This is a mostly enjoyable mixed bag of short works; you probably won’t like them all but it’s a diverting collection of music.
In his sleeve notes, Stevens says that composing miniatures such as presented here can be liberating: if it doesn’t work, it’s less time wasted. They also add to a composer’s technical skills, he writes. We’d add that, for the listener, the ones you don’t like are soon over if you can’t be bothered to skip them.
He says the pieces fall into one of three categories: lyrical songs without words (a phrase he’s nicked from Mendelssohn), character pieces, and more ambitious “fledgling” tone-poems.
The opener, Oceanic Lullaby, is a song without words, and it’s immediately accessible, portraying someone peacefully floating on the water and being lulled to sleep by the rise and fall of the waves. The oboe portrays the surface of the water, piano the more complex aquatic motions below.
Concert Rondo follows and is more lively and is for recorder and piano; it’s also easy on the ear.
There are 25 pieces on this double CD so we’re not going to go through every one. Calming / easy pieces include Sicilienne for Gillian (clarinet, piano), written for his mum, while Reflections on a Scottish Theme for solo oboe is basically a McHovis advert; Jig is another Scottish style piece, switching between 6/8 and 2/2 time. The early music sound of Pandora’s Box is said to be include a degree of pastiche, so he’s got a sense of humour; it later goes jazzy then nautical; he had fun with this.
There are more demanding pieces including O Brave New World – this is the most experimental music on the disc, say the sleeve notes but we might argue with that, and it’s still a long way from modern cacophony – and it is dramatic and unpredictable, and includes playing on the cello bridge. Three Epigrams are “quirky” say the sleeve notes, the bassoon making them more palatable than if they were for strings, the music of a comedic Dracula film rather than a slasher-shocker.
A Soldier’s Prayer (French horn and piano) is a response to the centennial commemorations of World War I, and portrays a Flanders battlefield at dawn, and a combatant’s “fearful anticipation of the brutality and desolation”. Grief’s Portrait (French horn and piano) is another WWI memorial, depicting rapid mood-changes in grief.
Uneasy Dialogue for clarinet and piano is not too uneasy while At A Tagent is.
There must be some reason for the track order but there’s perhaps too much variation (a sombre WWI coming shortly after a jaunty jig, for example) for it to be listened to all the way through, and CD1 is more accessible.
It’s an interesting programme, though and fans of instruments that usually do not come to the fore will enjoy it. The players are John Bradbury (clarinet), David Jones (piano), Sarah Miller (flute and alto flute), Helen Peller (bassoon), Richard Simpson (oboe), Janet Simpson (piano), Lindsay Stoker (French horn) and John Turner (recorders).
This is out on Divine Art, dda 25194.