Dodgson Sonatas – Vol. 2 – Bernard Roberts – piano – CC4941
£9.99 – £15.99
“As with the first volume, the recorded sound is very good with the piano sound coming across well. I would also agree with Rob, that if you wanted to dip you toe in the water to try out Dodgson’s piano music with just a single disc, then this disc is the one to choose, with the Sonata No. 3 acting as the best example of the composer and his music”
Sonata No. 1 in F
Alongside an extensive, seminal oeuvre for the ‘plucked string instruments’, guitar, harpsichord and harp for which he is best-known, the internationally renowned composer and broadcaster Stephen Dodgson has also produced an impressively varied output of piano music, which spans his whole career. Dating from his student days at the Royal College of Music (where he later became a Professor) is his first solo piano work, the Prelude & Fugue (1949) which evinces an interest in traditional forms that remained a constant feature. Two early Piano Sonatas, in C sharp minor (1950) and in B (1951), showed early promise but it was in 1959 that he wrote his first mature example of the genre, the Piano Sonata no.l in F, premiered by Ian Lake the following year.
Immediately recognisable in this three- movement work is Dodgson’s distinctive syntax, developmental and full of textural variety to keep the listener ever attentive. Particularly engaging is the balance of classical convention and contemporary colour, shown in the clear demarcations of sonata principle sections in the first two movements. In the Allegro con brio, the first subject, a rising motif with a memorable short-short-long rhythm is immediately expanded and developed and contrasted with a more lyrical smoother second subject in the expected dominant key of C. Unexpectedly however a third theme is then introduced, neo-classical in its elegance and tripping daintily until it explodes into double octaves and gradually evolves towards an emphatic gesture of three loud chords. This signals the development section in which the initial theme is discussed then swells to a climax from which it is stated con forza in rising octaves, announcing the recapitulation. The first subject continues quietly, embellished with trills and leading to repetitions (in the tonic key of F) of the second and third subjects and the loud chordal gesture, expanded and repeated. At this point, like Beethoven’s later sonatas, an extended coda ensues with further development of the initial motifs, but the concluding cadence, an F major triad with the dissonant minor seventh, leaves the movement open-ended.
Also Classic-Romantic in concept is the tonal scheme of the abridged sonata form of the slow movement, whose key – D flat major – is the flat submediant of the main F major, a favourite choice of composers like Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. Here the first subject bears striking similarities to that of the first movement, a rising short-short-long pattern which then descends through an arpeggio of the home key and is developed until a starkly contrasting second subject appears, etched in octaves and chords over a driving ‘alberti bass’ (a texture that remains a hallmark of Dodgson’s keyboard idiom). Here the harmony is expressive – moving from the tonic minor (now rewritten as C sharp minor) to A sharp minor, but coming to a quiet close in A major, from where the first theme resumes. Such unpredictable tonal shifts of a semitone add to the tension, as does the addition of a new jerky rhythmic layer in what turns out to be development of both themes and which also pervades the reprise in the original (expected) D flat major. A final repetition of the second theme highlights once more the semitonal key relation of D minor prior to the final tonic cadence.
A breezy Rondo crowns the work, its ironic waltz theme, redolent of Shostakovich perhaps, emerging from a trill motif, and enlivened with hemiola syncopations (three beats in the time of two). The first episode introduces a contrasting lyrical melody in two-part texture, interspersed with both repeated notes and the trill motif, and leading through an efflorescent cadenza back to to the rondo waltz theme; another contrasting theme appears maintaining momentum until the final Rondo theme rounds off the Sonata with panache.
Sonata No.3 – Variations on a Rhythm
There is a radical evolution of style between the Sonata No.l in F and the Sonata No.3 (Variations on a Rhythm) composed in 1983, which as its subtitle implies is a set of variations in all but name. In between came the Five Impromptus (1962), Four Moods of the Wind (1968) and the Piano Sonata No.2 (1975), a work which introduced the composer to the distinguished pianist Bernard Roberts. The two have enjoyed a fruitful creative friendship ever since, evinced in the commission of the Sonata No.3 in 1982 by Kevin Kiddoo, an American pianist, who became a fervent admirer of Roberts while studying in London. He specified that the work should form a tribute to J.S.Bach as part of the Tercentenary Celebrations in 1985 and be performed by Bernard Roberts. It was during the composition of Sonata- Divisions for Harpsichord that Dodgson conceived the original idea for the sonata: a set of variations not on a theme but a rhythmic pattern, a pattern whose ‘…sequence of pulses was not chosen for mathematical reasons, but because they felt a strangely satisfying proportion…’ As Dodgson also observed: ‘…It is not the technical wizardry one loves in Bach but the amazing naturalness with which his prodigious feats are accomplished. The naturalness is the challenge.’ Nevertheless, in his choice of beat patterns for the rhythmic ‘theme’, there are clear structural principles, notably two waves of intensity towards extended groups of 10 and 20 pulses respectively.
To illustrate the four-phrase ‘theme’ the composer himself produced a witty epigram:
“Bernard Roberts (4 beats) is a pianist who (5) Happens (2) To play well (3) Give him your attention for a moment, (10)
Then you (2) May find out (3) How this music works. (5) Not a strain upon the mind; (7)
Never; (2) Never that. (3) Constant groups of little patterns, (8) Plus a longer one that spirals up and up and turns the comer at its climax, (20)
And at last (3);
Three Blind Mice (3 – optional codetta)”
The large scale design of the Sonata is in three parts; the first and last each with six variations and the central movement an extended single variation. Yet there is also a teleology in the drive towards greater intensity and excitement in the third part. Framing the first part are two sections in which the ‘theme’ is presented unadorned, initially an alteration of line and chord and later in variation six, a sustained hymn like chordal texture. The intervening variations explore a range of textures: No.2 embellishes the main beats with contrasting dynamics, resonant chords and decorative figures, No.3 unfolds a smooth polyphony while No.4 is a sardonic burlesque that introduces swirling scale patterns against which the ‘theme’ is etched boldly as also, with even greater tension and emphasis, in No.5.
Part two is an ingenious three-part invention which emulates Bachian counterpoint, by combining versions of the theme at different speeds in each of three voices. Over the slowest voice, the bass, the two upper voices intertwine intricately until, over the final sustained bass note, they both combine for a cadenza-like restatement of the entire theme.
The final part begins with a choppy syncopated texture followed by variation 9 in which repetitive arpeggios form a backdrop to the emphatic melody in octaves and sixths. The intensity increases in variation 10, the theme challenged by an insistent broken octave bass, and variation 11 in which relentless triplets almost swamp the pulse pattern below. As opposed to Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations op. 125, where the intensification process is abated in the penultimate variation, here variation 12 brings the climax, the theme proclaimed senza misura boldly interspersed with dramatic tremolandi.
These fade away to introduce the final nocturne-like variation, its long-breathed melody and consonant harmony in C major sweeping away earlier turmoil and dissonance, and offering a poetic conclusion of visionary serenity.
Sonata No. 6
The panoply of pianistic sonorities and textures explored in Sonata No.3, almost as a series of ‘Etudes’, makes it a truly virtuoso work. Subsequent sonatas also benefited from the creative interaction with Bernard Roberts, No.4 (1988), No.5 (1992) and particularly Sonata No.6 (1994), as Dodgson has written: ‘…In the Spring of 1993 Bernard Roberts made a brilliant recording of Sonatas No.2, 4 & 5 (Claudio Records, CC4431-2) …I trace the origins of no.6 to the artistic impetus those sessions provided’. Like the Sonata no.l in F, the three-movement form is infused with developmental processes essential to sonata style. Yet here the conventional classical outlines are abandoned in favour of original designs arising from the material. Tonality is more fluid and unpredictable, harmony more lucid, varied textures more delineated, and there is a new postmodernist element in the sense of detachment from, and self- awareness of past traditions, epitomised in the use of a Chaconne for the finale.
The first movement shows minimalist tendencies in its attractive moto perpetuo- like figuration flowing in a simple C major from which several distinct motifs are highlighted and developed: the initial delicate theme, then a harsher repeated note idea, a sprightly dotted rhythm and a chordal motif which gradually builds to a climax before the movement recedes. The Scherzo combines Bartokian syncopated zest with caustic impetuousness reminiscent of Mussorgsky or Prokofiev. At its climax an impassioned central Trio breaks in, its falling semitone motif etched out and expanded against an ‘alberti’ bass. After a return of the Scherzo which fragments and fades, that falling semitone motif, expanded and developed, forms the bass theme at the outset of the final movement. From this six-bar theme, a series of Chaconne-like variations evolves, with several clearly audible motifs that serve to unify an excitingly diverse fabric rich in virtuoso effects and unpredictable, complex harmony. A slow sustained version of theme interrupts proceedings towards the end, providing respite just before a final fizzing development and dazzling conclusion. Malcolm Miller © 1999
While some parts of Stephen Dodgson’s work have become relatively well-known – in particular his music for guitar, which has an international reputation – much of his output is known only partially and to a limited circle.
His distinctive and idiomatic writing for the piano has in only two instances been prompted by commissions (Sonatas Nos. 2 & 3). All the rest has arisen from purely personal impulses.
Understandably, a good deal of other piano music (including several sonatas) preceded No.l (1959) written when he was 35. No.2 was commissioned by Thomas McIntosh, who gave the premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London in 1975.
It was this work, in addition to several items of chamber music, which introduced Stephen Dodgson to Bernard Roberts. Their association was strengthened when an American admirer of Bernard Roberts commissioned No.3 (1983) especially for him. All subsequent sonatas, now stretching to No.6 (1994) have been premiered by Roberts, who has thereby become an important stimulus in their genesis.
Stephen Dodgson was for many years a teacher at the Royal College of Music, London, where he had himself been a student post-war. For 40 years he has been a well-known reviewer/commentator on the radio in addition to supplying many scores for BBC drama productions over the years. He continued an active and developed his career as composer from his home in London.
Bernard Roberts had long been acknowledged as one of Britain’s leading pianists. His repertoire ranged from the early classics to the great works of the 20th century, and his Beethoven interpretations have received particular acclaim. His highly praised recordings of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas are all available on compact disc on the Nimbus label and featured recently on the Classic FM hit parade.
Bernard Roberts had performed at all the major British music festivals, and had been associated with Dartington International Summer School for many years. He had toured abroad in the U.S., Far East and Southern Africa and also works regularly in Germany and Denmark. He had broadcast for BBC Radio 3 for many years, and first broadcast a Sonata by Stephen Dodgson in the programme “The Innocent Ear”, devised by the late Robert Simpson. That was in the ‘seventies, since when he had premiered Sonata No. 3 at the Cheltenham Festival in 1985, Sonata No. 4 at the Dartington Summer School, No. 5 at his 60th birthday concert in the Wigmore Hall in 1993, and No.6 at the Richmond Concert Society in 1997.
Review: I – Gramophone Magazine
This is the sequel to Bernard Roberts’s earlier Claudio disc of Stephen Dodgson’s Second, Fourth and Fifth Piano Sonatas (9/98). This time the music spans a 35-year period from 1959 (Sonata No 1) to 1994 (No 6), by way of 1983 and the Third Sonata, which I find the most interesting and successful of the three.
Dodgson (b1924) is one of the best British pupils Nadia Boulanger never had. His music is closer to that of Lennox Berkeley than Walton’s or Britten’s, evoking Prokofiev, Shostakovich and the more serious side of Poulenc, to name only the most obvious associations, and its avoidance of textbook Englishness in anaemic pastoral vein is welcome. It works best in the kind of pointed economy that goes well with the variation structure of No 3. Even here, however, the central Andantino lacks cogency, and the more extended dimensions of the other works (especially the Sonata No 6) encourage a tendency to sprawl, to linger for too long over rather routine ideas and splashy gestures, and to make too little of the possibilities for contrast inherent in the musical language.
Nevertheless, Roberts is a sprightly advocate, responding to every expressive nuance in what is always admirably idiomatic piano writing. The recording is brightly forward, with excellent presence throughout. Arnold Whittall.
Review: II – Music Web International
In my review of volume one I said that I hoped that volume two of Bernard Roberts’s survey of the piano sonatas of Stephen Dodgson would reappear soon, and within a month here it is. I am glad to say that it carries on from the excellent presentation of the previous record and produces another wonderful disc that all fans of the music of Dodgson will want. Sadly, as of yet, no one seems to have taken up the Piano Sonata No. 7 of 2003, so let us hope that this will be recorded by an enterprising record label soon.
The First Sonata was not Dodgson’s first attempt in the medium, with two earlier examples in C sharp minor (1950) and in B Major (1951). However, these were shelved, the present Sonata in F of 1959 becoming the composer’s first mature example. In the opening movement, the opening motif is instantly repeated and then expanded before being replaced by a rhythmic, dotted second theme. The music then returns to a more disjointed style. The second movement opens with a theme reminiscent of that in the first movement with its rising short motif, before the more expansive second theme takes over. This is interrupted at times with short outbursts of more dissonant music. The final movement begins with a trill-like theme in the right hand, leading to a more lyrical section which is interspersed with short snatches of the trill theme before it takes over completely and rushes to the work’s conclusion.
The Sonata No. 3 differs from the others in this series in that the usual three movements are replaced with a series of variations, some thirteen index points in all. However, these variations are still divided into three sections. This is the most complex, as well as most rewarding of his sonatas. As the subtitle suggests, the variations are based upon a rhythm rather than a theme as would be more usual. It opens with a slow presentation of the rhythm, which acts as the thematic material for the whole work, with varied and, at times, quite diverse presentations require take close attention to make sure that the same rhythmic pulse is present, before the final slow presentation of the rhythm finishes the work in a manner close to how it all began. This is a piece that requires repeated listening. You hear more in it every time you hear it, and for this reason it has proven to be my favourite and the most rewarding of the six sonatas I have heard.
The Sixth Sonata was Dodgson’s final sonata at the time of recording, with the Seventh and last sonata appearing some four years after the recording sessions. In some ways this is the most English of the six that I know, with tinges of Arnold Bax as well as the later composers Lennox Berkeley and Alan Rawsthorne. It is again in three movements with some nice dance-like material, especially in the first movement. The central movement contains some more agitated rhythmic passages while the finale is a “chaconne-like” set of variations on a theme that makes a sustained appearance again towards the end of the movement.
This is a fine companion disc to volume one, one which provides further proof that Stephen Dodgson was an accomplished composer for the piano, whilst the playing of Bernard Roberts is excellent once again. The booklet notes on the music by Malcom Miller are very good, although I do think they presume a rather advanced knowledge and understanding of musical terminology. I agree with Rob that a little more biographical information would have been nice, but now that Dodgson and his music is becoming more readily available, information is more easily tracked down, with a website dedicated to the composer and his music as well as an entry in the pages of a certain well-known internet encyclopaedia. As with the first volume, the recorded sound is very good with the piano sound coming across well. I would also agree with Rob, that if you wanted to dip you toe in the water to try out Dodgson’s piano music with just a single disc, then this disc is the one to choose, with the Sonata No. 3 acting as the best example of the composer and his music. Stuart Sillitoe.