Wednesday 2 August 2023

About the journey not the starting point: in Transfigurations, pianist Duncan Honeybourne explores Phillip Cooke's recent works, creating little pieces of magic from base metal

Transfiguration: piano works by Philip Cooke; Duncan Honeybourne; Prima Facie
Transfiguration: piano works by Phillip Cooke; Duncan Honeybourne; Prima Facie

Recent piano works from contemporary composer Philip Cooke where he transforms the every day into something completely magical, 35 generally short movements, each a gem

The works on this disc of composer Phillip Cooke's piano music from Duncan Honeybourne (on Prima Facie) came about because during 2020 Cooke, who is professor of composition at the University of Aberdeen, felt at something of a loss and writing a short piece for Honeybourne was one of the few times he had felt creative. That short piece was based on the folksong, The Turtle Dove and this led to Cooke's Folksongs, which he describes as reimaginings of folksongs and in turn led to other works where pre-existing material was transfigured, hence the recital's title, Transfigurations. The disc features a lot of Cooke's recent work, and most of the pieces explore the idea of transfiguring material from one state to another. 

Cooke describes transfiguration as 'a complete change of material from one form into a more beautiful or spiritual state' and that is what he is exploring on this disc. It is not so much the transformation of pre-existing musical material, which is after all something that happens a lot in music, but the idea that the transformed music is in a different state, and in many of these short pieces there is an element of the spiritual or perhaps the magical.

We begin with Three Wistful Tunes in Modal Hues, part of what Cooke describes as an ongoing series of impromptus and where simple melodic material is transformed. These are charming pieces, by turns gentle and evocative (and definitely wistful), dark yet lyrical, urgent and somewhat anxious, each piece is a study in a particular mood. Three Sad Dances in Triple Time come from the same set of impromptus, and they exist in the same sound world, gently melancholy, anxious yet lyrical, and almost memorably melodic, they are less about the material being transformed and more about the final journey.

The Songs of Morning and Night transform snippets of well-known melodies into something different, the songs of the morning (aubades) exploring the lower registers of the piano and the songs of the night (nocturnes) exploring the upper. Each aubade is darkly effective and rather mysterious, these are not bright mornings but something more disturbing. Cooke does not say what the well-known melodies are and, frankly, I did not feel that it mattered. For the nocturnes, Cooke describes himself as channelling Bartok's night music, but he is very much his own man. The first is beautifully haunting, this night is far more attractive than the preceding three mornings, and the second two continue this mood, to create a trio of highly evocative and imaginative pieces.

National Anthems features the transformation of four different national anthems into something more complex. Though linked to the transfiguration project, these are longer, more complex pieces. Perhaps fun is to be had from considering what the national anthems are, but again in these pieces it is the journey that is most important rather than the starting point. There is nothing nationalist or jingoistic or ironic about this music (unlike the Charles Ives piece, say), and instead Cooke gives us four rather imaginative and rather wonderful pieces. None of them is particularly positive, each one takes a side-long glance at the original material, creating something difficult to grasp which constantly slips out of focus and each, in the end, simply evaporates. Pure magic.

Then comes Folksongs, the 12 movements that began Cooke's transfiguration journey. Here we have The Oak and the Ash, The Turtle Dove, Strawberry Fair, Brigg Fair, O Waly Waly, Sheep Crook and Black Dog, Scarborough Fair, D'Ye Ken John Peel, The Lark in the Morn, The Man of the River, Green Grow the Rushes O, and Three Ravens. The choice of folksong seems to relate to Cooke's knowledge of them, evidently they were chosen for the ones he encountered when growing up, though The Man of the River is in fact a transformation of Cooke's own pastiche!

There is something rather magical about these pieces, often the original tune hardly matters because Cooke has created something so beautiful and evocative from it. Generally, each starts from a statement of the tune and grows, often by accretion. The sound world is gentle and evocative, with note clusters hanging round the melodies to create. Some stay close, whilst others, like Brigg Fair seem to exist in another, more magical world. The upper register of the piano comes in for lot of use, the image of distant bells is a recurring one. The results make the familiar into something half-heard, distant yet profoundly evocative.

Theme and Transfigurations is Cooke's final transfiguration project, where he takes a piece of his from 2013 and transfigures it in five different ways. Theme is short, rhythmic and remarkably jazzy, but the transfigurations demonstrate its possibilities. The first is gentle and somewhat full of romantic melancholy, the second begins as something rather watery and evocative before things turn darker and more disturbing, the third is lyrically flowing yet highly complex, the fourth is thoughtful with some lovely complex harmonies, whilst the final one is, perhaps inevitably, more dramatic and more showily pianistic, a bravura end to an intriguing take on a theme and variations.

The final work on the disc is a short, early composition from 2003 that has gone through various versions and is heard here in a piano transcription from 2017. It is a substantial short work, over six minutes long, rather melancholy and touching with some lovely harmonies.

The disc gives little away, Cooke's titles for the movements (Folksongs apart) are all purely descriptive, he give no external clues about the original material. For all the pieces on the disc, the music is about the transformation, the transfiguration; this is about the journey, not the starting point and the results are often, as I have said, rather magical. Honeybourne seems completely in tune to the composer's idiom, and gives each one of these short studies his complete focus, creating a series of complex and engaging sound worlds that satisfies.

Transfiguration: piano music by Phillip Cooke (born 1980)
Three Wistful Tunes in Modal Hues (2022)
Three Sad Dances in Triple Time (2022)
Songs of Morning and Night (2022)
National Anthems (2022)
Folksongs (2019-2021)
Theme and Transfigurations (2022)
Elegy (2003, arr. 2017)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
Recorded at Holy Trinity Church, Hereford on 13/14 November 2022

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