John White: Piano Sonatas; Alun Hoddinott: Piano Sonatas; Nocturnes; Elegy

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Lyrita's John White/Alun Hoddinott brings together pioneering recordings of postwar British literature by significant pianists just beginning their careers in the early '60s. Colin Kingsley ultimately became a distinguished professor at the University of Edinburgh and, at one point, President of the Edinburgh Society of Musicians. Valerie Tryon is certainly a known quantity, particularly in Canada, where she is regarded as a pianistic legend; her Alun Hoddinott album was recorded for Lyrita in 1962; Kingsley's John White selection in 1960. At the time, these two composers were considered among the young Turks of music in the U.K. and have some commonality of approach, at least in the pieces heard here; an affinity for Bartók's sense of rhythm and to some extent the modal harmony he favored, with no trace, however, of the folk flavor so important to Bartók. This is where such similarity ends. These two composers took widely divergent paths: Hoddinott became regarded as the chief exponent of contemporary music in Wales, though in retrospect -- Hoddinott died in 2008 -- he may have some competition with his contemporary William Mathias, whose once obscure compositions carry over the flavor of Welsh traditions a little more readily than does Hoddinott. White became a figurehead of the experimental music scene in England and continued producing piano sonatas in a quantity that appears to be the highest achieved since the advent of Domenico Scarlatti, numbering 164 by October 2009. This disc includes White's exceptionally important Sonata No. 1 (1956), along with No. 5, No. 4, and No. 9. Hoddinott settled for just 10 sonatas, of which the first two are heard here; along for the ride are Hoddinott's two piano nocturnes and an Elegy that was later adapted for harpsichordist Thurston Dart as part of a suite for that instrument.

This two-disc set has one disc devoted to each composer, and it's hard not to develop a preference for White, at least based on these selections. While White's First Sonata -- his only one in multiple movements apparently -- is suitably serious as one might expect for the mid-'50s, it is also playful and jazzy, with long strings of unison octave runs, bright and tasty cluster chords in the right hand, and a fragmented approach to form. Hoddinott will have none of that. His music is fluid, almost Schoenbergian in texture, and although he doesn't appear to be making use of systems here, his music at times sounds semi-systematic. This serves him best in the gentle, dark Nocturne No. 2, Op. 16/1, though the obsessive repetitiveness and modification of motives in the first movement of Hoddinott's Piano Sonata No. 2 become wearing after a time. Once past his Piano Sonata No. 1, White's work gets more willful and unpredictable; it becomes less and less seriously intended, more rambling and informal, like White has loosened his tie and has begun a free-association kind of conversation with the listener. This aspect of White's sonatas would become considerably more pronounced in the long series to follow, and Kingsley decidedly captures White's freewheeling spirit in these early recordings.

The major drawback of this two-disc set is the sound; it was inferior even by the standards of the time. Neither recording has much more frequency range than that typical of piano recordings in the 1930s, even though they were made in the age of Hi-Fi; the Tryon recording of Hoddinott suffers particularly badly in this respect. Nevertheless, at the time of the Lyrita CD reissue the only alternatives for any of this material is Martin Jones' recording of Hoddinott's piano sonatas on Nimbus; this repertoire is so uncommon that only the John White recordings were reissued on LP, once, on the Musical Heritage Society label in America. All of this music constitutes essential postwar British piano literature, and interested listeners will just have to brave the bad sound and go forward with it, though the music is of such quality that likely they won't regret it.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Piano Sonata No. 1
1
3:59
2
3:48
3
3:03
4
10:20
5
14:18
6
6:10

Track Listing - Disc 2

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Piano Sonata No.1, Op.17
1
3:37
2
3:56
3
4:08
4
5:37
5
4:33
Piano Sonata No.2, Op.27
6
4:08
7
3:44
8
3:23
9
7:28
10
2:45
blue highlight denotes track pick