Raymond Clarke’s commitment to 20 th century music is in no doubt and here he ranges over a variety of “mainstream moderns” in music for children (and less experienced older pianists). The opening Bartók selection is a wistful group and An Evening at the Village, one of his most evocative mini tone poems, comes off particularly well though without the composer’s extreme rubato. The album ends with some of Bartók’s more turbulent pieces, rounding the disc off with a deliberately clumsy march.
One or two of Stravinsky’s Cinq Doigts have a slightly mechanistic quality but that’s at least partly down to the composer. Prokofiev too had his motoric side, but in these pieces it’s played down (little hands are hardly ready for something akin to the Toccata!), which isn’t to say that there aren’t some lively moments. The important thing is to set the mood almost immediately and Clarke mostly succeeds though there’s a hint of defiance in Regrets.
There is also a rare chance to hear some piano music by Khachaturian. Pictures from Childhood from 1947 includes My Friend is Unwell, strikingly evocative of a child’s experience of grief, and the gently withdrawn A Glimpse of the Ballet, a two-part transcription of the Adagio from Gayaneh, while underneath all the activity the Study has some Spartacus-like harmony, as does the following Legend. The pieces themselves are variable, sometimes a little anonymous, but on this showing Khachaturian’s piano music could bear some more investigation. He wrote sixteen other pieces for children and a spattering of other piano works.
In the CD’s most striking contrast this is followed by Copland’s Young Pioneers, a sign of solidarity with the Soviets, but ironically it takes only a few notes to identify it as the work of an American musician and then to home in on Copland. The semi-hymning In the Evening Air, one of Copland’s last pieces, is equally typical. Wrenching us back across the Atlantic is Webern’s Kinderstück. Though not intended as an introduction to analysis, the serial technique is elementary but the usual Webernian minefield of performing instructions would merely bewilder many children. Clarke of course has the experience to make sense of the unperformable and while work won’t enter the slender body of Webern’s regularly performed pieces it is interesting to hear how he thought the technique could be applied to children’s music.
After its publication, Shostakovich had second thoughts about his Children’s Notebook, and when he recorded it in 1946 he swapped the third and fifth pieces around and added the then unpublished Birthday. Op. 69 was a celebration for daughter Galina, despite her managing only to première the first piece before stumbling, at which point dad took over. Most pianists follow the published order, tagging Birthday onto the end but Clarke follows the composer’s re-formed cycle of fifths, leading him to speculate that Shostakovich was planning a cycle of 24 but abandoned it when he realised that the later key signatures might prove too hard for the young. Reinforcing his theory, Clarke adds the little Murzilka that Shostakovich wrote around this time and which fits into the new key scheme. It’s a weird moto perpetuo that looks back to his earlier style of piano writing before coming to an abrupt halt. Whether Clarke’s theory is proved right (perhaps there are more pieces awaiting discovery?) it certainly fits well and brings the newly enlarged cycle to a satisfying close.
The difficulty in discussing music for children is that technically and emotionally it can lack depth, though much of this disc proves that this is not invariably so. But what can be said about Shostakovich’s March, just thirty seconds long and apparently of no musical interest? Obviously this isn’t biting satire, but we can simply enjoy its brainlessness. Clockwork Doll reworks (again) the Scherzo, Op.1, compacting it down to less than a minute, while the fanfares that open Birthday would do service again in the Festive Overture. All this bespeaks works that were tossed off in a spare minute or so, but they’re enjoyable enough to warrant an occasional return visit, especially in Clarke’s hands.
Some of Divine Art’s records have been marred by imperfect tuning; but not here, perhaps because the smaller, lighter pieces tested the piano less. The recording is slightly recessed. It is a mystery why it has taken over two years to be released. Clarke’s own notes are a real bonus, discussing the pieces from the inside, and explaining some of the (relative) stumbling blocks. Obviously the Shostakovich is only a small part of the disc; just 6:29 out of 77:18; but few would make that their sole purchasing criterion. The range of styles on display ensures that the disc never outstays its welcome, though with 52 tracks, none even reaching four minutes, there’s an occasional feeling of short-windedness. Perhaps dipping in is the way to enjoy it.