A Birthday Surprise
Bach in Blue
Suite for the Centenary of Lord Berners
Monologue for Strings
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Recorded 7 & 8 September 2015 at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: June 2016
CD No: HERITAGE HTGCD 211
Duration: 70 minutes
The English composer, pianist and organist Peter Dickinson was born in 1934, the year Delius, Elgar and Holst died and when Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies were born. Dickinson studied at Cambridge and then at the Juilliard School. He is also an author and his subjects include Charles Ives, John Cage, Aaron Copland, Lennox Berkeley, Billy Mayerl and Samuel Barber. Dickinson’s wide-ranging musical sympathies are also reflected in the eclecticism of his music – which embraces vocal, choral and chamber – although there is no doubt that his pieces are the product of an individual and focussed mind.
This release of Dickinson’s orchestral music is very welcome for it shares some inspiring invention that is immediately appealing and which also leaves much to return to. A Birthday Surprise (1979, composed for Sir Robert Mayer’s 100th-birthday) uses that celebratory tune that we have all toasted friends with. Dickinson’s diverse and witty commentaries cue two minutes of pure pleasure. Satie Transformations (1970, Satie being another composer to have inspired Dickinson’s literary pen) opens darkly, as if accompanying a sinister beginning to a movie, maybe of an Edgar Wallace adaptation. A misty landscape is suggested. Things brighten to reveal a deft collage based on the first three of Satie’s for-piano Gnossiennes. Dickinson uses the orchestra colourfully and the music is consistently engaging and enjoyable. Five Diversions (1963/70), originally for clavichord and first-performed in public by the composer on a harpsichord, comes off exceptionally well in orchestral guise, music that is foot-tapping and heart-touching; the ‘Aria’ is especially beautiful and the next movement is entitled ‘Ragtime’.
Bach in Blue (2004/15) is a languid, lights-down-low take on the First Prelude from the ‘48’ and features clarinet (Robert Plane) and violin (Lesley Hatfield), a latter-day Benny Goodman and Stéphane Grappelli perhaps, whereas Merseyside Echoes (1988) opens with a recurring rather stern fanfare. Not surprisingly, given the titled location, The Beatles (“the fabulous four”) lurk behind the resonance. Dickinson, in his booklet note, says that no quotations from that group are used although two other “pop songs” are featured, but their titles are not revealed; both are catchy, however. Modernism and popular elements (which may remind of Maxwell Davies’s St Thomas Wake) co-exist very persuasively in Liverpool.
The Lord Berners Suite (2015 version) seems not to transcribe any of his music but rather re-uses the score written by Dickinson for a TV film of H. E. Bates’s A Great Day for Bonzo. The six character-movements are generally fluffy and charming, if secretively expressive and intense in ‘Dirge’, which is followed by a delicious and swirling ‘Waltz’. Finally, Monologue for Strings (1959), described by the composer as “sombre”; the oldest music here is also the most advanced, slithery and strange, Bartókian, if note-sharing (advises Dickinson) with the chorus of ‘People will say we’re in love’ from Oklahoma!, the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. That really is crossover!
This first-class release of distinguished performances, no doubt rehearsed and recorded with the composer in attendance, and captured in equally impressive sound-quality, is deserving of the widest circulation, for Peter Dickinson’s music is welcoming, lively and warmly communicative, full of fun and also capable of depth. Given his empathy for American music, I suggest that anyone who appreciates the output of Dickinson’s near-contemporary William Bolcom will have a ball with what is to be found on this notable Heritage issue. To complete the picture, literally, the cover image is also by Dickinson.