and the techniques involved heralded a new departure in Whettam’s music, toward his more melodic later style.
This fine CD ends with the Prelude and Scherzo Impetuoso, which was commissioned by Ian Lake for his 1967 ‘Music in Our Time’ festival in London. The whole piece is written without time signature, but the Prelude has a natural flow between gestural figures in the treble clef and strong, irregular chords. The Scherzo has an elemental solidity, the bass notes sometimes appearing in octave seconds which have indistinct tone, but a thudding rhythmic effect. The tonal centre works towards a final A via a quite central interlude, and a final ‘maestisissimo’.
Graham Whettam’s piano music – solo or duet, is strong stuff, and played with effortless and convincing solidity by Goldstone and Clemmow – together or apart. The recording is excellent. I have been mightily impressed by this new release which has reduced my general ignorance by a significant notch. I sincerely hope this CD will receive the broadcast attention it deserves. All of these works are recorded here for the first time, and with Graham Whettam’s 80 th birthday in 2007 he is by all accounts long overdue for some extra recognition.