Wednesday 26 February 2020

Spareness, clarity, quirkiness: William Howard plays Howard Skempton

Howard Skempton Preludes and Fugues, Nocturnes, Reflections, Images; William Howard; Orchid Classics
Howard Skempton Preludes and Fugues, Nocturnes, Reflections, Images; William Howard; Orchid Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Distilled, pared down and quirky, Skempton's 24 preludes and fugues are gems

The pieces on this new disc of Howard Skempton's music on Orchid Classics are tiny, 58 movements in all lasting 72 minutes; some movements as short as under 40 seconds. Pianist William Howard plays Skempton's 24 Preludes and Fugues (2019) alongside Images (1989), Three Nocturnes (1995) and Reflections (1999/2002).

During a 70th birthday profile of Skempton in 2017, I remember him talking about how the difficulty wasn't in writing the music but in working out what could be left out. Skempton's early work arose out of the tradition of John Cage, Morton Feldman and Terry Riley. But he has developed a distinctive voice where apparent simplicity conceals something more. I would hardly call the music on this disc austere or minimal, but it is pared down and distilled. Pianist William Howard says in his introduction that 'the only time these pieces might ever seem easy is when you are sight-reading them. As soon as you start practising them the challenge begins ... every note, chord and gesture must be perfectly calibrated'.

The 24 Preludes and Fugues were written with a deliberate element of restriction, each movement was to fit on a sheet of A4, the preludes relatively quick and strictly canonic and each fugue derives its material from the prelude. Whilst the Preludes and Fugues of Bach and of Shostakovich are clearly an inspiration, Skempton finds his own way, notably each fugue includes modulations which takes it within striking distance of the key of the next movement, so that we have a seamless progression through the keys (C major, C sharp minor, D major, E flat minor, ... A major, B flat minor, B major).

The stripped-back-ness of the music means that Skempton does not feel the need to write more than is essential, some movements stop apparently in mid-air, Skempton having said all he feels he needs to. There is a spareness and a clarity to this music, combined with a sheer quirkiness which makes it appealing. Within his chosen restrictions, Skempton finds inordinate expressive variety, all beautifully rendered by Howard; Skempton famously does not include much in the way of instruction in his music, leaving it to the performer. Skempton describes the restriction he placed on the pieces as being playful, and he has certainly crafted an intriguing and engaging journey.

Skempton's Three Nocturnes were commissioned by the BBC as part of British Music Year 1995. The first is one of the longest pieces on the disc at over 3 minutes, and if you detect a hint of late-night jazz you are not wrong, Skempton wanted to capture the atmosphere of Ronnie Scott's, late night after hours. This, surprisingly, adds something of a romantic glow to the music.

Reflections was written for William Howard over a period from 1999 to 2001, and in his booklet note Skempton talks about how they may have originally been intended to follow (but did not) a now forgotten plan. The music here has a clarity and elegance to it, each piece feels more like a complete work whereas the Preludes and Fugues seem like coherent fragments which build up into a whole.

Finally, on the disc comes the earliest work, Images from 1989, a group of 20 pieces, eight Preludes, eight Interludes, two Songs, Variations and a Postlude, but the performer is encouraged to create their own running order and Howard begins with the lyrically melodic Song 2.

What is fascinating, on this disc, is the way that Skempton has travelled such a long journey as a composer, from Images in 1989 to 24 Preludes and Fugues in 2019, whilst remaining always Howard Skempton. This is music of great charm, imagination and simplicity; in a world where classical music is either seen as too complex or is accused of dumbing down, we should treasure Skempton's approach. William Howard says that he has loved and performed Skempton's music for over 30 years, and this shows in these fine performances.
Howard Skempton (born 1947) - 24 Preludes and Fugues (2019)
Howard Skempton - Three Nocturnes (1995)
Howard Skempton - Reflections (1999/2001)
Howard Skempton - Images (1989)
William Howard (piano)
Recorded at the church of St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, 22-24 August 2019

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