Fanfare

Born in Bridgend in the UK in 1960, composer-pianist Rob Keeley is new to the pages of Fanfare. As a composer, he studied with Oliver Knussen at the Royal College of Music and worked with Bernard Rose and Robert Saxton at Magdalene College, Oxford, receiving his D. M. in music from the University of Oxford in 2015. As a pianist, he has given premieres by many distinguished composers, some of whom (including Harrison Birtwistle, Michael Finnissy, and Gordon Crosse) have written works especially for him. He currently is on the faculty of King’s College, London, where he teaches composition. His more than 100 works include two symphonies, two piano concertos, and much music for voice, piano, and chamber ensembles.

The present recital features chamber works employing woodwinds (including recorder), strings, and harpsichord. Much of Keeley’s writing strikes me as jocular and even tongue-in-cheek, although it is all composed with a solid technique, full of inspired ideas and the knowledge of how to assemble them to form a convincing whole. A good example of these characteristics is found in the opening work, Four Anachronistic Dances for clarinet and harpsichord. The harpsichord has the first word, and the piquantly dissonant harmonies (and sometimes even tone clusters) that open this dialogue seem anachronistic indeed to the traditional use of the instrument. The clarinet’s commentary on what is going on in his collaborator is never too serious, given the bouncy melodic riffs, and fluttering grace notes that pervade the piece. There is also a lyrical aspect to the piece, but the humor is never shunted too far away. At one point in the fourth movement, the left hand of the harpsichord seems about to break into a boogie-woogie lick, for instance.

Keeley’s contrapuntal skills are brought to the fore in Three Inventions for Harpsichord, a work that is in strict two-part counterpoint. The ebullient spirit of the previous work continues in this one, which is a delight to the ear. The third of these Inventions the composer describes as being modeled on the hexachord fantasies of composers such as Byrd and Sweelinck—not that you’ll hear anything remotely resembling either of those composers in this work. The composer performs these works most convincingly. Interrupted Melody and Breathless Scherzo are both works for solo recorder, and were written for John Turner, who performs them here. Both of them feature wandering and disjunct lines that explore the range and sonority of the instrument, which is set off to excellent effect in the ambience of St. Thomas Church at Stockport. Occasional non-standard techniques, such as flutter-tongue, are required of the soloist. The Scherzo spends most of its time in its upper register, which can occasionally make the instrument sound very much like a piccolo, which has a similar range. The kind of recorder is unspecified in the notes, but is very clearly the treble of the species.

The title-generating Twists and Turns combines the instruments of the first several pieces, joining clarinet, recorder, and harpsichord in a trio that does indeed take unexpected turns of phrase throughout its five-minute duration. Sudden interjections by the clarinet at unexpected junctures add to the humor of the work, as does some occasional jazz-like figuration in the harpsichord, and the piece ends quite abruptly. The Diptych for two violins is cast in two movements, the first of which is a busy and fast movement with lots of quick figuration in one part playfully poked with pizzicato chords in the other. There is a good bit of tremolo tossed into the texture as well. The second movement utilizes similar techniques as the first, but in a slightly more relaxed tempo, with greater employment of counterpoint.

Once you get past the Beethoven Trio, you’ll likely go a long time before you’ll hear another work for oboe trio (comprising two oboes and English horn), but here is one. Keeley must be a punster (as I plead guilty of being myself: The relatively few that you read in my reviews demonstrates my great restraint), given the title for his trio, Some Reeds in the Wind. The composer’s skill in writing for the instruments overcomes the rather monochromatic timbre of this combination of instruments, which might otherwise wear out on the ear before a work of almost 13 minutes’ duration ended. Keeley’s exploration of combinations of the three instruments in various ranges and spacings is quite ingenious, leading the listener to wonder what might be coming next. The humor for my ears reaches its high point in the fourth movement, “A Keening,” which has a good number of sounds that resemble geese squawking. Nevertheless, the movement is everything it’s quacked up to be. (OK, I had to put one pun in here somewhere.)

Seven Studies for Wind Quartet, at more than 14 minutes, is the longest work in the program, but given its seven movements, constitutes a series of miniatures much like the other works on the disc. Given its traditional scoring (the usual woodwind quintet minus the horn), Keeley succeeds in creating unusual sounds and textures to complement and extend those heard by the more “exotic” instruments heard elsewhere on the CD. He does this in part by extensive substitution of the piccolo for the flute. The following Saraband: The King’s Farewell is actually a work by Harrison Birtwistle, originally written for piano, and has been arranged by Keeley for recorder and seven strings, the latter playing senza vibrato throughout. The piece is utterly haunting in its mysterious sonorities.

The recital closes with Keeley’s own Interleaves for recorder and string ensemble, a work that seems to flow out of the Birtwistle piece stylistically, but contains much more variety in texture. It provides a fascinating conclusion to a most intriguing concert.

Rob Keeley proves that he has a consistent and distinctive compositional voice, judging by this group of his works. There are influences from Knussen and others, but his music is really his own. Coupled with the excellence of the performances—I can do nothing but sing the praises of each performer heard here—this is a disc that aficionados of contemporary chamber music will not want to miss.

—David deBoor Canfield