Howard Skempton – Piano Concerto (World Première)

by 5:4

Another interesting première from 2016, also performed at the Tectonics festival, also for piano and orchestra, also featuring John Tilbury as soloist, is Howard Skempton‘s Piano Concerto. This is a work that i’ve been more than usually interested to hear. In conversations throughout the last couple of years, Howard has talked about this piece with me on numerous occasions, though his marvellously inscrutable way of describing it meant that, beyond knowing there was a Stravinsky connection, and that 12-note ideas were not unimportant, the piece remained pretty much a mystery. In fact, it turns out the link to Stravinsky is a big one, organisationally: Skempton has modelled his concerto on Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra, both by structuring the work in five short movements and also by utilising virtually the same instrumentation (substituting a second bassoon for Stravinsky’s clarinet, adding a pair of horns and ditching the harp and celesta).

But that’s as far as the similarities go: a world away from Stravinsky’s tightly-wound, “anti-tonal” attitude (as he famously described it), Skempton’s concerto is just as warm and charming as anyone familiar with his work will have come to expect. And discombobulating too, nowhere more so than in the third and fifth movements, the latter of which is not, i think, Skempton’s finest music; a hitherto unpublished rondo that Tilbury suggested be the final movement, everything about it resembles the elegant blah that one hears in financial adverts (and period films that don’t wish to sound period) and which Classic FM can’t get enough of. The former is delightfully weird: following an off-kilter introduction that feels like a brief serialist homage—though more of a Second Viennese flavour than a Stravinskian one—Skempton draws on the spirit of English Light Music, with light jazz inflections and harmonic cadential pile-ups thrown in to confuse things still further.

The other three movements have greater depth, are more expansive and altogether more impressive. The first movement brings to mind the style of Messiaen’s ‘ecstatic’ movements, filled with slow but regular chords, clean and radiant, not at all consonant but sounding as though they are. The unexpected short coda for piano alone introduces an iambic (short-long) rhythmic idea that will prove important elsewhere. It’s heard throughout the second movement, initially at the end of up/down arpeggios from the soloist, but soon as the basis for a beautiful network of strings sustaining the piano’s notes, creating a rarefied atmosphere of stillness coloured with varying shades of light and shadow. Most straightforward of all, though, and also the most lovely, is the fourth movement, based around sedate rising and falling sequences of pitches from the piano, again stretched out by the orchestra, resulting in rich, Takemitsu-like suspensions, as though the music were hanging in the air. At first the notes are regular, but before long the iambic rhythm takes over again, at the end not so much finishing as being switched off.

There’s a difference between simplicity and simplification: Skempton’s music, typified in that fourth movement, is always the former, unfailingly managing to find the perfect balance of elements that results in a kind of refined but modest clarity. This is not a small thing to achieve. Strange, wondrous, playful and even a bit WTF, Skempton’s Piano Concerto is a typically leftfield addition to the repertoire, and that’s no bad thing. The world première was given by John Tilbury with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.

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Chris L

I can see why you didn’t like the last movement – there’s more than a little of Philip Glass about it!



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