Rhinegold Murray McLachlan: 'Working on this recording was an intense but pleasurable experience'

Murray McLachlan

Recording Edward Gregson’s complete piano music

4:35, 28th October 2020

A new disc of Edward Gregson’s complete music for solo piano has been released by Naxos. Murray McLachlan shares his experiences of performing and recording these well-crafted and appealing works

2020 is the 75th birthday year of Edward Gregson, and this new Naxos CD is one of three Gregson recordings issued to celebrate this landmark. The composer is well known for his brass music and concertos (much of it released on Chandos) but this new Naxos project highlights his chamber music and lesser known works.

It is an exciting programme with a huge stylistic and emotional range, as well as an unprecedented number of world premiere recordings. It was a great pleasure to prepare the music, as my association with Gregson has lasted for nearly 20 years. In 2001 I performed Gregson’s Concerto for Piano and Wind three times under the conductor En Shao with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Royal Northern College of Music and Queen’s Hall Edinburgh. Seven years later I performed the concerto again in Manchester under the baton of the composer. It is a youthful, tuneful, vibrant and accessible work that lies comfortably under the fingers. It was a great joy to play. It made me want to play and teach more Gregson, and over the years I have particularly championed the Six Little Piano Pieces (1982) and the Piano Sonata in one movement (1983).

Whether Gregson is inspired by Tippett (dedicatee of the sonata), Schoenberg (serial techniques in the Six Little Pieces), Bartók (third of a new set of Etudes), Mahler (Friday am) or Bach (Baroque movements from An Album for my Friends) his music is always direct, well-crafted and practical.  There are many Gregsonian signature trademarks that stand out throughout all his piano music – favoured harmonic shifts, an orchestral approach to writing for the piano, energetic rhythms – but for me, the overriding emphasis in this composer’s work is the need to communicate directly. There is a great confidence about all of Gregson’s music, and though the styles he exploits are certainly varied, the rock-solid craftsmanship that lies at the root of his work is impressive. Much of it has universal appeal and the potential to be extremely popular beyond specialist circles.

The 11 movements of the 2011 Album for my Friends is a case in point. Who could fail to be charmed by the witty yet affectionate basis on which the music is constructed, complete with not only Bachian references but also near-quotations from Bartók, Stravinsky and many others? The music is not beyond the capabilities of grade 8 players, but equally it is not beneath the dignity of concert artists, who will find the set just as pleasurable to play. The refreshing lucidity and clarity of the writing complements the richness and diversity of expression contained within the neo-Baroque suite structure.

‘The rock-solid craftsmanship that lies at the root of Gregson’s work is impressive’

Working on this recording over a day and a half in Manchester’s Stoller Hall in early January this year, with the composer as producer, was an intense but pleasurable experience. It was wonderful to collaborate with a composer who knows not only what he wants from the piano, but also – crucially – how to get what he wants. Eddie himself is no mean pianist, having started at the Royal Academy of Music in London as a joint first-study composer and pianist. In this recording he plays the charmingly nostalgic track A song for Sue, written in 1966 for his wife as a transcription of the slow movement from an early concerto for piano and brass.

Equally popular in idiom is a wistful Lullaby from 1965, and a set of four easy-intermediate piano duet miniatures from 1982 written for Eddie’s children and here performed by my own daughter Rose on primo with myself on secondo. This is user-friendly music that could find enormous popularity with many fledging young duos. But perhaps the most friendly, emotionally direct and passionate track on the whole disc is Friday am from 1981, a stirringly expansive six-and-a-half minute outpouring that was inspired by the slow movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and which ends up sounding as though the great Gustav had just bumped into Dudley Moore in a 1990s New York jazz club.

The most recent music on this disc was finished literally days before recording commenced: the second and third etudes (I feel touched to have the second one dedicated to me) are typical of much of Gregson in their own ways. No 2 uses simple harmonic sequences in an expressively persuasive manner, while No 3 is furiously and infectiously energised with pounding rhythms. The first etude quotes Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto and turns the piano keyboard into the extended percussion section of a modern symphony orchestra.

The largest work in the recital, the Piano Sonata, is modelled on Michael Tippett’s Second Sonata, using a similar mosaic structure firmly anchored within the traditional parameters of classical sonata-allegro form. The textural and harmonic flavour of the Gregson Sonata is also highly influenced by Tippett, but somehow the work makes its presence felt beyond these most immediate and important influences. The pianistic writing is ferocious, but always ‘inside’ the piano. The structure is complex and multi-layered, yet never feels anything other than inevitable and natural. In this respect, it is similar to every other piece on the disc – which stands as a collection that makes no pretensions or abstract claims. This is practical and loveable music that speaks directly to listeners of all persuasions, whether specialist aficionados of the piano or general music lovers.

Edward Gregson: Complete Piano Works is now available from Naxos (Naxos 8574222) edwardgregson.com

Listen to Murray McLachlan perform the sixth of Gregson’s Six Little Piano Pieces, ‘With Energy’:

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