Darkness and light pervade Cordelia Williams’ latest release, Nightlight, which explores the many facets of nighttime – its turmoil, terror and tenderness, and the longing for and consolation of light – through a programme of brooding, atmospheric and ultimately consoling music.

The album was conceived over several years when Cordelia was nursing her newborn sons in those countless broken nights of early motherhood, where one hovers in a strange, shadowy realm between sleep and wakefulness, alert to the slightest murmur from the baby. The recording is dedicated to “those who experience despair or sublime melancholy during the hours before dawn, who are searching for solace, peace or impossible hope. To anyone lost who is waiting to be found by the light.” (Cordelia Williams).

When preparing the music for the album Williams pondered the phrase “dark night of the soul”, now used to describe our most profound trials and challenges, but which actually comes from the late sixteenth-century poem of St John of the Cross. Here “dark night” refers to the process of leaving behind the self on a journey towards an unknowable destination of light. The organisation of the music on this disc follows a similar path, from the melancholy and anxiety of Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor to the hope and consolation of Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn). The result is an intense chiaroscuro journey through music that is both disturbing and consolatory.

The disc opens with Mozart’s unsettling, almost hallucinatory Fantasia K.397, here played with a brooding intimacy, perfectly paced and poised. The piece neatly introduces the themes of this album with its switch to the joyous brightness of D major before reprising the darkly-hued introductory measures, and ending on a single open D (not the “traditional”, more familiar ending for this piece). The pedalling here is exquisitely managed, creating a romantic, ambiguous wash of harmony.

Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 portrays the sea at nighttime, from “the quiet of a southern night on the seashore” (Scriabin) to the agitation of the deep ocean, briefly relieved by gentle moonlight on the water. This is most powerfully portrayed in the molto perpetuo finale whose turbulence is tempered by episodes of lyricism, warm and light as themes and textures spill and wash over one another.

Two tender Consolations by Liszt, both in warm E major, provide an interlude of quiet contemplation before we are plunged into the disturbed, dislocated world of Schubert’s Sonata in C minor, D958. This is the biggest work on the album and like the Mozart Fantasia, it presents all the themes of the disc in an exceptionally fine performance which is sensitive to Schubert’s quixotic shifts of mood and harmony. The Adagio has a special stillness in its opening before descending into a darker, more psychotic realm. There is little consolation in this sonata and the finale, a swirling fevered Allegro dance.

Out of the darkest recesses of Schubert comes Thomas Tomkins’s A Sad Pavan for these Distracted Times, a work which seems to encapsulate our strange Corona days in its sense of isolation and regret. It is elegantly presented by Williams who appreciates both its composure and stark poignancy. The music wears its age lightly (it was composed in 1649 after the execution of King Charles I): played on the piano, it has an appealing contemporary crispness.

The unadorned melancholy of the Pavan contrasts beautifully with the Chopinesque filigrees and hypnotic ostinato of Bill Evans’ Peace Piece, a work which bears more than a passing resemblance to Chopin’s Berceuse in its structure and idioms, and which is increasingly finding its way onto classical albums. Williams’ performance is tender, warm and leisurely, a welcome lullaby during the long, dark night.

The final work on the disc is Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn). Composed three years before he died, it shares some characteristics with the late piano music of Brahms in its introspection and intimacy, but ultimately this is where darkness is replaced by shimmering light as the terrors of the night are forgotten in the dawning of a new day. The hymn-like Im ruhingen Tempo gives way to more lovely, quirky movements and a sense of lightness and joy but tempered by the more unsettled Bewegt. The final movement is gentle and contemplative, tinged with valediction, but ultimately uplifting. Here at last light and hope shine through.

Thoughtfully conceived and exquisitely performed, Nightlight is also notably for the fine sound quality of the recording – a perfect mix of warmth and colour, intimacy and depth. This could well be my album of 2021

Highly recommended.

Nightlight is released on the Somm label and is also available to stream.

Leon McCawley – Schubert piano music (SOMM)

This enjoyable account presents Schubert’s often overlooked Drei Klavierstucke D946 alongside song transcriptions by Liszt and a rollicking Wanderer fantasy. The Klavierstucke (literally, “piano pieces”) were written in 1828 and are impromptus in all but name. They share the same structure as the popular D899 and D935 sets and are works of startling variety, colour and mood. McCawley neatly captures Schubert’s mercurial nature but never dwells too long in the melancholic, reminding us that though these pieces were written the year Schubert died, their composer was still very much alive. This is most clearly demonstrated in the third of the triptych, an energetic scherzo with a hymn-like middle section, and throughout the three works, McCawley highlights their songful qualities and dramatic contrasts.

Schubert’s songs, refracted through Liszt’s genius into wonderfully absorbing pieces for solo piano, are here given warmth, virtuosity and heroism in equal measure – for example in the gradual climatic grandeur of Auf dem Wasser zu singen, beautifully paced by McCawley. Meanwhile, McCawley’s Wanderer is a muscular majestic canter, positive in message but also replete in subtle harmonic shadings and an eloquent sensitivity to Schubert’s shifting emotional landscape.

Olga Stezhko – Et la lune descend: Claude Debussy

Appropriately, I listened to this generous new release from Olga Stezhko while reading a review of the new Pierre Bonnard exhibition which has recently opened at London’s Tate Modern.

Comprising of five suites, the album ‘Et la lune descend’ marks the centenary of Debussy’s death and charts the development of his writing for piano solo from the very first ‘Suite bergamasque’ to the much lesser known last suite ‘Six epigraphes antiques’. – Olga Stezhko

Like Bonnard’s paintings, Olga’s Debussy is vivid and richly-hued, the finer details of the music revealed through sonic clarity combined with a suppleness of pulse and tempo which never feels contrived or forced. Interior voices and details are sensitively highlighted. The piano sound in the upper register is particularly fine, with a harp-like crystalline clarity; one can almost sense the absolutely tautness of those high treble strings.

Anna Szalucka – A Century of Polish Piano Miniatures (Naxos/Grand Piano)

Another album to mark an anniversary, Anna Szalucka’s debut disc was released to coincide with the centenary of Polish independence in 2018. Each work represents a significant moment in the country’s musical and political history and the album pays tribute to the bravery of composers who stood up for freedom in art and culture during politically turbulent times. Appropriately, the album opens with works by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a passionate advocate for Polish independence and appointed the country’s prime minister in 1919. Miniatures by Szymanowski, Bacewicz, Gorecki, Mykeityn and Panufnik bring us almost to the present day and demonstrate the variety and inventiveness of the heirs to Chopin. While others may dwell on sentimentality, Anna takes a simpler (but never superficial) and more direct approach in her interpretations. Her playing is committed and authoritative with a piano sound that is warm and bright.

Adam Swayne – (Speak To Me): New Music. New Politics (Coviello)

Another musical journey in Adam Swayne’s new album and one which touches on the politics of present-day America in two works reflecting art’s ability to offer commentary on contemporary events and popular culture. Kevin Malone’s ‘The People Protesting Drum Out Bigly Covfefe’ was commissioned by Swayne and integrates popular songs captured live at anti-Trump rallies in the UK and the US – a permanent testament to the circumstances surrounding the piece’s creation. It’s energetic and urgent, and Swayne handles it with an assured aplomb and wit. This work sits well with Rzewski’s North American Ballads, which are based on American folk and work songs, and draw on folk musician and activist Pete Seeger’s work. Meanwhile, Amy Beth Kirsten’s Speak to Me, a work in three parts, includes vocalisations by the performer. Although based on the Echo and Narcissus myth, the political inference is clear in the “censoring” of the performer’s voice in the final movement where we hear the piano alone. Again, Swayne handles this music with assurance, creating an unsettled calm in the last movement. The album is bookended by Gershwin’s Three Preludes and Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude, and Swayne brings a toe-tapping energy and swagger to the Gould and the first and last of the Gershwin Preludes, while the middle of three is soulful and sensuous, deeply redolent of ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess.

Karim Said – Legacy (Rubicon)

This interesting new release from Karim Said juxtaposes Byrd, Morley, Bull and Tomkins – with piano music by Schoenberg and Webern. Said takes Joseph Kerman’s assertion that William Byrd had a “pervasive” influence on Arnold Schoenberg as the inspiration for the repertoire included on this disc and his fascination with the way composers influence one another, in this case across the distance of 400 years, is demonstrated in the organisation of the works on the disc. The Renaissance pieces take on a new dimension when heard alongside Schoenberg’s Suite for piano, op.25 and Webern’s ‘Kinderstuck’. This thoughtful disc is a wonderful example of how the old can shine a new light on the new, and vice versa, and Said’s tasteful, elegant playing brings the music to life with grace and clarity.

Cordelia Williams – Bach & Part: Piano Works (SOMM)

These two composers are natural companions as both share a deep spirituality and clarity of expression. The works on this disc reveal each composer’s interest in the way musical lines overlap, intertwine and respond to one another. While Bach’s counterpoint is concerned with the interplay of voices and motifs, Part’s explores timbres and intervallic relationships between the melodic lines; both share a striving for essence and economy of expression. Williams’ clarity is complemented by exquisite phrasing and musical sensitivity, a tender intimacy and simplicity in the works by Part, and elegance of expression in the Bach Inventions and Prelude.