This year marks the 80 th birthday of British composer Graham Whettam. Although discs of his orchestral music have appeared from time to time on smaller labels like Redcliffe Edition this is the first exclusively devoted to his piano music.
Whettam is of that generation of composers which, in the 1960s were considered to be at or near the cutting edge of contemporary music but who by clinging on to their own hard-fought style and language have been overtaken by the latest fashion of the younger composers. It always happens but in Whettam’s case it is us, the musical public who are the sufferers as this disc clearly testifies.
Here is my first reaction after hearing the disc whole … in three sittings I hasten to add. Every piece is superbly performed by this man and wife team who have made five other discs for this label and twenty-something others over the last decade or so. It is a rich and natural recording made in a church in North Lincolnshire – I have visited it. It has a superb acoustic and incidentally a magnificent aspect over the Humber. Each work is very fine indeed. None is weaker than another and in the case of the first piece, which is the longest on the disc ‘Night Music’, the word ‘outstanding’ should spring readily to mind. The booklet essay is by the composer – always a help. What he has to say is very interesting and he provides useful and accessible commentary should not put off the less technical listener.
What of Graham Whettam’s musical language? I was new to it. He could be described as one of the ‘Cheltenham composers’ a term now almost thought of as derogatory but it should not be. He was one of those composers, born in the 1920s, who in the 1960s had many performances for instance at the annual Cheltenham Contemporary music festival; at that time an almost unique event.
Reading through the notes we see that Night Music was “requested for the 1968 Cheltenham Festival” and the ‘Prelude and Scherzo Impetuoso’ was heard at the festival in the same year. Other works like the ‘Fantasy’ and his wonderful ‘Sinfonia ContraTimore’, recorded by Redcliffe Edition, were premiered in London.
The ‘Fantasy’ is the earliest work here and was adapted from a piece for flute, oboe and piano. Although obviously ‘young man’s music’ with its feel of searching experimentation, it makes an immediate impression. It is in a succinct ternary form structure, based on a tone-row announced at the start and later developed into a virile fugue.
Next, chronologically speaking – and it’s interesting to listen these works in that order – comes the ‘Prelude, Scherzo and Elegy’ played here by Caroline Clemmow. It is, as the title suggests, another ternary structure, the slow, polytonal outer sections sounding, as my ten year old nephew vividly described it as if someone was “sitting alone in a dark room in complete fear”. The middle section is a spiky excursion with irregular rhythmic patterns which reminds me a little of Bartók.
The next and slightly similar work ‘Prelude and Scherzo Impetuoso’, commissioned by Cheltenham, is also entrusted to the sensitive virtuosity of Caroline Clemmow. Its middle movement is marked ‘allegro assai con precipitazione’ a new one on me, but you know what he means.
‘Night Music’, performed by Anthony Goldstone, inhabits a world of softly focused mystery. It has four movements beginning with a long ‘Fantasia’, then a gripping ‘Notturno Lunare’ subtitled “tu, solinga, eternal peregrina’ (solitary, eternal wonderer”). The composer’s notes identify the wanderer as the Italian poet Leopardi who moves slowly “across the sky in an infinity of silvered silence”. After a wispy ‘Scherzo Frenetico’ – Whettam likes that word – comes a finale the same length as the opening movement. This is headed “Infinito, andar del tempo” (infinite as far as time), an incredibly still, Martian landscape with no beginning and no end. This makes for a brave ending and is exceedingly successful even if ultimately emotionally unsatisfying.
That brings us to the ‘Ballade Hébraïque’ for piano duet, the latest work on the disc but which is now twenty-five or so years old. Stylistically it is of a piece with the rest of the works here. I did wonder however if Ernst Bloch had been looking over Whettam’s shoulder. Originally it was written for violin and piano and was prompted by a letter from no less a luminary than Yehudi Menuhin. Thus the title is not altogether inappropriate. The opening recitative has an Hebraic sound and key sense, especially so when coupled with the ornamentation. Again there is something of an oppressive and mysterious atmosphere just as in Night Music. The whole range of the piano is used and as is typical of Whettam, the tonality is mostly undecided with quartal harmony alongside some whole tone writing. After about five minutes all hell breaks loose in an exciting Allegro. The opening tempo and much of the earlier material re-emerges and the work ends in contemplation.
I say again … a splendid disc and one to which I for one, will regularly return.
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