Lutyens Piano Jones Resonus RES10306

Elizabeth Lutyens (1906-1983)
Piano Works, Volume 2
Martin Jones (piano)
rec. 2022, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
Resonus RES10306 [63]

I gave three hearty cheers for Volume 1 when it emerged in 2021 (review) and I now give four even heartier cheers for Volume 2, mainly because it offers a much wider view of Lutyens’ development as a composer from The Check Book from 1938, a set of twelve piano pieces for young pianists, up to Encore-Maybe, one of her last works completed just months before her death – and Martin Jones is a perfect and meticulous guide through these quite challenging waters.

The Check Book is quite delightful; the booklet essay by Nigel Simeone points us in the direction of inspirations such as Bartok (Mikrokosmos) and Janacek (On an overgrown path). The longest is called ‘Funambulist’ (Tightrope walker) and the shortest, a clever little piece is ‘Country Dance’, which is in an amusing 5/4 time and lasts just forty seconds. A review of the work in 1939 remarks that the tunes and harmonies assume “curious and unexpected shapes”; it is nevertheless totally diatonic.

The disc continues vaguely chronologically with the undated Three Improvisations. As odd as it sounds, I sometimes felt the presence of Liszt, especially in the third miniature. The harmonic language is free but not atonal and the pieces have an air of searching mystery. The movements were named in a typically tongue-in-cheek style by their dedicatee Constant Lambert as ‘Adumbration’, ‘Obfuscation’, and ‘Peroration’. Of the same period are the Five Intermezzi dating from 1941-2 and are in, what my son decided was ‘a friendly twelve-tone style’, quite different from Lutyens’ later language. Particularly telling is the fourth one, a dark Adagio. Incidentally, this is the only one of her piano works which Lutyens mentions in her autobiography (‘In a Goldfish Bowl’ Cassell 1972) and then only in the context of a BBC broadcast in 1947.

I’ve made a special study of the Five Bagatelles. This is twelve-tone music and the tone rows, I think, are different for each, but they all emphasise the interval of the semitone and its inversion, the major seventh. There is an arch shape to the set with the climax point arriving in the third, marked ff (bar 16 of the 25), making the centre of the arch. The last Bagatelle is quietly valedictory and uses wide-ranging intervals but is otherwise reminiscent of the first and of similar length, The second and fourth are aggressive, even angry. The score was published by Schott in 1965 and first played in Liverpool by Katerina Wolpe (d.2013).

Piano e Forte, in line with its title and indeed the sonata of the same name by Giovanni Gabrieli, implies drama – that is, the drama of contrasted dynamics. But this is also a work of great beauty and delicacy reminding me of Lutyens’ love of Debussy and a sort of impressionism. This serial work, which is just the longest on the disc, falls into six continuous sections. The detailed booklet essay quotes a review from 1956 by Frank Dawes. In it, we read that the finale is a rondo, an interesting concept in dodecaphonic music but I’m ashamed to say that its form eluded me.

I should add at this point that the Bagatelles, Five Intermezzi and Piano e Forte from this volume and Plenum found on volume 1 were recorded at a concert in 1976 by Richard Deering in the presence of the composer and is available on LP (if you can track it down -Pearl 537).

The Ring of Bone is the most delicate and, one might say, unassuming piece of piano music I have ever encountered. It’s amazing to think that when it was first performed in 1976, twelve voices recited poetry by Samuel Beckett across it. It is notated without bar-lines and therefore has a wonderfully free and fluent feeling. It is atonal and may be serial but it’s also captivatingly beautiful. 

Lutyens last piano work, first performed by its dedicatee Thalia Myers just a few weeks before the composer’s death, is Maybe-Encore or, as it was first performed and recorded, as Encore-Maybe; the performer can decide in which order to play the two sections. I find it very beautiful, valedictory even, but just for the record, I prefer Myers’ ordering (Libra Sound cassette LRS 152).

The disc ends with a curiosity, a Sonata Movement marked Allegro molto which dates from the early 1930s. It seems, especially from its quietly enigmatic ending, that it would have led on to a further movement and more of a Sonata. I don’t agree with Nigel Simeone when he describes it as having ‘Berg-like intensity’ but it is highly chromatic and dramatic.

Martin Jones has tackled this complex music with total understanding and I stand in awe of his achievement which will lie largely undetected by most of the musical world. I also greatly applaud Resonus for what is now two CDs of Lutyens’ piano music. There is, contrary to popular opinion, much variety and beauty (gosh… I see that’s a word I have used quite often in describing this music) and passion in these pieces and if you are open-minded to what was termed the avant-garde of seventy years ago and willing to meet it half way, you will be much rewarded – and this disc would be a very good place to start.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: David McDade (January 2023)

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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)