Piano Sonata

Raymond Clarke (piano) (Diversions 24111)
By kind permission of Divine Art Recordings

I composed this Piano Sonata in 1987. It is dedicated Raymond Clarke who gave the premiere in January of the following year. It was composed immediately after my Second Symphony, a work which had occupied me for over two years; by contrast, the sonata was written rather quickly. The two works have quite a lot in common: as well as sharing some harmonic material, both are highly dramatic and aggressive and both are driven by a palpable sense of protest. In this last respect, the works have a political dimension, written as they were by a young musician coming of age in Thatcher’s Britain (I was in the middle of writing the second movement of the sonata when Margaret Thatcher achieved her third term of office) and who deplored everything she and her government represented. I wished to give voice to my fury – as one does at the age of 23 – and one of the results was this piano sonata. When the piece was recorded in 1998, I took the opportunity to make one or two revisions to he work: the ferocity of expression, however, was not toned down one jot.

The work is in two parts: slow and fast. Part One is divided in half, with each half comprising a long theme with four variations. After a dramatic introductory flourish, the first theme unfolds. It begins in the bass and gradually rises through more than three octaves before falling back once again. It is accompanied throughout by dense chords in the bass, which sound rather like muffled drums, lending the whole passage the sense of a funeral march. The first variation intensifies every aspect of the theme (including its funereal associations), whilst the second is a solemn sequence of chords, rising to a climax at the exact centre before reversing its course (it is a strict palindrome). Variation three is linear, basically a two-part invention, and prepares the way for the climactic fourth variation. At its height, the music is abruptly cut off and the second set of variations begins. Here the theme is, in harmonic terms, a radical simplification of he first one. It revolves obsessively around the note B and, with its increasingly elaborate ornamentation and drone-like accompaniment (consisting only of the notes B and F-sharp), it has the quality of an incantation or a lament. The first two variations mark a gradual increase of tension, whilst the third is brutal and recalls the dramatic flourishes from the movement’s opening. The final variation forms a quiet coda and, like number two of the earlier set of variations, is a solemn procession of chords bringing Part One to a mysterious conclusion.

Part Two answers the deep introspection of Part One with an outburst of sustained energy. It begins with the same chord that ended the previous movement and flickers into life before exploding into the first of three toccatas. The music is driven by ostinato patterns and is highly virtuosic throughout. Although the three toccatas maintain the same unifying tempo they are dominated respectively by quavers, triplets and semiquavers, so the effect is that of the surface of the music speeding up. At the same time the harmony actually slows down so that the music effectively moves from volatility to stability. Essential to this process is a quiet interlude between the second and third toccatas in which material from Part One is recalled and absorbed into the fast tempo. The third and final toccata then acts as a gradual build-up to the climax of the whole work and the firm establishment of the key of A major.

John Pickard