Home listening: Howard Skempton piano works and more

Dedicatee William Howard shines in Skempton’s Preludes and Fugues; Italian pianist Alessio Bax keeps it close to home. Plus, the Royal Opera’s Norma on Radio 3

Howard Skempton’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano, performed by William Howard (Orchid Classics), for whom they were written, take inspiration from the models of JS Bach and Shostakovich. As with all his music, Skempton (b1947) has used great aural economy to create something of lasting power. He completed the set in 2019, giving himself the challenge of making each piece fit on an A4 page, which means the longest of these jewelled works lasts little over a minute.

While the preludes are quick and, mostly, canonic, sometimes seeming to stop in mid-air, the fugues are slower, often equally inconclusive but moving the music forward harmonically (Bach, Shostakovich and Skempton each choose different methods to move through the cycle of keys). This recent set of works is paired with the 20 short Images (1989), Three Nocturnes (1995) and 11 Reflections (1999-2002). Delicate, incisive, atmospheric, this music, as played by Howard, acts as balm to brain, ear and soul.

• In Italian Inspirations (Signum), the pianist Alessio Bax has drawn together contrasting works loosely associated with his homeland. The result is an imaginative and quixotic mix, from Bach’s Concerto in D minor after Alessandro Marcello, BWV 974 to Rachmaninov’s last work for solo piano, the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, to the Quaderno musicale di Annalibera by Luigi Dallapiccola – 12-tone music at its most sensuous – and finally two works by Liszt, St François d’Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux and the majestic Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata (better known as the Dante Sonata).

In this last, Bax finds unexpected reason and clarity in Liszt’s hellish chromaticisms and tritones depicting the Inferno, and musters the right celestial cascades and digital precision for Paradise.

Sonya Yoncheva in the title role of Norma at the Royal Opera House, 2016.
Sonya Yoncheva in the title role of Norma at the Royal Opera House, 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

• In Thursday’s Afternoon Concert on Radio 3 (2-5pm)/BBC Sounds, Antonio Pappano conducts Bellini’s Norma, Italian operatic tragedy at its most febrile: a druid priestess breaks her vows of chastity with an enemy Roman and it doesn’t turn out well. Sonya Yoncheva and Joseph Calleja (above) lead the cast, with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Contributor

Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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