Review of Piano Works Volume 1 by Elisabeth Lutyens

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Perhaps it’s unavoidable, but the present emphasis on showcasing the work of female composers tends to center on those working now, while an entire generation of female composers born a decade or two before WWI is frequently overlooked. Elizabeth Maconchy, Elisabeth Lutyens, and Priaulx Rainier were among the most renowned of these people (who was born in South Africa, but lived in Britain for most of her life).

Lutyens, the first British composer to use the 12-note approach and, in the middle decades of the twentieth century, possibly the most innovative composer working in Britain, has been perhaps the most egregiously disregarded of the trio.

Lutyens’ music was frequently ridiculed during her lifetime, but it has been scandalously ignored since her death in 1983 at the age of 76. Her work was massive – more than 150 opus numbers, not to mention her numerous film and television soundtracks – and only a small portion of it is available on CD.

However, Martin Jones’ survey of piano music, presented in precise, clearly sympathetic renditions, should fill at least one of the voids. He starts with the pieces Lutyens wrote in her final years, between 1972 and 1981.

Two are miniature sets: the Seven Preludes Op 126, each with a title inspired by John Keats, and the Five Impromptus Op 116, both of which are tightly organized and laconic, evoking Debussy and Messiaen at moments, and Webern at other times.

Their brevity contrasts dramatically with the steady progression of Plenum I, the first work here, and the vast, almost rhapsodic flourishes and echoing silences of The Great Seas, the longest. Moments of stillness, on the other hand, penetrate that piece, and they have an almost structural function in Lutyens’ final piano work, La Natura dell’Acqua, completed two years before her death; everything is stripped down to a single, exquisitely plain line at times.

With their “folky-wolky melodies on the cor anglais,” the caustic Lutyens coined the term “cowpat music” to describe the work of a prior generation of British composers. Nicholas Daniel and the Doric String Quartet’s collection of British oboe quintets for Chandos includes several of those who fall under her cowpat category, all of which were initially performed or arranged for the peerless oboist Léon Goossens.

Daniel’s velvety tone and always graceful phrasing are ideally matched to all this music, and he and the Doric make compelling cases for at least three of the works here – the quintets by Bax and Bliss, and Finzi’s gorgeous Interlude.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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