I was given this disc for appraisal by MusicWeb’s very own Patrick Waller, whose sponsorship enabled this production to take place. This happened over a very nice lunch, at which some colourful descriptions of the recording circumstances were recounted. Considering the freezing conditions at that time – of the recording, not the lunch – it was apparently something of a miracle the whole thing came together at all, and with a substantial quantity of material recorded in a relatively short period my congratulations go to all concerned for seeing the project through to completion. In this way I would also like to declare any bias which readers may feel they encounter in this review.
Rob Barnett has already reviewed this disc and supplied much of the background one might need on the composer and her work. Everything with this release is very well presented: the composer’s own notes on each piece giving plenty of useful and relevant information. It is interesting to see that the works are programmed in chronological order, and so one has a sense of ongoing growth and development. The three movements of the String Quartet are headed by literary quotations which express some of the musical content, including the rather plangent quality of which was no doubt coloured by the death of the composer’s mother a year previously. Gently expressive lines weave through each other in both the opening Adagio and the central Fugue , but the final Moderato (Rondo) has a more robust centre, expressing the positive message in the quotation “Those who spread their sails in the right way to the winds of the earth will always find themselves borne by a current towards the open seas.” Tonal orientation is not always easy to find in the sometimes quite intricate patterns in this piece, a problem which occasionally seems to fox the players as it may the listener at times. The journey taken is however one which always ends on an entirely logical resolution, one which ties each musical strand with the firmness of an aglet.
While the String Quartet is in no way ‘difficult’ music, the Clarinet Quintet has a superficially more immediate appeal in some of the more lyrical writing, for instance in the gentle central Siciliano and the quirkily humorous Allegretto scherzando finale. Judith Bailey’s own instrument is the clarinet, and she clearly knows how to obtain the best from its width of registers. The Towers of San Gimignano has a programmatic content, being written as a response to a visit to Tuscany. The solo piano chimes a powerful peal of bells, also expressive of imposing medieval towers. The strong material in an implacably imposing first movement is subjugated into the detail of the Frescoes found in the second, but is never too far away. A busy Piazza rounds the piece off in fine style, with some local singing, and an echo of the bells heard in the opening. This is an excellent piece, with some evidence of the influence of Debussy in the response to all those images.
With the Egloshayle Nightingale Trio we are given a suite in baroque form, based on the Cornish folk-song The Sweet Nightingale . This is appealing, quite light music, with more rhythmic bounce than the String Quartet , although there is a gorgeous slow Sarabande which has the sense of a slow funereal march. Another work in lighter mood but with a softer, introspective kernel is the Aquamarine Waltz , written for the composer’s long-term friend Isabel Young’s 75 th birthday. When you’ve heard the piece and find yourself whistling the tune, you realise how close it is to a sea shanty.
The two short Microminiature pieces were in response to a commission for works of three minutes’ duration intended for amateur musicians. There is something about having to work within a compact framework which concentrates the creative grey cells, and even though these performance go a little over time it is clear that Bailey relished the challenge of these miniatures. Both pieces have a slow central movement flanked by two quicker movements, and represent a kind of ‘essence of Bailey’, sealed into succulent little jampots of fine music.
The Visions of Hildegard takes, as the title would lead one to expect, a theme by the Abbess Hildegard von Bingen. The short interludes which form a kind of set of variations on this theme are played as a sequence of medieval pieces would be performed, each section being a ‘breath’, and giving the sense of a single continuous, meditative, and highly effective piece.
The final work on this disc is the grandest in scale. Light was written in memory of Isabel Young, and reflects on loss, and the search for recovery of one’s self in the discovery and knowledge that those we love remain with us in spirit. There is a clear sense of anguish expressed in the music which, having become acquainted with the composer’s idiom through the course of the programme, has quite a shocking power despite its Mozartean restraint. Longing, sadness, desolation – all of these things appear in a score which is often quite sparse, the expression of the deepest emotions coming through with the simplest economy of means. As with the String Quartet , each movement is given a quotation which concentrates the mind and clarifies the messages in the music, concluding with “Replace the darkness within me with a gentle light.”
I have to be honest and say that the recording quality for this disc could have been better. The String Quartet sounds rather thin and flat as does the piano; and the balance between clarinet and upper strings in the Quintet lead one to wonder where the clarinet was placed – poor Jane Plessner sometimes sounds as if she has been banished onto the sidelines, even while appreciating the chamber rather than solo nature of her part. The lighter textures of the Trio fare a little better, and as ever with this kind of thing one’s ear does become tuned in to the overall sound after a while. I don’t want to be too harsh, but I am used to hearing more satisfying results – and I don’t mean just from the big name labels. With cheaper playback equipment you probably won’t notice so many problems, and it sounds fine on the built-in speakers on my laptop. This said, and with one or two mild moans over intonation here and there, this is a well-performed programme of some highly intriguing music. I have to admit to not having heard of Judith Bailey before receiving this disc, and have to declare that this must be as good a way as any to introduce oneself to her music.