leighton piano delphian

Déjà Review: this review was first published in June 2005 and the recording is still available.

Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988)
Complete Solo Piano Works
Angela Brownridge (piano)
rec. 2004, Reid Concert Hall, University of Edinburgh, UK
Re-mastered with new cover art in 2019
Delphian DCD34301-3 [3 CDs: 227]

In the late 1980s I acquired a 3-CD set of the complete piano music by the Estonian composer Eduardo Tubin on the BIS label (BIS-CD 414/6). There are many similarities here both in terms of the music and the package on offer. In their piano output both Tubin and Leighton wrote sonatas, sonatinas, preludes and variations, used themes of other composers and created music for children. Although they each wrote for the piano over a long period of time, the majority of their outputs for the instrument date from early in their respective careers. Both sets fit neatly onto 3 CDs, are the work of artists who knew the composer well (Vardo Rumessen for Tubin) and neither is likely to be surpassed. Tubin’s works were written in the period 1927-1978 and contain more national influence. Leighton’s span more than forty years from 1946 and are rarely overtly “British”. Their styles are not dissimilar with ambiguous tonalities and some “toughness” about the major works. Leighton’s earliest piano works were written whilst he was in his teens but are not juvenilia.

Leighton was born in Yorkshire and became a chorister in Wakefield Cathedral at an early age. A talented pianist, he read music at Oxford and had some contact with Vaughan Williams, Rubbra and Finzi, the latter performing some of his early string works. Subsequently a scholarship enabled him to study in Rome for a year with the composer Goffredo Petrassi. On his return to Britain he became an academic and worked at the Royal Marine School of Music and Leeds University before being appointed to the Faculty of Music in Edinburgh in 1955. Apart from a brief period in Oxford he remained there until his premature death, holding the chair from 1970. There is fairly extensive information about Leighton available on the Edinburgh University website including a list of his compositions and discography (see link below). Unfortunately, in respect of the latter, this does not seem to have been updated since 1998. In passing, a splendid disc containing his Cello Concerto and Symphony No 3 has recently been re-issued at mid-price on Chandos (CHAN10307X) {to be reviewed).

Rather than go through the music in the order it appears on the discs, I propose to group the various genres together, the sonatas being the obvious place to start. Leighton was only 19 when he wrote the first. This has a fairly conventional four movement structure with a scherzo placed second followed by a contemplative slow movement marked lento e semplice. The second followed five years later and was dedicated to Eric Parkin. This is in three movements with a lyrical central elegy and concluding theme and variations. The theme is dark and almost atonal, spawning eight imaginative variations, a form in which Leighton clearly excelled. As documented here, the final sonata seems not have been designated No. 3 but merely Op.64. It was written two decades later for Peter Wallfisch. Also in three movements, the first two are both slow and the third marked Toccatas and Chorales: Presto precipitoso. If you think that sounds like an interesting recipe you’d be right!

After the sonatas, the most important works seem to be the sets of nine variations – Opp. 30 and 36, the six study variations, the Fantasia Contrappuntistica, Conflicts and the five preludes. The latter were incomplete at the time of Leighton’s death, part of a planned cycle of 24 covering all the keys. These are the only works here with designated key signatures and they are very fine inspirations that would surely have been part of a major masterpiece had he lived to complete it. The two sets are variations are virtually serial in method but Leighton never seems to completely eschew tonality. In the op. 30 set each piece is named (for example the third is called “Ninna-nanna”) and in both sets the tempo markings are highly specified. Appropriately enough, the five-part Fantasia Contrappuntistica was written for and won the Busoni prize, the first performance being given by Pollini. As implied by the subtitle, Bach rather than Busoni’s own piece of the same name is the main underlying inspiration but the composer also acknowledged a debt to Bartók. At just under 20 minutes, Conflicts is one of the most substantial piano works by the composer with the subtitle “Fantasy” belying another exercise in variation form based on two contrasting themes.

Most of the remaining pieces may not be at the same level of artistic inspiration as those discussed above but they still make for good listening. The Sonatinas were Leighton’s first published compositions and contains influences from Debussy and Hindemith. Each is conventionally structured in three movements and despite their modest designation, both make considerable demands on the pianist. Of the works for children, the Pieces for Angela (the composer’s daughter) and Household Pets are the most notable. The latter is a series of six Satiesque takes on common pets followed by a slow wrap-up called Animal HeavenJack-in-the-box is a striking stand-alone miniature which illustrates the composer’s humorous side well.

Angela Brownridge is a virtuoso pianist who studied harmony and counterpoint with Leighton in Edinburgh. She is completely inside this music, the technical demands of which are often great. Giving the impression that this exercise was a labour of love, she has been backed up with a first-class recording. The documentation consists of a detailed essay on the music by Adam Binks. “Many” of the works are said to be first recordings although we are not told which ones; the Op.64 Sonata, Household PetsConflicts and Fantasia Contrappuntistica have certainly been recorded before. This would be my only criticism but it hardly matters what else is out there already, anyone interested in the composer will need to have this set. The making of these important recordings was supported by various trusts and we should be grateful to them all.

Finally, to return to my comparison with Tubin. Over a period of 17 years that is a set I have revisited as much as anything I bought around that time, always with pleasure. I recall that one of the original discs had a problem which was not cured by a replacement and I had to write to BIS to obtain a perfect copy. The effort was worthwhile since there is something indefinably special about it. My thoughts on the Leighton are similar but obviously much more preliminary. Without a crystal ball, I can’t be sure that I will feel the same about this as the Tubin set in almost couple of decades time but I suspect I will. It would be surprising if it remains continuously in the catalogue until then, so don’t hesitate to invest in this outstanding set while you can.

Patrick C Waller

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CD 1:
Five Studies Op.22 (1952) [13:09]
Sonatina No 1 Op.1a (1946) [7:34]
Variations Op.30 (1955) [16:19]
Sonata No 1 Op.2 (1948) [18:55]
Six Studies (Study-Variations) Op.56 (1969) [18:38]
CD 2:
Sonata No 2 Op.17 (1953) [19:48]
Conflicts (Fantasy on Two Themes) Op.51 (1967) [19:46]
Four Romantic Pieces Op.95 (1986) [22:42]
Fantasia Contrappuntistica (Homage to Bach) Op.24 (1956) [14:46]
CD 3:
Sonatina No 2 Op.1b (1947) [7:16]
Nine Variations Op.36 (1959) [13:01]
Sonata Op.64 (1972) [20:57]
Household Pets Op.86 (1981) [12:07]
Jack-in-the-Box (1959) [0:44]
Study (1965) [0:59]
Lazy-bones (1965) [1:40]
Pieces for Angela Op.47 (1966) [10:04]
Five Preludes (1988) [10:53]