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Peter DICKINSON (b.1934)
Piano Concerto (1979-84) [24:30]
Violin Concerto (1986) [22:26]
Organ Concerto (1971) [19:59]
Merseyside Echoes (1986)[8:41]
Howard Shelley (piano); Chloë Hanslip (violin);Jennifer Bate (organ)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/David Atherton (Piano Concerto;Organ Concerto); BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Clark Rundell (Violin Concerto;Merseyside Echoes)
rec.Town Hall, Watford, 30 January 1986(Piano Concerto); Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff,2-3 April 2014 (Violin Concerto; Merseyside Echoes);Royal Festival Hall, London, 31 January 1986 (Organ Concerto)

Merseyside Echoes is one of the best pieces of cross-over music that I have heard. Dickinson has written that this work, which is dedicated to his son Jasper, is a ‘tribute’ to The Beatles. It was commissioned in 1986 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and was first performed there that year. It takes the form of a ‘rondo’ where the main theme is a ‘fanfare’ derived from an early organ work with the episodes being the ‘songs’. There is no direct quotation of the Fab Four, nevertheless the two songs are a definite pastiche of the Lennon/McCartney genre. These melodies are presented simultaneously in an Ivesian ‘counterpoint’ before the final fanfare sees the work to a conclusion. This highlights the composer’s ability to work in dissimilar genres and sound-worlds. It is a composition that should appeal to all ‘baby-boomers’ and ought to be heard widely on radio and in the concert hall. It is a great place to begin an exploration of this CD.

A few notes about the composer will be of interest. Peter Dickinson celebrates his 80th birthday this year (2014) on 15 November. He was born in the Lancashire seaside town of Lytham St Annes. After Cambridge, where he was Organ Scholar at Queen’s College, he started to compose. With encouragement from Lennox Berkeley, he studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York in 1958. For the next three years he was a freelance performer and critic in the United States. On returning to the United Kingdom, Dickinson lectured at the College of St. Mark and St. John in Chelsea. In 1966 he moved to Birmingham University as Staff Tutor in Music. Dickinson was appointed the first professor of music at Keele University in 1974 where he founded the Centre for American Music. Between 1991 and 1997 he was professor at Goldsmith’s College and was latterly Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies at the University of London. Other appointments include being a board member of Trinity College of Music and chairman of the Rainbow Dickinson Trust.

Peter Dickinson has shown a strong interest in performing British and American music. He has often appeared as piano accompanist for his sister, the mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson (review). As a writer, Dickinson has published a number of important books including studies of Lennox Berkeley, Lord Berners, Samuel Barber and Billy Mayerl.

Dickinson’s musical style is well-defined as ‘eclectic’. Many of his works explore what would be regarded as ‘avant-garde’ techniques; other pieces are written in an immediately approachable manner. One of his more personal musical devices is ‘style modulation’ where ‘serious’ and popular styles are presented together. He has been inspired by ragtime, jazz and pop music. His tools of composition include electronic playback, serial music and traditional forms. Dickinson’s sound-signature is very much his own, however he has clear connections with Stravinsky, Satie and Charles Ives.

The Organ Concerto and the Piano Concerto were issued on CD in 1986 on HMV EL270439-1 and later on Albany Troy 360. These are the recordings re-released here. Merseyside Echoes and the Violin Concerto have been newly recorded for the present CD.

Peter Dickinson’s Organ Concerto dates from 1971 and is one of the finest examples of that genre I have heard. It was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival and dedicated to Simon Preston. The Concerto has been performed a number of times over the years with soloists including Christopher Robinson and the present recording with Jennifer Bate. The prime theme of this work is derived from a ‘blues’ setting that the composer made of Lord Byron’s ‘So we’ll go no more a-roving’. This song in turn made use of a passage from Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. The formal structure of the concerto is a single movement presented in nine hugely contrasting sections. The liner-notes give a detailed analysis of this work, however four things are worth saying. Firstly, the organ and orchestra are typically complementary rather than antagonistic. Secondly, the composer has used a number of unexpected effects – for example in the third section an organ two-foot stop plays a duet with a celesta. This is magical. There is a duet for two timpani over the organ’s rendition of the motto theme, first heard in the works opening bars. Thirdly, the climax of work is when the percussion manages to ‘obliterate’ the power of the organ. I believe this would sound terrifying in the concert hall. Finally, the music makes use of jazz, blues and more ‘traditional’ modernist musical harmonies and gestures. The concerto is at times beautiful, scary and mystical. Jennifer Bate is a tremendous advocate for this music. A masterpiece.

The Piano Concerto was completed thirteen years later and was dedicated to the present soloist Howard Shelley. It was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival. Like the Organ Concerto, this work is made up of contrasting sections rather than formal movements. There are a number of themes that are used as the building blocks of this concerto –a blues tune, a wayward toccata and a dirge. The ethos of the work is Dickinson’s trademark technique of contrasting ‘serious’ and ‘pop’ music both sequentially and simultaneously. A feature of this concerto is the ragtime ensemble (Track 10: Moderato). This is a deconstructed ‘rag’ which seems to ‘float in and out of earshot’. I understand that an ordinary upright piano is used in this section which has definite nods towards Malcolm Arnold. Yet this cool music is followed by a powerful outburst from orchestra which is dissonant, confused (presumably deliberately) and violent. Gradually, the music settles down and the concerto concludes with a quiet restrained presentation of the ‘blues’ theme. The genius of this work is the composer’s ability to amalgamate the various elements of the concerto without there being any sense of it being a mere patchwork of sundry ideas. A reviewer of this work (Gramophone, August 1996) suggests that the listener ‘sees one music through another’ as the concerto progresses. It is a good tool for approaching this excellent work.

The latest work on this CD is the Violin Concerto from 1986. This was commissioned by the BBC and written in memory of the British violinist Ralph Holmes. It was premièred by Ernst Kovacic with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Bryden Thomson. The inspiration for the concerto goes back to a performance that Holmes and Dickinson gave of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata in 1981. The composer has taken the principal subject of the first movement of this sonata and transformed it into, amongst other things, a 1930s popular song and a waltz. The formal structure is allegro-adagio-scherzo-finale in a single movement. In spite of the fact that Dickinson has presented what can only be called ‘swung Beethoven’ this not a ‘jazz’ or ‘pop’ concerto as such. It is another example of his ‘layering’ technique which seeks to synthesise a number of different musical styles. The more ‘approachable’ elements of this concerto are often brusquely pushed aside by more complex and ‘serious’ musical devices. The Violin Concerto displays a great understanding of the technical possibilities of the instrument as well as a masterly knowledge of orchestration.

This is a new recording of this work made at the Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff in April of this year (2014). The performance by Chloë Hanslip is stunning. Her repertoire includes Adams, Glass, Nyman, Maxwell Davies and Weill, so she is ideally prepared to perform this present work. She brings understanding and sympathy to this beautiful, sometimes ravishing and often moving concerto.

This is a fantastic CD from Heritage which showcases four superb works by Peter Dickinson. It is well-presented, superbly recorded and brilliantly performed by the soloists and orchestras. The liner-notes by the composer are detailed and essential for proactive listening. These works display Dickinson’s ability to write music that is at the same time approachable and challenging. His ability to fuse diverse musical styles is masterly. This is a fitting 80th birthday tribute to a great composer, performer, teacher and writer.

John France

© 2008-23 Estate of Peter Dickinson