This new album celebrates the piano music of British composer Paul Burnell, spanning 30 years. Paul had recorded and produced previous albums himself, but in this instance he decided it was time to work with another musician, the pianist, composer and recording engineer James Bacon who runs the Piano Recording Studio. The music was recorded on a Bosendorfer Phoenix Imperial 290, fitted with the Phoenix agraffe system pioneered by Richard Dain at Hurstwood Farm Pianos, which gives the piano greater sustain and clarity of sound, especially in the high registers. This makes it ideal for Burnell’s piano music, much of which explores the timbre and sonic possibilities of the piano rather than melody per se.
“Unembellished, unfussy, unsophisticated…..and short” – Burnell’s own programme note for his Plain Pieces, a triptych dedicated to pianist Natalie Bleicher, could be applied to all the music on this album, though I would hesitate to use the word “unsophisticated”. Short, unfussy these pieces might be, but there is sophistication in the careful placing of notes to create subtle shadings, unexpected harmonies and suspended sounds. “Minimalist” is a description which immediately springs to mind on first hearing Burnell’s music, but this is not the frenetic (sometimes irritatingly so) repetitious minimalism of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, but rather the more contemplative and spare minimalism of composers such as Lawrence Crane, whom Burnell cites as important influence (It May Have Been, Just Before Dawn). The more up-tempo pieces here (Pacer Nos, 1, 2 and 3) owe more to Howard Skempton (another significant influence) in the use of changing chords and sequences to create energy and climactic episodes. There are also echoes of that other great American minimalist, Steve Reich, in Standing in the Rain. Composed in the mid-1980s, the piece features a persistent rhythmic figure redolent of Reich’s Clapping Music and similar compositions.
Paul was kind enough to send me copies of the scores of the pieces featured on this album and it has been a pleasure to explore the music both through listening and playing. The music is accessible (roughly Grade 3-7) and attractive, but not simplistic (see my earlier comments about sophistication) and it takes a skilled and thoughtful pianist to create the considered sounds which Burnell’s music requires. This music also offers the piano student a good introduction to minimalism and provides a jumping off point for further exploration of this genre.
James Bacon brings the works to life on this recording with clarity, sensitivity and creativity – adding a drone to 2 Ping – combined with his technical expertise in the field of recording and sound engineering, and superb state-of-the-art equipment.
‘It May Have Been’ is available from iTunes, Amazon and other retailers as a download or CD, and can also be streamed on Spotify.
Paul Burnell’s Meet the Artist interview will be published shortly.