Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues; Three Nocturnes; Reflections; Images
William Howard (piano)
Orchid Classics ORC100116 72.28 mins
Speaking generally, the piano works of Howard Skempton (b1947) could be compared with a Bridget Riley painting: much more than the sum of simple dots – or sparse melodies. The 24 Preludes and Fugues (2019) follow in the tradition of JS Bach and Shostakovich. Each fugue takes its theme from the preceding prelude, moving quickly into the next tonal centre. Howard Skempton’s music is performed here by William Howard, who also premiered the collection at the Hay Festival last year. Howard, a long-time Skempton performer, gives the miniatures a Bach-like cleanliness – though, sadly, the recording does not always match the crispness of his pianism.
In a delightful wordy reflection, Skempton has revealed that he set himself some particular parameters for this recent work, confining each prelude and fugue to an A4 page and delivering a couplet each week. In this way, he aligns himself to many of his formative avant garde influences – such as Morton Feldman and John Cage – whose experiments with form are echoed throughout Skempton’s work.
One example is Images – comprising 20 pieces: eight preludes, eight interludes, two ‘songs’ and a short set of variations and a postlude (1994) – which contains the composer’s note ‘The performer of Images is free to play any selection of pieces in any order’. While John Tilbury chose to alternate Preludes and Interludes (Sony, 1996), Howard begins with Song 2, Prelude 3 and Interlude 8, a thoughtful approach that works well.
The 11 Reflections (1999-2002) – of which Howard is the dedicatee – and Three Nocturnes (1995) are beautifully executed.