The lovely cover picture to this beautifully produced CD rather gives the game away. It is a reproduction of a portion of a painting by the little-known north country artist Edward Richardson, ‘A Castle in Yorkshire, 1848′. David Jennings loves British eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings; quite rightly too. There is a certain element in the music recorded here which is stimulated by those very landscapes.
One of my favourites on this very well filled disc is the Three Lyrical Pieces . It is headed up with the lovely musical ‘watercolour’, ‘Evening Twilight’, an Andante Tranquillo . This piece was inspired by a real watercolour by George Barret Junior a London-based landscapist who died in 1842. The other movements are a Cavatina and a delicious Waltz .
The disc opens with the longest piece and the one which is the most intriguingly original. It is Jennings’ Op. 1 Piano Sonata which took over twenty years to write before it pleased the composer. The sonata-form first movement has several gestures which would appear quite ordinarily romantic, but their development is full of surprises as Jennings obsessively beavers away at them. In his exemplary notes he describes the movement as “combative”. I would add that with the increasing dissonances the movement is quite disturbing. The jazzy scherzo second movement just adds to the ambiguous atmosphere. There were times in the third, which the composer describes as the work’s “emotional kernel”, when I thought of E.J. Moeran. Its wild middle section is actually quite disconcerting within a ‘Romance’ framework. The way it dies back to the opening and quite complex melody is fascinating. The finale is a truly virtuoso movement only mitigated by a reflective and rather lonely quieter section before the final onslaught. This is proper piano music and a truly extraordinary Op. 1 which deserves regular hearings and public airings.
For a composer who emerged from the 1980s mêlée of Durham University and the teaching of John Casken, David Jennings has quite remarkably eschewed modernism. He has ploughed his own furrow divorcing himself quietly away in the Lake District. This can be heard in the last work on the disc which is also the most recent. It too was stimulated directly by the Romantic 19th Century water-colourists. It’s the Harvest Moon Suite and it falls into six contrasted movements. These are contrasted not only in length but also in drama and tempo. Surprisingly one of the fastest is the third entitled Haunted Abbey . Most people would expect something shadowy and mysterious but Jennings wittily gives us what he describes as “Gothic gloom famously lampooned in Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey”. The longest and the central focus of the piece is Harvest Moon itself, inspired by what the composer tells us is a “large and impressive water colour by George Barret Junior”. It’s unfortunate that for most of us these superb pictures are quite unknown. Jennings does us a double favour: he presents his evocative and beautifully crafted piano miniatures and makes us want to search out these overlooked Victorian masters.
The eclecticism of this disc is exemplified in the next work. I’m especially thrilled to have the Prelude and Fugue , dedicated to me. It’s the most harmonically daring work on the disc and a challenging piece of piano music not to be taken on lightly by its potential players. I’ve decided that it’s beyond my pianistic abilities, but James Willshire surmounts its challenges with consummate ease and poise. The whole piece is searching and dramatic. What we have here is a twelve-tone composition with the row clearly stated in the first bar and the last of the Prelude. The interval of the minor third predominates in both the Fugue and the Prelude but is variously transposed and transmogrified. Begun in the early 1990s it was brought to its final form within the last couple of years.
Many composers go back over old work as Britten did for his Simple Symphony . The experience and confidence gained over a period of twenty years of writing music enables one quite often to find in some forgotten fragments that once seemed to have reached a dead-end a way to flower and develop. The Sonatinas fall into this category.
Roughly contemporaneous with the large-scale Piano Sonata come the Three Sonatinas allotted opus number 2 and therefore composed when Jennings was a precocious young teenager. He dug them out of his cupboard in recent years and apparently found little to revise. They are each diatonic and strongly melodious. The lines tend sometimes towards modality and sometimes have a slightly French touch. Melodies are exchanged between the hands in a romantic, wistful, nostalgic, uplifting and often gentle manner that I find quite captivating. The composer mentions in his notes that he sees the piece as “being in the tradition of Schumann’s Kindersczenen ”. I felt this especially strongly in the finale of the second Sonatina and in parts of the third where, for me Finzi was also evoked in the middle movement.
Beware composers who write miniatures. Very often more can be said in two minutes than in ten. Although this is a disc containing thirty tracks there are just eight separate works. In the case of the Miniature Suite there are five movements. Each of these is a finely polished gem which wastes no notes and says only exactly what it wants. Indeed the way Jennings throws off the third movement Invention when it reaches its natural end is not only entirely suitable but also witty. In fact this whole piece is charmingly humorous, with its snoozing cat in the second movement Air and its later dreamy canal walk steamily entitled Romance . All make a gentle bow towards the great JS with a final jolly fugue and first movement Prelude. As with much else here, one often feels with Jennings that more lies behind the music than he allows us to know.
James Willshire’s performances are faultless both musically and emotionally. He does not unnecessarily interpose himself between composer and listener as so many young players tend to want to do. I can only strongly advise that you buy this disc and enjoy for yourself a new and individual voice in British piano music.
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