When I put ‘Return of the Nightingales’ (Prima Facie records) into my CD player, my cat Monty immediately dashed into my office and up onto my desk to find the birds that sing so sweetly at the start of the title track of this new disc of music by Sadie Harrison. The piano enters, delicately yet brightly, imitating the twittering birdsong before moving into a lively, rhythmic passage. Ian Pace, the pianist for this track, is very much at home in contemporary and new music for piano, and it shows in the ease with which he handles technical difficulties and his vivid, immediate sound.
The variety of writing in just a few minutes of this piece signals the theme for the entire disc: it’s a wonderful example of Sadie’s compositional breadth and rich imagination and a lovely introduction to her colourful and accessible music. Not only does the disc demonstrate the range of Sadie’s compositional palette but it also showcases the talents of four excellent pianists – Ian Pace, Renée Reznek, Duncan Honeybourne and Philippa Harrison, all of whom have considerable experience in this type of repertoire and who bring myriad colours, timbre and musical sensitivity and individuality to each work on the disc.
Composed between 2011 and 2017, the pieces on this disc reveal the many contrasting styles within one composer’s output, reflecting Sadie’s wide-ranging musical and cultural influences, including the music of Bartok, Berg, Chopin, and Debussy, jazz legends Bill Evans, Fats Waller and Thelonius Monk, Methodist hymns, vintage film music, her passion for the cultures of Persia and Afghanistan (Sadie is Composer-in-Association of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music), and the natural world. In ‘Return of the Nightingales’ (the title is drawn from the translation of a Persian poem), near-Eastern folk idioms are woven into the starkly modernist suite of pieces Par-feshani-ye ‘eshq (played by Renée Reznek), while in Lunae ‘Four Nocturnes’ Duncan Honeybourne sensitively and sensuously illuminates the tender, intimate lyricism and delicate traceries of these delightful and arresting miniatures (I purchased the sheet music on the strength of this performance in order to learn the pieces myself). Philippa Harrison brings the requisite vibe and swing to the Four Jazz Portraits, capturing the style of each jazz great to whom they are dedicated; while in Shadows ‘Six Portraits of William Baines’ Sadie takes small quotations from Baines’ piano works and reflections on his diary entries to create intriguing miniatures, masterfully presented by Duncan Honeybourne. The Souls of Flowers recalls Chopin in its long-spun melodic lines and shimmering trills, while Northern Lights uses harmonies and idioms redolent of folksong and hymns. The final work, Luna…..for Nicola, is a tiny yet meaningful hommage to Nicola le Fanu, with whom Sadie studied for three years, and was written in response to hearing the premiere of Nicola LeFanu’s orchestral work ‘The Crimson Bird’. in February 2017.
The song of the nightingale is the unifying thread on this disc – in the third of the four Lunae, the evocation of Alabiev–Liszt’s ‘Le Rossignol’ as played by William Baines, and in the fluttering wings of Par-feshani-ye ‘eshq, but also less obviously in the use of trills, sparkling runs, chirruping note clusters and tremolandos.
This is wonderfully rewarding, varied and enjoyable disc, proof that contemporary piano music can be tuneful, attractive and entirely accessible. There is much to delight and challenge the pianist too: the pieces are generally within the capability of the intermediate to advanced player, and are available to purchase as scores (from University of York Music Press). I particularly like Sadie’s treatment of melodic fragments and her jazz-infused harmonies.