This MusicReview International article from 2000 reviews the original release of Stephen Dodgson’s piano sonatas performed by the late Bernard Hughes and subsequently reissued in 2019.
Piano Sonatas Vol. 1
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1975) [18.35]
Piano Sonata No. 4 (1987) [20.59]
Piano Sonata No. 5 (1992) [19.33]
Bernard Roberts (piano)
CLAUDIO CC4431-2 [59.10]
Piano Sonatas Vol. 2
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1959) [16.11]
Piano Sonata No. 3 Variations on a Rhythm (1983) [21.37]
Piano Sonata No. 6 (1994) [27.14]
Bernard Roberts (piano)
CLAUDIO CC4941-2 [66.44]
Stephen Dodgson is likely to be a name familiar to anyone interested in the literature of the classical guitar. His music however should be recognised for a much broader range of achievement … and pleasure. There is a Bassoon Concerto (premiered by Martin Gatt, no less), a Guitar Concerto recorded by John Williams during the 1970s. The Idyll – a light music genre piece – has been broadcast by the London Studio Strings conducted by Timothy Reynish. In 1975 the BBC broadcast the premiere of his impressive Magnificat for choir and orchestra. Dodgson was for many years a teacher at the RCM and for four decades his name has been known to listeners to BBC Radio 3 as a stimulating reviewer and commentator.
His piano music has not made much headway amongst the torrent of material produced every year by composers and publishers. The sonatas (or some of them) have had the odd broadcast on BBC Radio 3. The most notable and challenging occasion was when Robert Simpson included one of the sonatas (I am sorry, I don’t know which) in one of his ‘Innocent Ear’ programmes in which music was played unannounced except by reference to genre (symphony, sonata, string quartet etc) and only identified afterwards. This sort of challenging exercise seems to be beyond the BBC at present and was dropped after a few ‘shots’ during the 1970s and 1980s.
Bernard Roberts has championed the Dodgson piano sonatas since 1970s. His premieres of the sonatas are as follows: No. 3 Cheltenham Festival (1985); No. 4 Dartington Summer School; No. 5 Sixtieth Birthday Concert at Wigmore Hall (1993) and No. 6 Richmond Concert Society (1997). Bernard Roberts commissioned all of these.
Volume 1 of these two CDs was issued in Summer 1998 and the second at Christmas 1999.
All of the sonatas are characterised by a strong feeling of constant change and activity. The Second’s sense of peaceful benediction is reinforced by music suggestive of small glacial hammers. Entrancing rough rhythmed repeated figures fanfare and dance. The second movement (there are only two) closes with music redolent of sleight of hand in which playing cards are repeatedly inverted and turned back and inverted and so on. The sonata ends calmly like a fan quietly folded away.
The Fourth’s galloping percussiveness is cheerily Poulencian. This canter harnesses Petrushka with Gershwin. The music at other times seems to be stepping through the fragments of rhythmic ideas. There is dissonance here but nothing to cause panic. That element simply adds savour. Hungarian bagpipes skirl in the fourth movement which bids farewell in a music-box turn of phrase. This work offers a dizzying display of shakes and trills, of tensions built and released in pearly runs of steely fountains of icy waters and slow-stepping melodic shrapnel. This last element seals the sonata’s lips.
A bell-like dissonance rumbles and cannonades through the Fifth Sonata. Rhythmic ticks, collage-like fragments, hammer-struck icicles, a strolling aggression and a tumble of bell-calls jostle in the first two movements. Waltonian jazziness is to be found in the last movement. This element is jumpily pushed several degrees closer to Bernstein and this is done with a high leavening of dissonance. The Finale, alive with inventive excitement, brings the house down.
The first sonata has a very English strolling theme decked around with dissonant ‘Christmas decoration’. Reference points include music-box Petrushka-isms, a touch of Beethoven (the fate motif from symphony no. 5) and some deftly oddball Gallicism (Satie and Milhaud). The music is avant-garde but nowhere near as tough as the Siegmeister piano music I have recently reviewed. The sonata ends in roguish cheekiness and a sense of indulgently paid-out ‘rope’.
The Third Sonata is, for me, a major discovery. A gracious theme of nostalgic beauty (matching the heart’s-ease of Barber’s Knoxville) is presented with apposite pacing and context. The restful andantino is part Bach and part Finzi (or that’s as close an approximation as I can give) in its night-sky rumination. There is some horsing around but the music seems to inhabit a closed world of sideways glances, loving whispers and warm asides. That fine andante theme rounds out the sonata amid placid waters. There is no trace of sentimentality. A most impressive and loveable work.
The Sixth Sonata is a much more oblique offering. Tough if you have been brought up on Ireland and Bax but clearly a work of enduring inspiration. The memorable episodes include convulsive melody, the manner of an enclosed garden rendered impressionistically, the sheer beauty of the lightly floating dance at 6.10 (andante con moto first movement) and the nocturnal manoeuvres of the finale.
The notes (English only) are by Wilfred Mellers (vol. 1) and Malcolm Miller (vol. 2). We could have done with a lot more information about Dodgson and a complete list of his works and a far more detailed biographical essay should be available on the internet.
The leaflets of both volumes sport the blue and ochre wash of Summer Trees by artist Clive Randall. This was painted in the composer’s garden. On the back of each of the insert booklets there is a nicely relaxed photograph of Bernard Roberts and the composer.
Overall, the music on these two discs (will there be more I wonder) conveys a spirit of grown-up charm, clarity, bell timbres, catchy rhythmic cells and gamelan fertility.
On the technical side we get first class piano sound. The project is lifted by the great artistry of Bernard Roberts – excellent both in the articulation of much dazzling fast music and in probing the poignant heart of the more reflective sections. I fondly recall his broadcasts of Goldschmidt’s piano sonata and (in 1973) Medtner’s Night Wind sonata.
A recommendable pair of discs. If you want to try one first then go for Vol.2 and sonata No. 3. If you don’t like that sonata you may need to try something else.