Do we still think size matters, when it comes to the politically sour but musically rich 20th century? Raymond Clarke’s fine, enterprising and intelligently planned new recital begs the scale versus stature question, in offering thirty short, sharp films followed by two longer features from the studios of two well-known producers of tonal symphonies. Shostakovich and Panufnik were victims and survivors of their century’s long night, who retained dignity and promoted a sense of musical order in the decades after the terror, whether writing patiently of death in a still-frosty Soviet Union or, in Panufnik’s case, devising idealistic, symmetrical and symbolic musical structures in the unlikely, leafy-suburban surroundings of Twickenham, England, following his escape from Stalinist Poland in 1954.
Both were also, of course, talented pianists, right from the start. Clarke’s rigorous, strong, patient and thoughtful approach to the five surviving Preludes from the teenaged Shostakovich’s op. 2 brings Medtner to mind; the last Prelude, stylised as it night be, summons a world of feeling in a single breath. In the Three Fantastic Dances, though, Clarke’s performance, while perfectly valid and accurate, substitutes masculine strength and clarity for sensual fantasy.
By 1927 and the Ten Aphorisms, the voracious, butterfly-minded, hypersensitive and allusive young composer had combined the surreal incongruities of a Satie, a Duchamp or a Magritte with that youthful sensuality and fantasy. By the end of the Aphorisms’ thirteen minutes, in this vivid performance we feel we’ve enjoyed – rather than endured! – a far longer and more meaningful musical journey. I wonder what Richter or Paul Jacobs might have made of these pieces, but Clarke’s only serious competition remains imaginary, at present.
Quite different imaginings are suggested by Panufnik’s Twelve Miniature Studies in all the minor keys, written in Poland after the war but before the anti-formalist clampdown: thoughts of being hauled out of solitary confinement without warning to be suspended over a cliff from a hurtling train – then back again; a recurring nightmare. I can also imagine a very different view of the work, with greater capricious abandon, more obvious virtuosity and local colour or character in the fast studies. By the end, however, Clarke makes us feel we have experienced something more akin to a major Beethoven Sonata, than a string of Miniatures. It is an authentic, unsettling masterpiece of mid-century piano writing.
The Reflections and Pentasonata, each lasting about a quarter of an hour, come from a distant future time of exile unimagined by the composer of the war-torn miniatures that precede them on the disc. Clarke’s solemn dedication and power here put me in mind of the Copland Variations, and bode well for his forthcoming all-Copland CD.
Clarke fully exploits all the sustained power his Steinway “D” can offer, and the recording gives a reasonable impression of the instrument’s mighty sound. Shostakovich devotees will have to decide whether full price is justified for the sake of a fine op. 13, and a good op. 2, or whether they want to wait for the ultimate Aphorisms. But all admirers of Panufnik, or indeed of tonal piano music from the era in general, should hear this disc. I wouldn’t want to see concerns over tuning, voiced elsewhere regarding this CD, deter lovers of 20th century piano music from investigating Clarke’s latest, and very welcome release.