Friday 20 December 2019

A striking voice revealed: piano music by Janet Graham spanning nearly 40 years

North East Hauntings - Janet Graham, Aleksander Szram - Prima Facie
Janet Graham Piano Music; Aleksander Szram; Prima Facie
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A striking voice revealed on this disc of piano music spanning nearly 40 years from contemporary composer Janet Graham

Janet Graham is not a well known name, and the music on the disc of piano music may well be entirely unfamiliar to listeners, but is well worth getting to know. Under the title North East Hauntings on the Prima Facie label, pianist Aleksander Szram has put together a programme of Graham's music spanning nearly 40 years from Persephone from 1980 to Sonata from 2017.

Graham is a further example of a woman composer whose career changes mid-life, and then who comes back to composition and you think of other women composers like Erika Fox [see my review] whose music has been rediscovered recently.

Janet Graham studied composition with James Iliff at the Royal Academy of Music (1966-1971), and with Elizabeth Lutyens, and then had a promising career as a young composer. In 1989, after working voluntarily in a psychiatric hospital, she re-trained as a music therapist. It was only after retiring from music therapy in 2013 that she started to compose regularly again. In an article in the CD booklet, Graham talks about the way, in music therapy, she was encouraged to explore music beyond the standard syllabus and to improvise, so that other influences have crept into her more recent work. That said, Graham's music remains atonal and remarkably bold and confident.

Many of the pieces on the disc were written for the pianist Anthony Green, who played Graham's music regularly since the mid-1970s and in fact Aleksander Szram is a former student of Green's. Szram, who is a senior teaching fellow at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, makes something of a speciality of contemporary repertoire, having recorded music by Daryl Runswick, Douglas Finch [see my review], Kenneth Hesketh [see my review], Edward Gregson [with recorder player Jill Kemp, see my review] and David Lumsdaine [see my review].

Listening to the disc, despite the wide time span covered by the music, we can hear a consistency of approach from Graham. She thinks that her more recent work has become 'softer-edged' and indeed the Sonata of 2017 includes a folk-song from the North-East (Graham was born in County Durham and currently lives there).

We start with Sonata, the first large-scale work that Graham wrote since the 1990s. She undertook it as something of a challenge for herself, to create a single movement work and it is impressive indeed. The opening is bold and uncompromising, and throughout there is a consistency of approach from Graham but also a slightly romantic feel. The music might be atonal, but there is an expressionist feel to the outlines and just as Berg songs can be atonal and romantic, this music is too. The structure is very free, and perhaps we are aware that she composes by improvising at the piano but that very method gives her music an expressive fluidity.

Persephone (1980) is the earliest piece on the disc and is inspired by the Greek myth of Persephone, with part one evoking, very successfully, the darkness of the underworld and part two gradually bringing us to the light and the coming of Spring. It is a very dramatic and direct work, quite uncompromising in its voice. And this is something that it shares with Iris (1984), another Greek myth-inspired work where Iris is the personification of the rainbow and Juno's messenger (Iris is a character in Handel and Congreve's Semele). The final work of this mythic trio from the 1980s is Hecate, a minor goddess who was the teacher and protector of witches, ghosts and sorcerers (she plays a minor role in some versions of Shakespeare's Macbeth), so expect drama.

Next follows a pair of more recent piano works, both from 2002, 80 notes for James and Piano Piece; the first a 80th birthday present for her former teacher, James Illife, and the second for pianist Anthony Green. Both show that, despite the gap of years and the concentration on music and songs for music therapy, Graham's voice was still the same.

The disc's title track, and perhaps its most intriguing work, is North East Hauntings from 2015, a sequence of four short pieces which are intended to evoke memories and lost landscapes of the North East where Graham grew up. Here she puts her technique to descriptive use, so that though the musical material is often similar to earlier works we can hear its descriptive elements, and there are fragments of folk melody too, notably Oh bonny's my lad as he walks down the street in 'Lullaby for Lost Skylines'.

For the final work on the disc we return to 'pure music'. If we opened with Graham's recent Sonata then we close with her Sonatina of 1985. But there is nothing small about this work, it lasts slightly longer than the Sonata but is divided explicitly into four shorter movements, thus providing contrast and interest. It is evidently the most challenging work in the programme, yet you do not gain that impression from Szram's performance.

He plays the music with a genuine sense of engagement and a feel for Graham's style. I do hope that this disc encourages other pianists to explore Graham's repertoire and I wonder what other pieces she has hidden.

Janet Graham (born 1948) - Sonata (2017)
Janet Graham - Persephone (1980)
Janet Graham - Iris (1984)
Janet Graham - Hecate (1983)
Janet Graham - 80 notes for James (2002)
Janet Graham - Piano Piece (2002)
Janet Graham - North East Hauntings (2015)
Janet Graham - Sonatina (1985)
Aleksander Szram (piano)
Recorded at Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton, 13 August 2019
Available from Amazon.

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