Born in 1947, Howard Skempton adds to his already substantial tally of more than 300 pieces with these 58 exquisite miniatures for solo piano – the shortest barely half a minute, the longest a whisper over three minutes – arranged into four sets. Composed between 1989 and 2019, their startling economy of scale harks back to Skempton’s early interest in minimalism. But they are much more than mere exercises in clinical reductionism, the dominant accent a becoming tonal lustre. Compact, considered and concentrated though they are, they seem, under William Howard’s nimble, nuanced fingers, more like buds blossoming into the most fragile and fragrant flowers. Less, here, is decidedly more, Skempton spinning glorious, glistening webs of sound from gossamer-thin threads.
The soulful, sweet and serene 20 pieces that comprise Images, and concludes the disc, are the earliest works here, dating from 1989. Sanctioned by the composer, Howard’s free sequencing of them is enchanting and not a little intoxicating, lent a bewitching gloss by playing of the utmost delicacy. Composed for Howard, the most recent work, 2019’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, were confined and emboldened by Skempton limiting himself to a single page of A4 for each piece. The conceit pays enormous dividends, respectful allusions to Bach and Shostakovich rubbing shoulders with Skempton’s own endearing playfulness of spirit and precision.
The Three Nocturnes from 1995 glint coolly with a dark-hued diaphanous quality that approvingly calls to mind Debussy, Howard heard at his most deliberate in the dislocating Second and syncopated Third. Also composed for Howard, the 11 Reflections were composed over a three-year period from 1999 but disguise their extended gestation with a surprisingly expressive, yet wholly integrated, variety of mood.
Enthusiasts for Ludovico Einaudi will find much to enjoy here and, I suspect, considerably greater nourishment from a master composer in his prime and a pianist who understands Skempton’s sleight-of-hand concept and realises it with due dexterity even while eloquently excavating into this wafer-thin music’s rich, rewarding depths. Kudos, too, to producer Jeremy Hayes and engineer Ben Connellan for a beautifully focused recording that moves adroitly from delicacy to crispness to warmth with graceful regard for the beguiling poetry of Skempton’s music and Howard’s quietly illuminating playing.
Composer: Howard Skempton
Works: Piano Works
Performer: William Howard
Label: Orchid Classics ORC100116