0712396065227_600When 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.

Highly recommended

pfcd065Lambert’s Clavichord Op. 41 (HH 165)

Howells’ Clavichord Book I (HH 237)

Julian Perkins, clavichord

Prima Facie PFCD065/66

The intimate tinkling twang of the clavichord immediately suggests Tudor galliards and other courtly dances, and songs written to fair ladies and noble knights. Herbert Howells was introduced to the clavichord by Herbert Lambert (1881-1936), a photographer and clavichord maker, and began composing miniatures for the instrument, delighting in its expressive qualities, colours and surprising range of harmonics. His two sets of pieces for clavichord, ‘Lambert’s Clavichord’ and ‘Howells’ Clavichord’, pay homage to Tudor keyboard music such as the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, with which Howells would have been familiar, and exploit the same textures, gestures, idioms, cadences, piquant harmonies and expression inherent in Tudor keyboard works. Writing about Lambert’s Clavichord in 1928, organist and musical scholar Dr (later Sir) Richard Terry observed: “Mr Howells has absorbed all the wealth and variety of Tudor rhythms, but keeps his own individuality intact. His music is modern inasmuch as he uses chords and progressions unknown in Tudor times, but the spirit of the old composers is there all the while.”

There are galliards and pavanes, fancies and groundes in Howells’ two suites, pieces common to Tudor and Renaissance dance suites, and Howells plays on the organisation of Tudor keyboard suites by giving his miniatures titles such as ‘My Lord Sandwich’s Dreame’, ‘De la Mare’s Pavane’ and ‘Sir Richard’s Toye’. The pieces are warm, witty salutes to Howells’ friends and fellow composers. Howells intended them to be thus – “to my friends pictured (or at all events affectionately saluted) within” – with references to the dedicatee’s own music, or in tribute of their life and work (for example, ‘Finzi’s Rest’ was written the day after Gerald Finzi died and its simple melody is a fitting honour to Finzi’s writing). Meanwhile, in ‘Walton’s Toye’, the opening theme suggests William Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial’, but it is quickly overtaken by rapid quavers which give the piece propulsion and animation. Some pieces are jazzy, replete with unexpected dissonances and satisfying resolutions; others are lyrical and tender. Some pieces stray into the realms of pastiche, but never to the extent that the musical strength and imagination is lost.

There is nothing po-faced or academic about the playing on this double disc album, and Julian Perkins brings vibrancy and colour to his performance, using a selection of clavichords for the recording by Dolmetsch and Goff.

Howells never intended the suites to be confirmed to the clavichord or harpsichord alone, and these pieces are equally delightful on the modern piano (a notable recording by John McCabe is worth exploring for comparison). The pieces are within the reach of the intermediate to advanced pianist.

This is the first complete recording on clavichord of this music, and this new recording is dedicated to the memory of Ruth Dyson, noted pianist, harpsichordist and clavichord player, in her centenary year.

There is some background hiss on the recording (more obvious when listening through headphones), but the instruments themselves sound bright and richly coloured. Comprehensive liner notes by Andrew Mayes, together with a note on the instruments by Peter Bavington and performance notes by Julian Perkins.

Release date: 3 November 2017.

Further information

primafaciepfcd061……make it Kenneth Hamilton’s new disc ‘Liszt, Rachmaninov, Busoni: Back to Bach – Tributes and Transcriptions’

Liszt- Fantasy and Fugue on the theme BACH. Variations on a Theme of Bach ‘Weinen, Klangen, Sorgen, Zagen’.

Bach/Rachmaninov – Suite from the Violin Partita in E Major.

Bach/Busoni – Choral Prelude ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’. Chaconne from Violin Partita in D Minor. Chorale Prelude ‘Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’.


This rewarding new disc of the music of Bach viewed through the lens of three great Romantic composer-pianists forms the first in the Prima Facie labe’s Heritage Series, which aims to shine a new light on familiar repertoire

Kenneth Hamilton’s imaginative playing is clearly founded on a passion for this repertoire combined with his extensive study of nineteenth-century pianism*, which includes historic recordings by Rachmaninov and Busoni themselves and the reminiscences of pupils of Franz Liszt. Thus one has the sense of very “informed” playing (though it never becomes overly intellectual nor dry). Thus the Bach-Busoni Chaconne features the revisions from Busoni’s own piano roll of the work, while the heartfelt performance of Liszt’s Variations on “Weinen, Klagen” reflects Liszt’s own performance advice, as well as Hamilton’s assertion that the work is an emotional tribute to Liszt’s children Daniel and Blandine, whose tragically early deaths are depicted in the music. But like Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children), which this work seems to foreshadow, it ends on a note of hope for future redemption.

The two works by Liszt bookend this satisfying recital disc. Virtuosic in scale, the Fantasy and Fugue on the theme BACH and Variations on a Theme of Bach ‘Weinen, Klangen, Sorgen, Zagen’ pay tribute to the genius of Bach through Liszt’s distinctive pianistic voice, but these are not show pieces. Here we find Liszt at his most serious and ruminative. and Hamilton’s clean, sensitively-nuanced playing reveals the dramatic contrasts in this music from quiet introspection to impassioned gestures.

This contrasts well with the works by Busoni which are played with warmth and refinement, with clear attention to the sophisticated harmonic details and voicing. The Bach/Busoni Chaconne, too often ponderous in the hands of the less skilled, is here grandly expansive, but never heavy. The interior details and individual voices have a lucid clarity which brings the music to life with ever-increasing drama.

Meanwhile, Rachmaninov’s glittering transcription of the Violin Partita in E major provides a joyful and witty interlude. In a way, this is the closest of all the transcriptions presented here to Bach’s original, but infused with Rachmaninov’s inventive, muscular textures (the Prelude has contrapuntal elements redolent of the Etudes-Tableaux) and piquant harmonies.

This is a splendid tribute not only to J S Bach but to the ingenuity and superlative pianism of three great composer-pianists of the golden age, pianism which is matched by Hamilton’s own.

Highly recommended


*Hamilton, Kenneth: After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford: OUP, 2008)


Kenneth Hamilton is a concert pianist, writer and broadcaster, and former student and colleague of Ronald Stevenson.