When I first received this CD I dreaded that is might be another example of music inspired – if that is the word – by the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. In spite of his popularity, he is a composer that leaves me utterly cold. To parody Stravinsky’s comment on Vivaldi, he appears to have written the same piano piece at least three score times. The New-Age blend or fusion of minimalism and pop is something that I cannot come to terms with. I was wrong. David Jennings is a composer who is beholden to no-one in spite of a number of trajectories in his musical language. His is serious, well-structured music that I can do business with. More to the point, many of these pieces are not only impressive, but are interesting, satisfying and often moving. No listener or composer could wish for more.
This present CD represents David Jennings’ complete ‘musical offering’ for piano – so far. The earliest work is the impressive Piano Sonata, Op.1 which was written back in the 1980s. The most recent pieces are virtually ‘hot off the press’ having been composed in 2009/10.
The composer’s website gives a brief biography, however three things can be said that will help the potential listener approach this music. Firstly, David Jennings is a Yorkshireman, having been born in Sheffield in 1972. Nevertheless, he has crossed the Pennines on a number of occasions including study at Manchester University with John Casken and his membership of the Lakeland Composer’s group.
Secondly, Jennings has had a wide range of musical and non-musical influences. He has a great interest in art, especially the 19 th century English water-colourists – which he feels are ‘an inspiring marriage of technique and expression’. It is a quality that he exhibits in his music. The composer is stimulated by the North Country landscape, particularly Yorkshire and Northumberland. From a musical perspective, I mentioned ‘trajectories.’ These include Frederick Delius, Kenneth Leighton, Gershwin and Frank Bridge. In the Sonata I felt that the ghost of Sorabji was haunting some of the music.
The first piece I listened to came as a wee bit of a revelation. I noted above that I feared music by an Einaudi groupie. Nothing could be further from this with the Prelude and Fugue, Op.6. The Prelude uses twelve-tone procedures throughout. This section of the work was composed in 1992 ‘as a response to newer musical influences encountered at university’. The Fugue had to wait a number of years before being written, with the complete work being issued in 2010. The Prelude is written in a lyrical form of serialism that also hints at jazz. Whereas the Fugue is a tightly knit piece that is austere and musically sarcastic. To my ear the fugue subject metaphorically ‘sticks out its tongue’.
Next, I decided to listen to the Three Sonatinas, Op.2. These miniatures were composed in the late nineteen-eighties, when the composer was still in his teens, although they have been subjected to a little ‘mature’ revision. David Jennings suggests that they belong to the tradition of Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen . However, like the German master they are a considered balance of innocence and subtlety. Nowhere is there any suggestion that they are children’s pieces. These are urbane and nostalgic pieces and never become mawkish. Technically, they appear to be demanding and are always musically satisfying. Finally, David Jennings has wisely chosen to cast this set as ‘sonatinas’ rather than ‘character pieces’: they deserve to be listened to as a ‘cycle’ and in the order presented on this disc. For the record, my favourite ‘piece’ is the beautifully written Nocturne from Sonatina No.2.
The longest work on this CD is the Piano Sonata, Op.1 which was composed around 1988 when the composer was ‘nobbut a lad’! However, it is a magnificently impressive work for an Opus 1, in spite of a little tinkering in 1995. This is a big work in all senses of the word – lasting over twenty minutes, the music fills out a grand canvas with its musical invention. I was reminded of Sorabji in this work. Not so much in the sound of the piece but in the ethos. The Sonata exhibits a certain waywardness in the working out of themes – they seem to me to be derived by a sort of continuous development rather than straightforward eight bar themes. Much of musical background is complex: impressionistic colouring is used. There is considerable ornamentation featured in these pages. The music sounds difficult to play. The harmonies, although largely post-romantic in their effect are wilful. Finally there is a mystical quality to much of this music that could be derived from a sense of landscape. Some of these attributes often feature in Sorabji’s massive musical canvases.
The opening Ballade is deceptively serene but soon becomes somewhat more aggressive in its tone. The jazz-coloured Scherzo is as dry as a bone – but infinitely varied and intricate as it explores a variety of time signatures. The third movement, a ‘romance’ is deeply felt. This is introspective music that explores considerable depths. Jennings well describes this as consolatory music and he is correct. There is a little relief in the ‘trio’ section; however the dominant mood is restored towards the conclusion. Finally, the ‘Finale’ is cast as a rondo. This is a noisy, splashy piece, which explores a number of moods including jazz. There are a couple of episodes that present a mood of calm, but the prevailing exuberance wins the day.
I loved this Sonata. It is surely one of the best examples to have come from the pen of a British composer for many years.
The Miniature Suite, Op.18 is a wonderful piece of Bach parody. The composer’s aim has been to recreate ‘aspects of Baroque style in an updated form.’ The opening ‘Prelude’ is a little ‘toccata’, which nods to a well-known J.S.B. war-horse. Amusingly, the liner-notes suggest that the composer was inspired to write the ‘Air’ after watching a ‘remarkably lazy cat going in and out of slumber.’ The third movement is a little ‘Invention’ that has some un-Bachian twists and turns. This is followed by a gorgeous ‘Romance’ which was inspired by a walk along the equally lovely Lancaster Canal: it is the most substantial movement. The Suite concludes with a well-contrived fugue, which brings this ‘modern’ piece to a rollicking conclusion. Jennings does seem to be rather good at writing fugues – which is a breath of fresh air in the post-modernist age in which we live.
The final entry is the important and impressive Harvest Moon Suite, Op.19. This six movement work was inspired by six nineteenth century watercolours. However, it is not a North Country Pictures at an Exhibition : Mussorgsky’s music was largely dramatic, whereas Jennings has opted for a romantic, lyrical and often reflective mood. It is here that I am reminded of York Bowen, although the composer assures me that he had only heard a handful of pieces by this composer before he set to work on the score. I believe that it is the subtle balance between bitter and sweet and romantic that suggests this similarity. The musical pictures include Aira Force , The Haunted Abbey and Harlech Castle . It is a very lovely sequence.
This is a beautifully produced CD in every manner. The sound quality is outstanding, with each nuance of the music being clear. The programme is considerable in both scale and concept: the ‘complete piano works’ lasting over 78 minutes. The interpretation of these pieces by James Willshire is everything that could be wished. I loved the painting by Edward Richardson of ‘A Castle in Yorkshire’ – although it is not too close to the composer’s native heath. In fact, it is Barden Tower in Wharfedale. This was a place beloved of Frederick Delius and has latterly become one of Jennings haunts too. The liner-notes by David Jennings are well judged and helpful.
This is a CD of piano music that is inspiring and challenging. I have noted one or two musical signposts in the course of this review. However, I do want to point out that David Jennings has discovered his own voice. It is, as Jomar de Vrind has noted, a successful balance between not being ‘ridiculously reactionary and horrendously modern’. One can but hope that there are many more inspired piano works to emerge over the coming years. In addition, I would love to hear some of works in other genres, such as the Lincoln Imp for Orchestra, the Oboe Sonata and the String Quartet.
(chosen as one of John France’s 5 Recordings of the Year 2013 with this extra text):
David Jennings is a composer who is beholden to no-one (in spite of a number of trajectories in his musical language). It is serious, well-structured music that I can do business with. And, more to the point, many of these pieces are not only impressive, but are interesting, satisfying and often moving. No listener (or composer) could wish for more.
This wonderful collection of American #pianosonatas is our #albumofthemonth. Elliot Carter described Peter Seivewright’s performance of his work as ‘most remarkable and breathtaking’. divineartrecords.com…
RT @scottishmusic 19 January @scottishmusic member Marcus Blunt new album Orchestral Works out via @DivineArtRecord feat. @MurrayMcPiano Lesley Wilson, @MancCamerata and Stephen Threlfall pre-order: ow.ly/HmcF30hGXCu FREE CONCERT, talk, Q&A 31 January @ForsythMusic > ow.ly/XqQp30hGXB4 pic.twitter.com/PnXB…