Sonata for Pianoforte, Op.64
Piano Sonata No.3, Op.27
Margaret Fingerhut (piano)
Recorded 27 & 28 October 2009 in Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
Reviewed by: David Wordsworth
Reviewed: July 2010
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10601
Duration: 70 minutes
Chandos has done Kenneth Leighton’s music proud, including no less than three discs of orchestral music, which was preceded by a release of chamber and instrumental works that included the Opus 64 (otherwise unnumbered) Piano Sonata played by its dedicatee Peter Wallfisch. Over twenty years after Leighton’s untimely death, it is frustrating how the music of this fine composer is still such a rare visitor to the concert hall, but at least admirers can, thanks to an increasingly large representation on disc, enjoy his distinctive voice at home.
Margaret Fingerhut’s recital (including two first recordings, Winter Scenes and Sonata No.3) covers over thirty years of Leighton’s compositional career, from the unpublished Winter Scenes of 1953 to the very impressive Preludes that Leighton began in the year of his untimely death, 1988. There were to be twenty-four preludes, one in each major and minor key, sadly only five had been completed by the time Leighton’s health completely broke down. They would have clearly constituted a significant statement and although, as Adams Birks points out in his admirable booklet note, they show perhaps a mellower side to the composer’s personality and (shudder the thought) might be judged as “conservative” (whatever that means) for their time of composition, they show a characteristic brilliance in piano-writing and Margaret Fingerhut plays them for all they are worth.
The earlier pieces show Leighton’s debt to a previous generation of English composers, not only stylistically, but also in the titles of individual movements – ‘Landscape’ / ‘The Wind’ / ‘By the Fireside’ / ‘Snowflakes’ – might perhaps remind of John Ireland, but also Bax and perhaps Bridge. The musical language too is not so far away from such composers, perhaps a little tougher harmonically and with wonderfully over-the-top Italian instructions and tempo markings – Andante con moto, vago e nebbioso’ – is a particular favourite, and the pieces are truly fascinating to hear and played here with great delicacy and understanding.
Listening to Sonata No.3 (1954) it is quite startling how far Leighton had travelled stylistically in the period of twelve months. Written during his period of study with Petrassi in Italy, the work is an ambitious statement, much more dissonant and indeed at times aggressive, whilst still, even at this early stage, displaying some to-be-familiar Leighton fingerprints, the rather bittersweet melancholy of his slow movements and the biting, rhythmic scherzos that were to become very much part of his mature style. Dating from some twenty years later, the Sonata Opus 64 is a major work by any standards and one of Leighton’s major achievements – not so much a classical sonata as what the composer describes as “an attempt to express a search for stillness amid the conflict and turmoil of experience”. The tension expressed not just in extremes of dynamic, but also in the struggle between opposing keys, textures and strict control of material – the few moments of stillness and repose are all the more effective when they come, particularly when played with the clarity and energy that they are here.
The performances throughout are quite excellent – Leighton was a virtuoso pianist and slower sections provide problems of voicing and balance, in what might at first seem to be cluttered textures, but are here lucidly sounded. Leighton’s faster music, often littered with what one can imagine were gleefully written markings such as Presto, molto ritmico, and even Presto precipitoso, making huge demands on the pianist, all of which Margaret Fingerhut takes in her stride. How good to see this fine artist back on form after her period of ill-health. Production and recording standards are all that we would expect from Chandos. A marvellous release.