Anthony Powers belongs to that rich vein of British compositional talent to emerge from the post-war 1940s and early 50s generation, including Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews, Robert Saxton and Simon Bainbridge. Born in 1953, Powers has not had the advantage of the public profile that his colleagues have achieved yet critically his music has been the subject of considerable admiration. This disc, the first to be entirely devoted to his work, is therefore particularly welcome.
The chamber works presented span a period of seventeen years, from one of his earliest acknowledged works, Another part of the Island, written in 1980, to the piece from which the disc takes its title, Fast Colours, of 1997. Not surprisingly perhaps for a former pupil of the legendary Nadia Boulanger, there is a consistency that runs through the heart of all of these works: namely a concern with both the vertical and horizontal aspects of the music, whereby the importance of melody, harmony and contrapuntal line combine to play a crucial part in the structural cohesion of the finished score. One can sense that every note, chord and gesture has a significance, whilst the instrumental textures demonstrate an impressive degree of clarity and transparency.
The works are deliberately presented in reverse chronological order although I have to say that I chose to listen to the earliest work, Another part of the island, first, simply because it is the piece with which I was most familiar. The first work, Fast Colours, is a dazzling virtuosic showpiece, scored for flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello. In a range of divertimento-like episodes Powers cleverly contrasts breathtakingly headlong material with more lyrical passages which play on the multiple meaning of the title. The Double Sonata (scored for the same ensemble as Fast Colours minus the flute) is a contemporary exploration and elaboration of sonata form, the “double” being Powers’ multiplication of the form to give four as opposed to the normal two subjects. These are cast in different tempi and superimposed to weave a contrasting pattern of tempo, texture and melody. In Sunlight, for violin and piano, was completed in the same year as Double Sonata and again explores the idea of “doubling” in a variety of ways. He does this structurally, in its double variation form, but also in the combination of double-stopped and open strings which are utilised to striking effect. The significance of the title is evident both in the sheer brightness of much of the material as well as the more languid passages where the sun is perhaps filtered, as if sitting in the shade on a hot Mediterranean afternoon. The Quintet, written in 1983 and scored for flute, clarinet, violin, viola and cello, is more substantial at around seventeen minutes. Although ten years earlier than the preceding works, it is recognisably the work of the same composer, demonstrating the same concern with line and texture. A slower first movement and a tautly constructed concluding passacaglia frame the central scherzo. Another part of the island was the first piece I heard by Powers back in the 1980s and I recall being struck at the time by its clarity of expression. Although The Tempest is the springboard for Powers’ inspiration the score does not adhere to any strict programme. It is however richly evocative and I frequently found the island to be “full of noises”. At around twenty-five minutes this is a major score although the large scale sonata form structure allied with the composer’s deft use of his material holds the attention throughout.
Manchester based Psappha (conducted by Nicholas Kok in Another part of the island), give highly committed performances of all five works and I very much hope that we get to hear more of them on disc in the near future. The recording, which was made in Whaley Bridge, Cheshire, is clear and realistic.
Particular credit is due to David Lefeber of Metier Sound and Vision for bringing this music to disc. As a published composer producing scores as finely crafted as these this premiere Powers recording is long overdue but better late than never!