ENDNOTES, February 2018

Peter Seabourne

ENDNOTES, February 2018

In this edition: On the blue shore of silence, the music of Peter Seabourne;  Echoes of Land and Sea, from Somm Records; Copland, An Outdoor Overture, from the BBC Philharmonic, reviewed by STUART MILLSON.

 Anna Fedorova recital, reviewed by LESLIE JONES

Born in 1960, and subsequently a student of Professor Robin Holloway, the composer Peter Seabourne has dedicated his musical career to the pursuit of accessible music, with works that are not necessarily tonal or easy. He declines to follow trends or to compromise.

Speaking to the composer at the beginning of this year, after having spent a week playing a considerable number of his recordings on the contemporary Italian and European Sheva label, I gained the impression that Peter Seabourne has undertaken a long journey in music – producing in his gargantuan Steps piano sequence a body of work that dwarfs Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Chopin’s Etudes and Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues. I know of no other contemporary composer who has assembled such an organic, constantly progressing, seemingly unstoppable collection of music.

It all began, says Seabourne, in a small labourer’s cottage, presided over by a kindly grandmother. “It was an upbringing similar to Carl Nielsen’s,” observes the composer, a great admirer of the Danish symphonist. “Although from a rural place, my music never became self-consciously part of that English tradition, but the open air inspired in me some sense of purity and reality, a sense of life and living, rather than being confined or inward looking.” The “childhood passion for composing” led, initially to promising things, as Peter recounted: “I was fortunate in 1980, to win a place at Cambridge, to read music and study with Robin Holloway. I then moved to York University and during these student years won two national prizes.” But despite this early recognition and success, an artistic crisis ensued: “I felt after a while that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was writing in a clichéd modernist style, and I believed that it was music of no value. And so, I stopped – destroying my works, or rather, sealing them in a box – mentally burning them.”

What was it about modern music of the time that caused this reaction? “Modernism was all-pervasive. You played the game, following the serialists – atonalists – who wrote the right thing to get the right jobs in music, or the commissions. Modernism in music, as in art, deifies and damns, it tolerates no deviation. It is dire – the North Korean syndrome in music. You start to believe your own myth. So I left music and became a schoolteacher, but then in 2001, came a sudden reawakening. I felt the need, in music again, to say the simplest things in the simplest ways. A veil lifted up, a revelation of the obvious, and beauty came back. I – and most of the composers of my time had forgotten what music was for.”

Despite these events, Robin Holloway’s influence has never disappeared. “Something has coalesced out of all the influences with Robin. I have grabbed something different from my time with him, but I have always followed Robin to some extent. His music is formed from an eclectic soup, but it has a convincing unity. There are other composers, too, such as Schoenberg, Messiaen and Chopin who I don’t really like in some ways, but who have influenced me. Schoenberg’s stretched tonality fascinates. Writing tonal music again was, for me, a grand gesture of relief.”

And so to the music itself. On the Sheva label (catalogue number SH082) we can gain an immediate impression of Peter Seabourne’s delicate, Debussy-like chamber music, with a composition for cello and piano entitled On the Blue Shore of Silence. Performed by Olga Shutko, cello, and Myroslav Dragan, piano, the movements – variously evoking ‘Two Butterflies’ and ‘Des roses sur la mer’ – create a sense of the suspension of time itself; you are put in mind of the ethereal gardens, or flocks of birds in Takemitsu’s sound-world.

In volume 2 of the piano sequence, Steps (made up of three books), the inspiration switches to the world of Leonardo da Vinci, the result of a 2006 family holiday to Tuscany. Peter described the moment: “Over the course of the two weeks in Italy a number of pieces started to take shape. From the outset I had the firm idea that my music wouldn’t try to create musical equivalents of Leonardo’s conceptions. Instead, I wanted to try in some way to enter his mind and to capture something of his seemingly endless moments of inspiration as suddenly as it occurred to him that one could fly, see distant objects, polish mirrors, re-route the course of rivers, mechanise warfare… My aim was to try to give the pieces a sense of ‘being composed while one listened’; as if at any time an idea could almost  bubble up…”

So volume 2 begins with a three-and-half-minute sequence of Flying Machines, the mind suddenly taking flight, with music of startling originality and in the second book, we encounter a Tank, followed by Polishing Imperfections in Glass, and then – exactly as is meant in the title – A Moth to the Light. Performed with brilliance by pianist Giovanni Santini, these pieces have an instantaneous impact.

In Steps, Volume 5 , Sixteen Scenes before a Crucifixion, pianist Allesandro Viale is required to produce some literally shocking chords (emphatic, resounding, hammer-blows) and yet the work also contains gentler moods, which reminded me of one of John Ireland’s bubbling brooks, or the essentially lyrical, yet edgy energy of Arthur Bliss.

If anyone requires an introduction to Seabourne’s music, YouTube provides a performance of the world premiere of the Piano Concerto No. 2, given by the Academy Orchestra of the Czech Philharmonic. The composer can be seen in the audience, clearly enjoying what, for him, must have been a landmark event. The concerto begins with no great portentous exclamation, no rousing call – but instead, gently unfurls into existence, evoking similar softer passages in Bartok, Prokofiev, or Malcolm Arnold.

It is surprising that Peter Seabourne is not better known. Although he takes issue with modern music, his work clearly belongs to the 20th and 21st-century. Is it his refusal to join a clique, or to follow a programme that has led, in Britain, at least, to a certain isolation. A new generation of Italian, Czech, European and Chinese musicians, however, have taken Peter Seabourne to their hearts. For a composer who says that, as an Englishman, he feels “part of the continuum”, belonging to the lineage that gave us Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten and Robin Holloway, a sea-change for Seabourne will hopefully manifest itself soon.

Next, Echoes of Land and Sea, a collection from Somm of Britten, Ireland, Holst, Kenneth Leighton and works by a man better known as a singer, the baritone Roderick Williams. Superbly performed by Maria Marchant, well known at Wigmore Hall and on Radio 3, Williams composed his Goodwood by the Sea especially for her – and has also transcribed Ireland’s Sea Fever (entirely for piano). But (for me) the most interesting item on Somm’s well-produced new catalogue addition is the Lancashire-born Ronald Stevenson’s Peter Grimes Fantasy – a compression into seven minutes of the atmosphere and some of the main themes from Britten’s 1945 opera. Stevenson, another overlooked name in our country’s musical life, wrote no operatic music himself but like Peter Seabourne, produced a huge range of work for piano. Holst’s Brook Green Suite, and some piano miniatures written between 1924 and 1932, The Shoemakker, and Jig take the audience into pastoral England.

Finally, a vista of 1930s’ America, with John Wilson, conductor and the BBC Philharmonic on the Chandos label. As part of their definitive Copland series, Wilson has resurrected An Outdoor Overture (1938). The overture is redolent of the idealism of the Roosevelt era – ‘American music for American youth’. In 1937, Orson Welles directed a young people’s play-opera called The Second Hurricane, about heroic high-school students involved in a natural disaster. The conductor Alexander Richter saw this play and asked Copland if he would produce a similar work for his orchestra at the School of Music and Art in New York. An Outdoor Overture, in only eight minutes, encapsulates all of the great Copland themes – a drawing together of the ideas to be found in the Symphony No. 1, Dance Symphony, Statements and ballet scores, all on the new Chandos disc and on other CDs in Wilson’s retrospective.

The emotional centre of the piece is a nocturnal episode, in which the orchestra changes mood and tempo, as if a camera angle has changed. We are gathered now at a camp fire. The cellos play a  theme that evokes the America of the backwoods, Appalachia riders taking a rest on a prairie journey. My only criticism of the performance is the subdued execution of this sublime scene, the latter blending into the background. But overall, I rate the CD very highly, with the BBC Philharmonic giving a persuasive view of America’s most famous symphonist.

Peter Seabourne’s music is available on the Sheva label

Echoes of Land and Sea is available from Somm Records – SOMMCD 0174

Copland, An Outdoor Overture/Symphony No. 1 etc. Chandos CHSA 5195

Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review

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Anna Fedorova

Anna Fedorova, Blüthner Piano Series, St John’s Smith Square, Wednesday 17th January, 2018, reviewed by LESLIE JONES

Anna Fedorova began this well attended, all Chopin recital with the Ballade No 1 in G Minor Op. 23. There are introspective moments here, interspersed with powerful, forceful passages. As she acknowledged on Radio 3’s In Tune, on the previous evening, performing all four Ballades, as she did at St John’s, is an emotionally and physically draining experience, even without a German officer watching your every move*. But she invariably finished each piece with a flourish.

A child prodigy, Ms Fedorova was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1990. She attended a musical college for gifted children. At the age of seven, she made her national debut with a symphony orchestra. Both of her parents are professional musicians. She already has a formidable technique and an extensive repertoire. Having won numerous prizes, she is thankfully free now of the competition circuit.

One of Fedorova’s primary assets as a performer of Chopin is her ability to convey the complex and shifting moods of this sometimes tormented composer. Less can be more and Ms Fedorova knows when to desist and when to persist. The exquisite opening passage of Ballade No. 2 in F Op. 38 was particularly moving. The haunting, opening theme returns again towards the end of the piece.

One cavil, however –  there were arguably too many waltzes in this programme. Although these pieces are technically brilliant and showcase the pianist’s technique, unlike the ballades, they leave the listener cold.

[*see The Pianist, a film directed by Roman Polanski]

Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of QR

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