Elizabeth Lutyens (1906-1983)
Piano Music Volume 2
Martin Jones (piano)
rec. 2022, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview

The first volume of Martin Jones’ traversal of the piano music of Elizabeth Lutyens was the best sort of ear opener: played with the kind of limpid beauty normally reserved for Debussy (a favourite composer of Lutyens’ or so the incredibly helpful notes to this release inform me), the supposedly crabby world of her music was transformed. That first volume concentrated sensibly on Lutyens’ visionary later music when, cut adrift from anything remotely like public acclaim, she allowed her imagination to run free. The question lurking behind that first volume was always: was there enough good material from elsewhere in her career to follow up on the success of Volume One? This surprising and glorious album continues on the same path of insisting that we change our view of Lutyens yet again. In my review of the first volume, I described Lutyens as one of the most important composers of the second half of the last century. After hearing this album, I feel even more secure in that opinion.

A large portion of the credit must go to Jones (though some needs to be reserved for the near ideal sound provided for him by the Resonus engineers – this is no gritty endurance feat of a listen!) Even in the most severe passages, Jones plays like a man in love with the music and that love is deeply contagious. Lutyens emerges as more than just a dodecaphonist ploughing a dry as a stick dogmatic furrow in the defiance of anything as trivial as entertaining the listener. Yes, she is uncompromising but her visions strip away romantic whimsy and self indulgence. This is music full of emotion but Lutyens understands the difference between feeling and sentimentality. As in the first volume, Jones is at one with emotional core of this music and it might surprise listeners just how volcanic that core can be. Lutyens may have written short works but there is nothing small scale about her imagination in them.

As if intent on confounding expectations from the start, Jones begins with the early cycle of children’s pieces, The Check Book. Tonal pieces bearing the imprint of Bartók’s influence, they have enough of Lutyens’ characteristic harmonic tang to be more than juvenilia. They reflect the strand of her output throughout her life that was surprisingly practical yet without sacrificing her own distinctive voice. Throughout both volumes, Jones seems to be toying with us: if you think you know Lutyens, think again.

Having Debussy and Bartók in mind is a good way into the more rarified delights of Lutyens’ later music. The bulk of the rest of the programme comes from the middle of her life with a handful of polished jewels from the end of her career including her very last composition for piano to round things out. Taken altogether this record forms a very satisfying stand alone introduction to the composer though why anyone would forgo the pleasures of the first volume I do not know.

And yes, I really do mean pleasure in relation to this music! Lutyens has a remarkable ability to make other music seem bombastic and full of empty rhetoric. Hers is often ascetic music but its beauties are stunning even as they offer little in the way of sugar coating. We willingly accept this in the music of Sibelius and Shostakovich yet the admittedly very different music of Lutyens is dismissed as too hard work. Jones makes easy work of it all and draws the listener magnetically into the strange, austere but beautiful sound world of Lutyens’ music. Jones strikes gold – or perhaps some rarer precious metal – again!

David McDade

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The Check Book

Three Improvisations

Five Intermezzi Op. 9

Five Bagatelles Op. 49

Piano e Forte Op. 43

The Ring of Bone Op. 106

Maybe – Encore Op. 159

Sonata Movement (Allegro Molto)