Stephen Dodgson is one of those composers who seems to have been off the radar for a long time. I remember enjoying his two guitar concertos at some time in the late seventies/early eighties. Since then he seems to have been largely absent from BBC Radio 3 and a brief online search for recordings of his music comes up with very little. This is surprising because his compositional style, whilst unconventional, is mainly tonal and very accessible. Whilst being recognisably English his music is difficult to describe as being like that of other composers (with the possible exception of Janacek, whom Dodgson admired) because its voice, like that of Britten, is relatively original. At the same time it is devoid of any fashionable gimmickry, such as minimalism, and I suppose this probably doesn’t help its cause – at least in the short term.
Dodgson composed nearly 250 works, including four symphonies and no fewer than 18 concertante pieces, but he preferred to write vocal works and – particularly – chamber music. In fact he was happy to write for unusual combinations of instruments on request (with a particular focus on guitar, harpsichord and recorder) – but this may be another reason for neglect. After initial performances such combinations of instrumentalists don’t tend to get together too often. That said, he didn’t avoid traditional forms such as string quartets. Fortunately, amongst Dodgson’s few champions, we have the Tippett Quartet – who have recorded all the nine mature string quartets for Dutton and the three quintets on the present disc.
The first piano quintet was commissioned by the Battle Festival (in Sussex) in 1966 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the Norman conquest. Excerpts from a programme note by Dodgson in the CD booklet refer to “evocations of bell chimes and the clash of arms” finding their way into the music “in an attempt to evoke that battle of nearly a millennium ago”. Whilst there are a few discordant outbursts in the first movement and the bell chimes are evident in the fourth movement Maestoso I cannot say that the sounds of battle were obvious to me and, had I not been aware of the commission, the suggestion of armed conflict would never have occurred to me. The opening Largo movement reflects the Janacek approach of developing small cells and (as one of the quoted obituaries suggests) the music rarely follows an obvious path and often has little, if any, thematic development. The Andantino second movement is gentle, with pizzicato strings supported by a quiet piano. The notes refer to “more directly ferocious peasant aggression” and “rustic cavortings” in the third movement Allegro Assai but, for me, this movement is almost jovial, with lots of scale passages and sudden silences. Somewhat surprisingly, the closing movement is a bit disjointed but there are further suggestions of tolling bells before the joyous and even celebratory ending. It’s all very listenable, if not very hummable.
The enigmatic three-movement string quintet comes next, starting with a questioning Allegro moderato using groups of gently stabbing repeated notes. The middle movement Andante is marked by resinous chordal exchanges between the instruments and, here, the music tends to stand still rather a lot – developing around a point – with little variation in tempo. Similarly, despite a spooky passage (marked “ghostly”), dynamics tend to be unvaried – although this is not a problem. The Allegretto third movement builds around a motto theme based on five repeated notes. This is an attractive work but, for me, not quite as listenable as the piano quintets.
The second piano quintet dates from 1999 and it was commissioned to mark the millennium. Unlike the other two quintets, which each last over half an hour, this work seems to have been intended to last only about 17 minutes – although it takes nearer 20 in the present performance (which doesn’t sound too slow). The booklet notes comment that the piece “marks a consolidation of Dodgson’s techniques” and it really doesn’t inhabit a sound world far removed from the earlier piano quintet. The composer’s style has not evolved much – but perhaps it simply didn’t need to evolve. The opening Allegro comodo is punctuated by a brief ‘cello melody. The second movement is a nocturne (marked Alla fantasia – Allegretto) with muted strings and odd passages of tremolando. Dodgson’s own note draws attention, tongue-in-cheek, to the rustic character (“pesante!”) of the last movement (Moderato e pesante) which slightly recalls elements of the earlier piano quintet before a festive conclusion.
There is no competition but, fortunately, all the performances are absolutely splendid and quite beautifully recorded and balanced, with a pleasingly wide sound stage. The piano sound in particular is exemplary. Booklet notes are by John Warrack and are models of their kind. Toccata can be proud of this generously-filled offering which is a very worthwhile and welcome addition to the discography of an unjustly neglected composer.
Stephen DODGSON (1924-2013)
Piano Quintet No. 1 in C (1966) [30:08]
String Quintet (1986) [31:38]
Piano Quintet No. 2 (1999) [19:43]
Emma Abbate (piano), Susan Monks (cello)
rec. Church of St. Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London 5-7 January 2016
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0357 [81:32]