Through the Void

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Organist and Pianist Richard Lambert, born in 1951, as a composer has worked with Elizabeth Poston, Malcolm Williamson and more recently Sebastian Forbes and Francis Pott. Lambert is not a British composer, he is equivocally an English one. “If Englishness in music can be encapsulated in words at all, those words would probably be ostensibly familiar and commonplace, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless” (Peter Ackroyd). “It is a common thread lurking somewhere in our musical psyche, as true of Elgar as it was of Britten, that emotional r epression in whatever form is an enormously creative force, and indeed articulating that rather than overcoming it is a key strand in musical “Englishness”’ (Nicholas Kenyon). Theodor Leschetizky’s perception of the quintessential English performer circa 1900 would not be out of place in such a gallery. “Good musicians … doing by work what the Slav does by instinct, their heads serving them better than their hearts.” “My catalogue,” Lambert says, “is shamelessly eclectic in its mixture of styles, and yet, despite cosmopolitan influences, I think of my compositional language as intrinsically English, yielding a kapellmeister repertory serving school, church and the wider community.”

Organist, pianist and conductor, Richard Lambert, born in 1951, has spent most of his life in the educational sphere, working for thirty-two years as director of music in the independent and state sectors. In the hallowed Empire / Commonwealth tradition of the music examiner – that peculiarly British institution going back to the 1870s which has revered the greats of organ loft and public school no less than declined the legends of the concert room (Vaughan Williams most famously) – he has travelled the world, from Penang to Portadown, Portugal to Peru. As a composer he values having befriended and worked with Elizabeth Poston and Malcolm Williamson, more recently Sebastian Forbes and Francis Pott. Forbes took him down late 20th century roads. Poston reminded him of the ‘essential pairing’ of literature and music.

Lambert isn’t a British composer. He’s unequivocally an English one. In 2013 he attempted to define himself through a series of quotations and allusions. Caliban’s ‘The isle is full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. / Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments / Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices / That, if I then had waked after long sleep / Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming / The clouds methought would open and show riches / Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked / I cried to dream again’ (Shakespeare). ‘If Englishness in music can be encapsulated in words at all, those words would probably be: ostensibly familiar and commonplace, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic yet timeless’ (Peter Ackroyd). ‘It is a common thread lurking somewhere in our musical psyche, as true of Elgar as it was of Britten, that emotional repression in whatever form is an enormously creative force, and indeed articulating that rather than overcoming it is a key strand in musical “Englishness”’ (Nicholas Kenyon). Theodor Leschetizky’s perception of the quintessential English performer circa 1900 wouldn’t be out of place in such a gallery. ‘Good musicians … doing by work what the Slav does by instinct, their heads serving them better than their hearts’. ‘My catalogue,’ Lambert says, ‘is shamelessly eclectic in its mixture of styles, and yet, despite cosmopolitan influences, I think of my compositional language as intrinsically English, yielding a kapellmeister repertory serving school, church and the wider community.’

‘Accept [your] loneliness and refuse all refuges’ (W H Auden). Lambert’s sound world – and especially that of the earlier works featured in the present retrospective – rings many bells. Dance, song, melody, key signatures. Mellifluous harmonies, the tang of mild dissonances, cadences gently cradled. Pulse- quickening 3+3+2 bars, Balkan DNA and Anglo-Saxon physiognomy meeting in enigmatic marriage. Echoes of Britten, Tippett. Glimpses of Malcolm Arnold via Grainger in divertimento mood, a pint of local best raised in good cheer, yarrow and brambled hedgerows veiling damp country lanes. The village green, the folksong revival, wandering the counties a century ago no less than today. The notion of ‘converts [trying] to rediscover their own rambling traditions and, perhaps, even reconsider what it means to be “English” again’ (James Nissen). Britten’s Aspen sentiments, one senses are very much his: ‘It is a good thing to please people, even if only for today. That is what we should aim at – pleasing people today as seriously as we can, and letting the future look after itself’. For years Lambert lived a stone’s throw from Cambridge and the fens, college chapels and cathedrals on his doorstep. He then settled in Northamptonshire, in the rural Welland valley crossed by the Harringworth Viaduct. Old Mercia. Entering his seventies, exchanging East Midlands for Worcestershire, it seems only appropriate that this most English of Englishmen should choose now to make his home in Malvern, doors away from Elgar’s place. Three Choirs Festival terrain.

‘Sweetest melodies are those that are by distance made more sweet’ William Wordsworth

Bassoon Sonata Op.36 (2009–11)* Premiered by the dedicatee, Miriam Butler, and the composer, 5 October 2012, International North Cyprus Music Festival, Bellepais Monastery near Kyrenia. RL: ‘The first movement is free-ranging tonally, developing the initial bassoon material – a neo-Baroque motif prominently featuring a minor seventh interval. The time signature changes predominantly between 2/4 and 3/8, intentionally creating a highly-charged, variously unsettling, rhythmic profile. The central Larghetto is expressive, melancholic and desolate, its atmosphere intensified chromatically. The bassoon’s entire range is explored, the piano sharing motifs and conversing contrapuntally. The finale reverts to a more uplifting mood. Along with other earlier melodic and harmonic links, binding the whole organically, the bassoon’s opening scale motif, mock-Baroque in flavour and extensively worked out, originates from a solitary one-bar piano figure in the first movement.’ Formerly an esoteric genre, the bassoon sonata evolved usefully during the 20th century, including post-war British examples from Richard Rodney Bennett, Arnold Cooke, Anthony Hedges, Alan Ridout and Adrian Williams. But it’s still a rare beast, making Lambert’s technically demanding fourteen-minute example especially attractive to players. Plenty goes on in its pages, a judicious blend of bustle and beauty. Particularly striking is the slow movement, a lean 6/8 landscape of bared lines and bleak horizons. It reminds of the lonelier vocalisations one meets in Shostakovich (the Ninth Symphony for example), of frosty tow-paths along East Anglian waterways on grey, misty winter afternoons empty of people. Lambert thinks of it as ‘atonal’ – but it begins and ends around modal, antique E.

Nocturno em Carcavelos Op.25a for solo alto flute (2000/2013)* Premiered by Rachel Smith, 18 March 2019, Brighton. RL: ‘Night-time in Carcavelos is a transcription of a short cor anglais solo, Praia Mar – “Praia Mar” being my then hotel on the Estoril Coast overlooking the Atlantic – written at a single sitting in October 2000 in Carcavelos west of Lisbon. A quasi-rondo (A B A1 C B1 coda), it’s a compound-time moto perpetuo [beginning in C minor, closing in F minor] with jazz-suggestive syncopations.’

Counting the Beats Op.8 for mezzo–soprano and piano (1984)† Text: Robert Graves, by permission of the poet. Premiered by Amanda Simpson and the composer, 11 May 1984, Royston Arts Festival. RL: ‘The first song, for the most part, is gentle and intimate. Modally it starts in E Dorian, working its way towards an ambiguous, inconclusive A major finish, ending on the unison tonic. It deploys a four- or five-note descending motif, occurring over twenty times, in addition to various inversions. The second number centres around F minor, with recurrences of a flattened fifth (diabolus in musica) enhancing the word-painting. The third song in F# Dorian, freely adapted, is constructed around three vocal entries separated by two piano interludes. Recollecting the principal motif of the opening song, its yearning character is achieved through a mixture of upwardly-reaching melodic lines, chromaticism, and modulation to remoter key regions. The final song, in E Mixolydian, is a confident peroration, the jubilant coda cyclically referencing the first number (notably the eponymous phrase “Counting the beats”).’

Tallat Tune No.6: Ostinato Download Op.37 No.6 for piano (2010)† Premiered by Brett Bachus, 15 November 2011, Austin, Texas. RL: ‘Based on a decisive ostinato figure, this brisk Aeolian piece starts and concludes in A, working its way through a variety of keys, each section developing material from the first two bars. The title of the set comes from “Tallat” Barn, Harringworth, my home at the time.’ ‘Tallat’ is a West Country word meaning hay–loft or attic. ‘You remember how you used to love hunting for eggs in the morning, and hiding up in the tallat with Lizzie, for me to seek you among the hay, when the sun was down’ (Lorna Doone). With its winning folk-dance tumble and prominent flattened sevenths, this ‘dished up’ postcard, all of forty-five bars, is English shiredom in a jar. Hops, cider and sawdust.

Two Piano Pieces Op.31 (2008, 2007)† Premiered by the composer, 7 August 2009, St Lawrence Jewry next Guildhall, London (No.1); Krystyna Palamarchuk, 7 May 2011, Harringworth (No.2). A pair of Shakespearean pieces, the first drawing its title from Lorenzo’s lines in The Merchant of Venice: ‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! / Here will we sit and let the sounds of music / Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night / Become the touches of sweet harmony’ (Act V). The second from Petruchio to Kate in The Taming of the Shrew: ‘Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor / For ’tis the mind that makes the body rich;/And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds, / So honour peereth in the meanest habit’ (Act IV). RL: ‘Diatonic pages, rhapsodic in construction, unselfconsciously melodic. The first piece, sketched in Portadown, Northern Ireland, opens and closes in C major (a “Prokofiev” waltz sardonically side-stepping the home key) but is otherwise largely centred (lyrically) around E- flat major. The final three bars unfold an unresolved C minor / flattened seventh harmony. Begun in Bangkok, the second piece is an elementary study in progressive tonality [cf Nocturno em Carcavelos, Abigail’s Jig, Through the void], beginning in D minor but closing in B-flat major.’ Written for the Ukrainian pianist Krystyna Palamarchuk, both pieces rely on (unmarked) pedalling to get points of legato and overtoned sonority across. And both, but especially the second, are interesting rhythmically for their 3+3+2 profiling (cf Criss-Cross).

Tallat Tune No.1: Criss–Cross Op.37 No.l for piano (2009)† Premiered by the composer, 7 November 2011, Lima. ‘Accessible’, ‘happy’, ‘straightforward’ sum up this teaching bagatelle. ‘White’ C major music on paper, offsetting G Aeolian – but with enough twists to derail the unwary. Formally it falls into a simple A B A1 C A2 design, the material neither outstaying its welcome nor pushed beyond its capacity.

Abigail’s Jig Op.10 No.2c for flute, bassoon and piano (1987/2009)* Premiered by Rachel Smith, Miriam Butler and the composer, 7 August 2009, St Lawrence Jewry next Guildhall, London. RL: ‘Originally for flute and piano, this trio was written for my daughter. It attempts to capture the atmosphere of an energised Irish jig, using straightforward harmony and folk-like modal melodies along with a parody of Copland’s “cowboy music” – most obviously the Hoe-Down rhythms from Rodeo.’ Following four bars of key-suspending introduction, roughly two thirds of the piece is in D minor, with the closing third a tone up in E minor, climactically driven.

Cantilena Op.11g for flute, bassoon and piano (1987/2016)* Originally for alto saxophone and piano, this lyric arietta in D major, drawing on popular ballad style with added ‘bluesy’ and ‘pseudo-rock’ touches, was recycled from a withdrawn opera, Yellow Earth Ridge (1976), based on Shi Nai’an’s early Ming Dynasty Heroes of the Marshes.

Five Short Pieces Op.9a Nos.1–4, for flute and piano (1985 rev 2008)* Premiered by Elizabeth Yow and the composer, 17 July 1985, Buntingford. These pieces, extant in various permutations, transcribe four songs from a soprano cycle (To One) setting poems by the broadcaster and writer Christina Rees, variously ‘conveying the countless moods associated with a relationship’ (RL). The first, ‘Empty Night (where are you?)’ ‘evokes the desolation of separation; a persistent use of the augmented fourth within a minor mode reinforcing feelings of despair’. The second, ‘To Entice You’, in Mozart’s ‘love’ key, A major, is ‘a gently sardonic waltz-style structure to originally erotic, seductive words’. In the third, ‘The Day We Met’, the outer sections feature unexpectedly juxtaposed chords linked pivotally. The fourth, ‘I Learn My Name’, in B-flat, is more relaxed in manner, jazz elements heightening the character.

Moments Op.3a for mezzo-soprano and piano (1977/2008)† Text: John Barber. A set (‘arch’) of five songs, unified by water imagery, celebrating moments and places in England and France at the start of a relationship. A falling fifth within the overall interval of a minor sixth functions throughout as a linking motif. ‘Dedham Vale’: the Essex-Suffolk borderlands around the River Stour, celebrated by Constable who depicted the area several times in his paintings. ‘Varennes-sous- Dun’: a commune in south Burgundy, château strewn and history steeped. ‘The Royal Festival Hall’: London’s Thames-side venue, ‘scene of grace and dignity’, opened in May 1951 during the Festival of Britain. The setting suggests the ‘climactic atmosphere of a pseudo-Romantic orchestral concert’ (RL). ‘Newlands Beck’: one of the minor Lakeland valley waterways near Keswick in Cumbria, stony beds and picturesque ‘white’ falls never far away. ‘Charlieu’: a commune at the northern end of the Rhône-Alpes, the intimacy of town and smallness of population scarcely changed since the French Revolution.

Humoresque Op.33 for bassoon (2008–09)* Premiered by Miriam Butler, 7 August 2009, St Lawrence Jewry next Guildhall, London. A rhythmically challenging, ternary-structured tour de force for an instrument with ‘a propensity towards the grotesque’ (Berlioz), this piece explores equally the circus humour and ‘Russian’ pensiveness of the medium. RL: ‘It was begun in Valletta, Malta, overlooking Marsamxett harbour. Parts were written in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo, overlooking the South China Sea, and in Kuching, Sarawak, overlooking the Kuching River’.

Through the void, an angel’s cry Op.35a for soprano and piano (2009)† Text: Hilary Spiers. This is a transcription of a work for choir and piano, Sing to me, Sing, commissioned by Uppingham Choral Society to mark its fiftieth anniversary. RL: ‘It sets a specially-written poem reflecting on how the pace of modern life often obscures age-old Christian truths, underlining that in order to regenerate our inherent spirituality there is a need for stillness and calm in our lives. I first explored the over-commercialisation of Christmas – increasingly relevant – in an earlier work, the cantata A Life to Grow (1974/2008). Christmas is a time to reflect on peace and goodwill. This said, Hilary Spiers’ words possess a clearly wider universal significance, applicable throughout the year. The initial verses, each commencing with “Sing to me”, all start with falling fourths, alluding perhaps to a peal of bells. A prayer-like setting of “Through this broken world, a sigh” occurs twice in the minor. Its transformation into the major affirms that “Christ is with us, Christ is here!” To conclude, a final, hushed statement of “Sing to me, sing”, likewise uplifted modally’. Dedicated to Claire Lees, the music opens in D minor. But finds its adieu in E major, the devotional key of Beethoven contemplating the starry heavens.

  1. Bassoon Sonata - I. Allego moderato
  2. Bassoon Sonata - II. Larghetto
  3. Bassoon Sonata - III. Allegro con spirito
  4. Nocturno em Carcavelos
  5. Counting the Beats - I. Counting the Beats
  6. Counting the Beats - II. Reproach
  7. Counting the Beats - III. She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep
  8. Counting the Beats - IV. Song: the Far Side of Your Moon
  9. Tallat Tune No. 6: Ostinato Download
  10. Two Piano Pieces - I ... the touches of sweet harmony
  11. Two Piano Pieces - II ... the sun breaks through the darkest clouds
  12. Tallat Tune No. 1: Criss-Cross
  13. Abigail's Jig
  14. Cantilena
  15. Five Short Pieces: Nos 1-4 - I. Empty Night (where are you?)
  16. Five Short Pieces: Nos 1-4 - II. To entice you
  17. Five Short Pieces: Nos 1-4 - III. The day we met
  18. Five Short Pieces: Nos 1-4 - IV. I learn my name
  19. Moments I. Dedham Vale
  20. Moments II. Varennes - sous - Dun
  21. Moments III. The Royal Festival Hall
  22. Moments IV. Newlands Beck
  23. Moments V. Charlieu
  24. Humoresque
  25. Through the void, an angel's cry