Tempo 2009

Peter Dickinson: Complete solo organ works.
Jennifer Bate (organ). Naxos 8.572169.
Peter Dickinson: Lullaby from The UnicornsMass of the ApocalypseLarkin’s JazzFive Forgeries; Five Early Pieces for PianoAirMetamorphosis. Naxos 8.572287.

The appearance of two CDs of the music of Peter Dickinson is especially welcome as a telling cross-section of the composer’s distinctive voice, his exuberant originality and willingness to challenge convention. Their release in 2009 marked the composer’s 75th birthday season, which saw some major live performances including a Prom organ recital and Wigmore Hall concert, as well as a new paperback edition (Boydell and Brewer) of his book about Lord Berners. It is fitting that Dickinson should be recognized alongside the 2009 ‘anniversary English composers’ Purcell and Handel, and his contemporaries Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies, for his remarkable contribution to the British musical scene, as composer, writer and pianist. As an author and academic he has introduced significant ideas about the interface of serious and popular styles, championing Lennox Berkeley and Billy Mayerl through his ground-breaking monographs. He has also brought to greater attention the riches of the American musical avant-garde, through founding a department at Keele University in the 1970s and creating a Master’s Degree at London University in the 1990s, authoring books about John Cage and espousing the popular idioms of blues and ragtime. Those interests have, since the 1950s, influenced his own rich compositional output, his distinctive technique of ‘style modulation’, and as his career as pianist and accompanist to his sister, the mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson. While a handful of CDs are already available of his song cycles and concertos for piano and organ (on the Albany label), Naxos have now provided a chance for listeners to become more fully acquainted with Dickinson’s refreshing oeuvre in a variety of genres including organ, played by the outstanding Jennifer Bate, and a mixed choral-vocal instrumental CD containing several première recordings, including two major works.

The two major works are from the mid- to late 1980s: the Mass of the Apocalypse (1984) and Larkin’s Jazz, a music-theatrical song-cycle of 1989. There are also earlier works which anticipate the later ones, from the 1950s and 60s, and some which have undergone transformations – such as the soulful Lullaby that opens the CD, a première recording of a 1986 flute and piano version of a song composed for his unfinished opera The Unicorns (1967), and two earlier short flute works of the 1950s. The power and delight of Dickinson’s Mass of the Apocalypse, composed for the 300th anniversary of St James’s Piccadilly, where the première took place in 1984, is its ability to challenge conventional boundaries: it is part Mass and part Music Theatre, a mixing which anticipates similar blurring of genres in the work of younger composers such as James Macmillan. In each of the five movements, the choral mass texts alternate with extracts from the Book of Revelation recited by a narrator (in this 1988 recording Rev. Donald Reeves). The very opening is arresting in its dramatic choral ‘muttering’ echoing the speaker’s text, the canvas swept through with wild marimba arpeggios, from which the English liturgy unfolds ‘Christ have mercy’, rising to a climax then receding. In the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ a driving ‘rock’ beat with the choir in block harmony in the outer sections chromatically rises to a climax, interspersed by the narrator with a high tingling piano, joined by the repeat of ‘Holy Holy Holy’. The accompaniment combines minimalist patterns with more complex harmony, while there are dramatic aleatory sections for percussion (glockenspiel) and high piano filigree.

That drama is contrasted by the atmospheric, hushed tableau of the ‘Agnus Dei’, the expressive heart of the work, its watery, bell-like sonorities cut through by the narrator’s rhythmic enunciation, spiced by low piano, vibraphone and tam-tam, counterpointed by the blues-like modality of the chorus. The beguiling soundscape, with dovetailed soprano and alto motifs resonantly receding into the distance, heightens the impact of the joyous Bernsteinesque ‘Gloria’ all the more, its minimalist zest and choral energy leading to a climactic ‘Amen’. Yet the Apocalyptic final word is the dark, mystical meditation of the ‘Ite Missa Est’, a remarkably eloquent epilogue in which subdued choral vocalise mingles uncannily with an exotic blend of marimba chords, resonating bass notes and tam-tam.

The song cycle Larkin’s Jazz is no less impressive for its unconventional design, its 11 contrasting sections assembled into a satisfying dramatic structure. Crucial to the cycle is the setting of four Philip Larkin poems in a contemporary equivalent of recitative – the motivation for which, as the composer explains in his accessible sleeve notes, was Larkin’s belief, as expressed to Dickinson, that his poetry was self-sufficient. The narrator here is the baritone Henry Herford, supported by the virtuoso Nash Ensemble in this première recording of the first performance in 1990. Each poem is framed by a Prelude and Commentary, sections which bring to the fore Dickinson’s music-theatrical techniques and distinctive ‘style modulation’ mixing seriousness with the allure of jazz, notably in the ingenious transformation of two classic jazz numbers of the 20s and 40s, by Sidney Bechet and King Oliver.

At the start, the solo trumpet in the Prelude to ‘Reasons for Attendance’ points up the opening line ‘The Trumpet’s Voice, loud and authoritative’, while the steady drum beat illustrates dancers who shift ‘Solemnly on the beat of happiness’. The poem itself is accompanied with atonal piano ripples and eerie cello harmonics, while in the Commentary, clarinet and piccolo engage in a sprightly duet, joined by strumming cello and bell-like percussion. In a similar modernist idiom is the third poem, ‘Love songs in age’, the Prelude to which features tone-rows in the piano’s bass and ensemble. The second and fourth poems contrast with overtly jazzy idioms. One of Larkin’s jazz favourites was Sidney Bechet, and in the Prelude to ‘For Sidney Bechet’ the clarinet, as one might expect, displays its vivid virtuoso obbligato, replete with drum kit and syncopated ensemble. The poem’s recitative is to an evocative solo alto flute (marked ‘style of Bechet’), framed by jingling chimes, while the ‘Commentary’ is a wild jam session led by saxophone. This leads to a climax and abrupt silence, for the hushed start of the serial Prelude to ‘Love songs in age’, which is followed by an expressionistic saxophone dominated texture. Only in the final poem and its framing section do we encounter overt quotation: King Oliver’s ‘Riverside Blues’ of 1923. Magical textures and cinematic distortions of the quotation meditate on the deeper philosophical aspects of the poetry.

The most recently-recorded work of the CD is the entertaining Five Forgeries for piano duet, played here deftly by John Flinders with the composer. Composed in 1963, they illustrate a nuanced form of musical impressionism, in the comic sense of taking on the voice of another: here the voices of Poulenc, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Delius and Bartók. Such refined fun shows Dickinson’s penetrating appreciation of those composers’ identifying features, and points to his ability to modulate between styles. Also making a first recorded appearance are Five Early Pieces, fluent essays composed in 1955–6 while the composer was organ scholar at Queens' College, Cambridge. Dickinson’s technical skill is equally well displayed in his organ music from those student days, as evinced in the CD of Complete Organ Works recorded stunningly by Jennifer Bate, on three different and notable London organs – the 1883 Willis from St Dominic’s Priory, the 1955 Harrison & Harrison of St James’ Muswell Hill and the 1963 Walker of St John’s, Duncan Terrace, Islington.

The oeuvre spans nearly 50 years from the introspective Howells-like A Cambridge Postlude of 1953, to the galvanic Millennium Fanfare (1999), and traces Dickinson’s own development from a Stravinskian neo classicism, and the influences of Ives and Satie, onwards to some really outlandish dramatic aesthetic as in the Meditation on ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ of 1958, the serially-influenced Study in Pianissimo (1959) and the minimalist Dirge (1963). Then there are refreshing colouristic essays such as Carillon (1964).

It was after the Organ Concerto, an ebullient, daring work from 1971, that Dickinson espoused jazz and ragtime in his music, further developing his interest in American idioms. Those influences are clearly evident in one of the most unusual highlights of the disc, the Blue Rose Variations of 1985, which was performed at a Birthday Prom by David Titterington at the Royal Albert Hall 25 July 2009. The theme, MacDowell’s famous ‘To a Wild Rose’, is transformed through various combinations of blues and ragtime, in a highly original, unexpected and often witty harmonic and rhythmic tapestry unique to the organ repertoire. The precisely-notated jazz syncopations of the initial blues-transformed theme, projected in a reedy solo, are echoed in the complex metrical shifts of the first variation for virtuoso pedal solo, the third, crunchy variation for full swell, and the agile fifth variation. In this superb recording, Jennifer Bate delightfully contrasts those with the more subdued second variation, a barrel-organ-ish rag with the pedal on two-foots and the playful, bouncy textures of the fourth variation. The set is brought to a rousing finish with the symphonic closing variation, the theme heard in swirling arpeggios and in pedal augmentation in the bass. Both CDs attest to Dickinson’s multi-faceted musical personality as composer, pianist and writer; his style maintains an individual freshness while also absorbing, reflecting and contributing to the currents and trends of his time. In celebrating his achievements on the occasion of his 75th birthday, one hopes that more performances and recordings of his still-unfamiliar major works will continue to materialize to bring his unique perspective to an ever wider audience.

Malcolm Miller Tempo, January 2010

© 2008-24 Estate of Peter Dickinson