Tuesday 12 October 2021

To enter this music is to enter a different world, one that you wonder why you never discovered it earlier: Martin Jones plays Elisabeth Lutyens' piano music on Resonus Classics

Elisabeth Lutyens: Piano Works, Volume 1; Martin Jones; Resonus Classics

Elisabeth Lutyens: Piano Works, Volume 1
; Martin Jones; Resonus Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 October 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Five piano works by Lutyens spanning the final decade of her life; serialist and uncompromising, yes, but also highly poetic, often spare and often profound

Who knew that Elisabeth Lutyens' music could be so romantic. Lutyens has something of a reputation, partly from hear espousal of serialist techniques when most British composers still shied away from them, and partly from her trenchant, no-nonsense attitudes - she coined the phrase "cow-pat school" to describe the 20th century English pastoral school - that shaded into belligerence. Yet she has always had admirers, as well as some significant pupils including Malcolm Williamson, Richard Rodney Bennett, Brian Elias and Robert Saxton. But during the final decade of her life she was resigned to composing "for myself, for my friends and to pass the time".

It is the fruits of Elisabeth Lutyens' final decade that are on display in volume one of Martin Jones' Elisabeth Lutyens: Piano Works on Resonus Classics, a disc which includes Seven Preludes for Piano, Op. 126, The Great Seas, Op. 132, Five Impromptus, Op. 116, Plenum I, Op. 86 and La natura dell'Acqua, Op. 154.

Elisabeth Lutyens, February 1939 (Photo National Portrait Gallery)
Elisabeth Lutyens, February 1939
(Photo National Portrait Gallery)
Lutyens was the daughter of architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and his wife, Lady Emily (neé Bulwer-Lytton, daughter of the Earl of Lytton who was Viceroy of India), and by the time she was in her mid-teens she was studying at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, but 1922 saw a trip to India with her mother (who was heavily involved in the Theosophist movement). Lutyens subsequently studied with John Foulds and then Harold Darke at the Royal College of Music, but her outlook was always European, being drawn to Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School though much later she was tell her Robert Saxton that is was the fantasias of Purcell which 'started me off on the idea of serial music'. 

We begin with Seven Preludes for Piano which were commissioned by Jeremy Brown and premiered by him at Wigmore Hall in 1978. Each prelude has a highly poetic and descriptive subtitle, 'Whose name was writ in water', 'Night Winds' &c. all of which are linked to the poet John Keats. And the music, for all its complexity and toughness, has a wonderful sense of poetry and clarity. The harmonic density of the serialism is belied by the spareness of the writing and the sheer feel for poetic gesture that Lutyens seems to have. The seven preludes are finely contrasted, none particularly long and each one poetically evocative. 

The Great Seas dates from just a year after, it was premiered by the composer Michael Finnissy at the British Music Information Centre in 1979. Again there is a freedom here, and a spareness of texture. The results are highly atmospheric and again we seem to be conjuring up a highly poetic scene. As we listen to this music, it is worthwhile remembering that as well as writing quite dense concert music, Lutyens ran a second (far more lucrative career) writing music for films, notably British horror films from studios such as Hammer Horror (her own favourite being The Skull from 1965, "When the skull strikes, you'll scream!"). And whilst the writing here is far from the blood curdling tension of the film music, the idea of depicting a scene is not so far distant. The Great Seas is a little over 15 minutes long, and is a long arc of gorgeousness, spiky textures, uncompromising serialist harmony, elegant sparseness and poetic gestures.

Five Impromptus were commissioned by Roger Woodward and written in 1977, but Woodward never seems to have played them and their first performance took place in 2018 when Nicolas Hodges played them at Wigmore Hall. Writing about that concert in the Guardian, Andrew Clements said they were "typically supple, gritty miniatures, notated without barlines to emphasise their rhythmic freedom, and only occasionally touching down on solid tonal ground", going on to say "nothing is wasted and every gesture is pared down to its functional minimum".

Elisabeth Lutyens
Elisabeth Lutyens
I have to say that I don't find them 'gritty', uncompromising yes, with harmonies which have real bite, but the sound-world here seems a long way from gritty. The music perhaps has a bit more edge to it and less sense of the misty poetry than the 1978 and 1979 pieces above, but there is instead a rhetorical feel about it, a clear sense of philosophical point to the discourse. 

Plenum I is another substantial single-movement work, the first of a set of four pieces for different instrumental combinations written in the mid-1970s. Plenum I for solo piano dates from 1972, premiered by Katharina Wolpe (the pianist daughter of composer Stefan Wolpe) and again the score has no barlines and a great use of silence. For a composer renowned for her combative and uncompromising attitudes, Lutyens certainly knew when to shut up and when to pare her art down to the minimum. There is a freedom here and a beautiful elegance to the writing as lines and notes emerge from nowhere, it must be a wonderful work to hear in the right acoustic. 

The final work on the disc is La Natura dell'Acqua, her last work for piano which was written in 1981. Silence is again a key here, with silences fully notated into the score, a work which has a certain stripped down purity, clarity and austerity.

What is remarkable about this disc is that three of works (The Great Seas, Five Impromptus, Plenum I are receiving their world premiere recordings). Martyn Jones' performances are revelatory, his brings a lovely combination of technical skill, toughness and poetry to the music. The uncompromising nature of Lutyens' harmonic world is not disguised, yet Jones' also brings out the astonishing clarity and poetry of her musical gestures. To enter this music is to enter a different world, one that you wonder why you never discovered it earlier. 

Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983) - Seven Preludes for Piano, op. 126
Elisabeth Lutyens - The Great Seas, Op. 132
Elisabeth Lutyens - Five Impromptus, Op.116
Elisabeth Lutyens - Plenum I, Op. 86
Elisabeth Lutyens - La natura dell'Acqua, Op. 154
Martin Jones (piano)
Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 28 April 2021

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