Thursday 8 February 2024

Diagrams & sonatas: discs of solo piano music Arvo Pärt and Ivor Gurney, neither composer well-known for writing in the genre

Ivor Gurney: Piano Sonatas 1 & 3, Adagio from Piano Sonata 2, Five Preludes; George Rowley; Naxos
Ivor Gurney: Piano Sonatas 1 & 3, Adagio from Piano Sonata 2, Five Preludes; George Rowley; Naxos
Arvo Pärt: Diagrams, complete music for piano; Tähe-Lee Liiv; ERP
Reviewed 29 January 2024

Two contrasting discs of piano music by 20th century composers who are not known for their work in the genre, highlighting our partiality when it comes to looking at repertoire

It is fascinating how fixated on a particular genre we can be with some composers. Sometimes this has to do with availability, until some brave editor makes the music available in a viable edition then with the best will in the world, the composer's recorded output might be a bit partial. But also, it seems that we do rather like pigeon-holing. 

Two discs from last year rather emphasised this, and both proved admirable showcases for a pair of talented young pianists. British pianist George Rowley recorded of Ivor Gurney's three Piano Sonatas and Five Preludes for Naxos, and Estonian pianist Tähe-Lee Liiv recorded of Arvo Pärt's complete music for piano, Diagrams, for ERP.

In 1918, Ivor Gurney was discharged from the army, after being gassed at Paschendaele, and returned to the Royal College of Music where, over the next four years, he wrote music at an astonishing rate including three string quartets (has anyone actually recorded these), three violin sonatas, two major orchestral works along with a symphony that is now lost, 185 songs (!) plus music for solo piano.

Amongst the music in this haul were nine piano preludes, of which five were selected for publication and form the opening set on Rowley's disc. They are something of a surprise. By the time they were written (1919 to 1920), Gurney had been writing music for some 15 years and produced songs that are now well-known. Yet here, we have another sound-world. Shorn of the superstructure of text, Gurney's piano writing is remarkably influenced by Schumann and perhaps a touch of Chopin. Not pastiche by any long chalk, simply evoking that world yet with a plethora of delightful touches. These are five characteristic pieces, and you wonder why pianists do not scatter a few in their recitals.

Gurney's Piano Sonata No.1 dates from 1910. It is a big work, over 25 minutes, large-scale and passionately Romantic; underlying it you sense the thread that links the composer to his first teacher at the RCM, Stanford and from him to Brahms, whom Stanford much admired. It is nothing like, but the piece makes you consider the music of Ethel Smyth, another German influenced composer who brought her music into the 20th century to distinctive effect. In three movements, the second is the longest, most complex and most ambitious, whilst the finale seems to refer back to earlier movements in its plethora of material. An ambitious work, then, but the composer was only 20!

Piano Sonata No. 3 seems far more assured, but then it dates from 1919. The first movement abandons strict sonata form and its sound world is far more the complex, chromaticism that we might expect from an English composer in the period. Though the sound world of the two works is different, they have in common a profusion of ideas, the sense that Gurney wrote in white heat, letting ideas flow, and there is a similar freedom to the structure. The second movement, is slow and rather intense and rather magical; the sonata deserves to be performed simply for this music's dark, austere magic.

Piano Sonata No. 2 never quite came off. He was working on it in 1919, but only the middle movement is complete. A tender yet complex slow movement, it is perhaps the closest movement on the disc that evokes one of Gurney's songs. The recital rounds off with the short, and entirely lovely Autumn from Two Poems for Piano from 1912.

Throughout, George Rowley plays with sympathy and discretion, never overdoing the moments of over-wrought Romanticism and bringing out a tender lyricism, whilst the recording captures the piano sound with a nice sense of naturalism, not too close yet not to far away, and the instrument's upper register never too glassy.

Arvo Pärt: Diagrams, complete music for piano; Tähe-Lee Liiv; ERP
With the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, the fact that he re-invented himself after a fallow period, means that his earlier music often gets ignored or forgotten about so that Tonu Kaljuste's disc of all four of Pärt's symphonies (covering the period 1966 to 2008) with the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic on ECM [see my review] was the first time all four had been together on disc. 

Now Estonian Record Productions (ERP) has produced a disc of all of Arvo Pärt's piano music played by Tähe-Lee Liiv. Diagrams features music from 1958 right through to 2006, though the vast majority of the music is in the period 1958 to 1977. We begin with Sonatina No. 1 from 1958; two contrasting movements, one fast, one slow, that have a strong element of neo-classicism about them. Partita from the same year, inhabits a similar sound world; four contrasting movements from a vigorous, neo-classical Toccatina, through a Fughetta where Shostakovich does not seem far away and a quietly intense Larghetto to a final Ostinato which starts quietly and becomes insistently threatening. The final one in this group of early, serious concert works is Sonatina No. 2 from 1959. In three movements, fast, slow, fast,  again neo-classicism and Shostakovich seem to be the work's twin orbs. All three were dedicated to the noted Estonian pedagogue Bruno Lukk, who played them in his recitals.

But alongside these, in the 1950s and 1960s, Pärt also composed songs and piano pieces for children, music for plays and animated films. Four Easy Dances is a suite of four short movements, each in a strongly characterised style, still rather neo-classical but each named - Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Butterflies, Dance of the Ducklings

With the short, but intense Diagramme (Diagrams) from 1964, the style has become much more modernist; striking, yet we would hesitate to identify the composer. Mommy's Kiss (1968) reverts to a more tender, lyrical style, almost sentimental, whilst Ukaru Waltz seems to have fun with a closed form, the way Shostakovich did.

With Für Alina from 1976, we reach the watershed and move into the tinntinabuli style. Here we have Pärt mining the piano's sonic abilities to completely magical effect. Originally dating from the same year, Pari intervallo was premiered in October 1976 at the first concert of tinntinabuli works, performed by the ensemble Hortus Musicus on early instruments. It is heard here in a later version for two pianists (from 2008) where Liiv is joined by Marrit Gerretz-Traksman. More concentrated, more romantic even, the sound world is perhaps influenced by the original instrumentation.

We revert to single pianist for Variations for the Healing of Arinushka (from 1977) was composed for the composer's daughter after she was recovering from an operation. It takes a simple germ and explores it, exhaustively, in a way that is highly concentrated. With Hymn to a Great City (1984/2010) we return to two pianists at two pianos, the result has a vein of Romanticism that is lacking from the composer's earlier tinntinabuli works.

The disc ends with Für Anna Maria, a tiny work from 2006 which seems to look back to the neo-classical works from earlier. Throughout the recital, Tähe-Lee Liiv plays with aplomb, moving through the various styles with ease and always bringing the best out of this music. There is a nice clarity to the recorded sound which manages to suit the wide variety of styles of music on the disc.

Both these discs are salutary reminders that out view of composers is often partial. Whilst neither Gurney's piano sonatas nor Arvo Pärt's piano music would ever be core repertoire, the discs demonstrate that, in the right hands, the music can demonstrate that we have much to learn about the composers and perhaps these discs will encourage other pianists to be more adventurous.

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