Priaulx Rainier “was known as a composer of scrupulous judgement and discriminating taste”; so wrote The Times’ music editor in October 1986 for the composer’s obituary. He went on “her standards were unflinchingly high” not only on her pupils, as Nicola Lefanu points out in her fascinating essay in the CD booklet, but on herself. Perhaps that is why, if Grove is correct, less than thirty works are all she allowed to outlive her. Schott, her principal publisher, in their catalogue of her work list only twenty-four. Since her death her music seems of course to have become completely forgotten in concert halls. The BBC naturally have forgotten her and, with a few rare exceptions, so have the record companies. Redcliffe Edition (RR007) brought out in 1992 a recording (another had appeared four years earlier) of the 1939 String Quartet, coupled the Oboe Quartet Quanta (1962), the austere String Trio (1966) and Ploermel, an amazing piece not unlike Varèse, for winds and percussion. Also on Redcliffe (RR 011) The National Youth Choir recorded Rainier’s beautiful Requiem of 1956. In the LP era some works like the String Trio did occasionally appear, but there has been little or no chance to reassess her output in the last decade.
I first saw Rainier at the Wigmore Hall at the Alan Rawsthorne memorial concert in the autumn of 1971 alongside figures like Elizabeth Lutyens and Richard Rodney Bennett. I next saw her at the same venue when Peter Pears sang her unaccompanied Cycle for Declamation. Works would appear on the Radio and William Glock commissioned from her the stunning Aequera Luna (1967) and the Cello Concerto (1964). Not only that but when I did come to speak to her she had such a beautifully honed colonial accent that it all added up to Rainier being a respected, established, even establishment figure. But when I came to discover the music (not always easy to do) I realized how wrong I was. She was highly individual, an outsider from a backwater in rural Natal, South Africa. Her sound world could be harsh and totally lacking in sentimentality, purged of any romantic notions of the natural world. These elements are fundamental to the three works recorded here. They are each early works and relatively easy to assimilate but they, in many ways, encapsulate the nature of her compositional activity up to that point.
The Viola Sonata of 1946 has been broadcast by the BBC and broadcast a few times. It was never commercially available. It shows to a certain extent Rainier’s admiration for Bartók who had just died. This admiration is particularly strong in her Barbaric Dance suite for piano, which was first performed in 1950. Its antecedents are African whereas Bartók’s are Eastern European; nevertheless the inspiration is ethnic.
It must be remembered that when you listen to Rainier you are listening to African music (as indeed you are with John Joubert also South African but less radical). The last movement of the Viola Sonata encapsulates a quality that Nicola Lefanu refers to in the aforementioned essay as having “boldly, direct rhythmic patterning, spare textures and deceptively simple melodic shapes” such as one finds in the music of her native Natal.
The Five Keyboard Pieces were written between 1951-1955. Schott have produced a faded lithographic score, a reproduction of the composer’s rather poor hand. The music though is highly original. I have attempted to play them myself and can vouch for the unusual hand formations needed and widely spaced harmonies; at no point however are they unpianistic. The Clarinet Suite is in five movements, each casting its own individuality and not linked, except stylistically, with the next. This piece has many technical challenges for both players especially in the last movement but, and this is what I most admire, the music has its own integrity; an integrity you can trust.
I must not forget the other interesting female composer represented here who almost gets half the disc’s playing time, the Australian, Sadie Harrison. In fact it is her piece No title required written in 1994, (the title taken from the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska) which gives the CD its curious nomenclature. It is the only work here for all five members of Double Image. It is a two movement investigation of the “poems’ images of revolutions, tyrannies and political conspiracies in relation to skimming shadows, fluttering white butterflies and wind-blown clouds” to quote the composer in the CD booklet. This is a good example of how a listener should best listen to the music first and then possibly read the composer’s notes. It is a dramatic piece, which draws one in effectively. Its ideas are arresting and thoughtfully developed. The first movement gives a chance for the group to show their virtuosity in its speed and technical demands.
Three Expositions is for unaccompanied flute and in duration, at just over eight minutes the composer seeks to develop three short ideas stated at the start. Expert flautists could do worse than add this beautifully constructed and fascinating work to their repertoire; it should rank alongside Debussy and Varèse.
Finally After Colonnaâ is an impassioned 12-minute exploration of a 15th Century myth – effectively a Romance for cello and piano. The composer’s notes make its complex antecedents fairly clear so I will say no more except that I have come to admire it greatly. This, in addition to Harrison’s other two works recorded here, points to a composer of considerable potential and power, although I find the comment by Nicola Lefanu that she defies categorisation unhelpful and inaccurate. Lefanu says that Boulez is an influence (I’m not so sure). Peter Sculthorpe’s name came to mind more naturally while listening to Harrison’s music.
The recording is immediate and yet spacious. The performances seem me to be exemplary, often brilliant, lyrical when needed and dedicated. Double Image state in the CD that they were established in 1989 and that they specialise “in performances of music by women.”
The presentation of this disc is first class with excellent notes by Lefanu and pianist David Carhart who contributes some personal reminiscences of Priaulx Rainier.
This music will probably have limited appeal but I find it strong and brilliant, perhaps you will.