Julian Perkins (clavichord) PRIMA FACIE PFCD065/66

There is something delightful about how the creativity of talented composers and performers is heightened when faced with supposedly limited resources. The poor reception of Howells’ Second Piano Concerto in 1925, provoked a crisis of confidence in the young composer. Following his acquaintance with the clavichord-makerHerbert Lambert, Howells began a new love affair with the clavichord, a domestic instrument of bygone ages, to compose some of his most surprising and inventive miniatures.

Not only are the pieces found in Lambert’s Clavichord (written in a summer flurry in 1927), and Howells’ Clavichord, written between 1941 and 1958, personal homages to friends and colleagues, each piece dedicated to a grandee of the English musical establishment, but they connect the composer with a past era of English musical glory. Needless to say, although the pieces of Lambert’s Clavichord are more obviously inspired by the composers and keyboard styles found in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, as Howells progresses into his later work for clavichord, we hear nods to other sound worlds from J. S. Bach to jazz. There is something gentlemanly about the way Howells absorbs and combines the styles of old music, and the music of his contemporaries (he directly quotesRubbra, Dyson, and Walton in the pieces dedicated to those composers), with music of a distinctly developed ‘Howellsian’ flavour. Yet, at the same time, one feels the composer cements his own reputation as a truly well-connected English composer. There is a sense that these pieces of great domestic intimacy also provide a snapshot of the whole of contemporary English musical society, with Herbert Howells as the epicentre.

Indeed, this first recording of the complete published clavichord music of Herbert Howells, actually played on the clavichord (John McCabe recorded the same works on the piano in 1994 forHyperion onCDH55152) seems to be a happy love triangle between composer, performer and the instruments played, and surely one that is welcomed, given the composer’s own penchant for the instrument. Reading the CD notes, one is struck by the labour of love that has gone into the recording. Affectionately dedicated to the late Ruth Dyson in her centenary year, who had previously recorded Lambert’s Clavichord and a selection of pieces from Howells’ Clavichord, there are detailed notes written by Andrew Mayes. There are also notes on the instruments and how they were chosen from the performer and the clavichord maker Peter Bavington: a Dolmetsch (1925) clavichord for Lambert’s Clavichord, and a Bavington (2015) clavichord for Howell’s Clavichord. For two pieces (‘Goff’s Fireside’ and‘Patrick’s Siciliano’) a delightful, yet intimately voiced Thomas Goff clavichord (1952) is used. At first, such a meagre homage to an instrument appropriate to Howells’ own era seems odd, but as is often the case with music of the greatest vision and ingenuity, the desire to choose an instrument that can capture both the essence of an authentic sound world needs to be balanced with the demands of the composer, especially when recording an instrument that normally functions at the lowest dynamic level. Furthermore, the sleeve notes warn the listener that they may experience a ‘certain amount of action noise’ as such instruments need to be recorded at close range. As a listener, such intimacy with the instruments feels a privilege, and it is beautifully judged by the engineers on this recording. It is one that can only be enjoyed in the modern age through sound recording. Gone are the days when every home housed a clavichord!

Julian Perkins’ performances match the originality and creativity of Howells’ music. Indeed, the playing itself champions the cause to hear these pieces played on the clavichord, such that the listener may find it difficult to return to the hackneyed sound-world of the piano. As Howells’ compositional skills seem to exist in a playpen of creativity, so Perkins’ playing evokes sounds one would think unimaginable on such an instrument. The performer’s experience of keyboard music of the past is a great asset to the skill and understanding with which he performs these works, which often foray into realms of advanced modernity. The lyricism of the playing in intimate gems such as ‘Lambert’s Fireside’,and the Purcellian ‘Wortham’s Grounde’ in Lambert’s Clavichord’; and ‘Goff’s Fireside’ (a real highlight on the 1952 instrument, and a striking change of colour on the recording), and the touching epitaph ‘Finzi’s rest’ in Howells’ Clavichord, is counterbalanced by playing of extraordinary zest and vibrancy. Perkins conjures a brass like fanfare in ‘E B’s Fanfarando’, whilst seeming to evoke mosquito-like buzzing from the quiet trills. A pleasing feel for the slow dance of the gentlemanly ‘Dyson’s Delight’, with its delicious English harmonic twists, is immediately offset by music that feels like it has emerged from the jazz-club in pieces such as ‘Jacob’s Brawl’, and ‘Hughes’s Ballet’. There are moments in these upbeat pieces that achieve a percussiveness that would be impossible even on the modern piano. Perkins’ touch at the keyboard often evokes the sounds of the lute and guitar, especially in the attractive ‘Julian’s Dream’ a homage to the lutenist and guitarist, Julian Bream. Howells’ Clavichord concludes with ‘Walton’s Toye’ an explicit extemporisation on Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial. Such deference to a musical colleague, whilst at the same time epitomising his own personal style, is indicative of the pleasure this collection of endlessly surprising pieces can give. Highly recommended for both clavichord aficionados, as well as the uninitiated!

 

Gavin Roberts