Jeremy Dale Roberts’ Unusual Chamber Music

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ROBERTS: Capriccio for Violin & Piano / Peter Sheppard Skærved, vln; Roderick Chadwick, pn / Tombeau for Solo Piano / Roderick Chadwick, pn / String Quintet / Kreutzer Quartet; Bridget MacRae, cello / Toccata Classics 0487

The fascinating music of Jeremy Dale Roberts (1934-2017) “steered a path between traditional tonality and modernism,” and it shows in these wonderful chamber works, of which the half-hour Tombeau for Solo Piano (1966-69) makes its first appearance on records. I was immediately struck by his music’s interesting contours, using wide intervallic leaps within an otherwise melodic framework, in the Capriccio which opens this disc. It is clearly not a capriccio in the traditional sense; there is nothing lightweight or frivolous about it. It is, in fact, very serious music, and at times when the violin is playing those wide-ranging figures the piano chimes in to temporarily disengage the music from its somewhat tonal base. It’s difficult music to describe, however, mixing neo-classic Stravinsky, modal harmonies and somewhat Berg-like figures in a unique tapestry of sound. A pupil of Priaulx Rainier, Roberts was also inspired by Szymanowski and Bartók. Even in the last third of the piece, when the tempo picks up and the music becomes busier, there is more of a dark quality to it that anything capricious. Violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved clearly has a gorgeous tone as well as perfect technical command of his instrument, and happily pianist Roderick Chadwick is clearly on the same emotional wavelength.

Interestingly, the slow, mysterious opening figures of the Tombeau almost sound like a second movement of the Capriccio, except, of course, there is no violin. As the music progressed, it became clear to me that this particular type of musical evolution was Roberts’ personal style, and once again the spiky harmonic language and dark emotional content of the piece grabs the listener strongly. Here, Roberts used not only wide leaps in his melodic figures but also odd triplets that give the music a more angular character than in the Capriccio. There is also a brief passage of rumbling bass notes in what can only be described as a “galumphing” rhythm. The music then becomes considerably busier, but no less dark, with ominous-sounding trills in both hands, particularly the bass. Chadwick breaks down the composition thus in the notes:

…there is a Tombeau here, in the form of a central elegy, but it is surrounded by a sequence of five Studies and four Variations. Even so, in accordance with the composer’s wishes, Tombeau is presented here as a single track. For all the difficulties, there were obvious attractions, too: the fabulous barrage of Study 1 (2:11), the homage to our mutual hero Szymanowski in Study 2 (7:31), Schumann’s more submerged presence, the fascinating collage finale (25:14), all parts gravitating towards the all-too-human machinery of the Tombeau at its centre (15:03).

Violinist Skærved, who is also a member of the Kreutzer Quartet, explains in the liner notes that after three of their four members recorded Roberts’ string trio Croquis in 1982, the composer promised them a string quintet, but added, “It’s going to take a long time, and you will have to be patient, but it is on its way.” A long time, indeed! It wasn’t written until 2012 and revised in 2014. It inhabits the same sound-world, more lyrical at the outset before diving into his dark world. As Roberts said of this work, “it was such a long time coming, that I simply gave voice to it; I have no real understanding of how or why it emerged – although I may have a clearer sense of the coup de foudre (love at first sight) which initiated it.” A remarkable succession of moods and figures in varying tempi come and go. In the first movement, divided into three sections titled “The Caller on the Shore – Moments of Being – Dance on the Shore,” which lasts nearly 20 minutes, there is even a sort of folk dance rhythm towards the end. In “The Meeting,” the music begins slowly and mysteriously, with moments of silence that disrupt the musical flow. Much of this music was inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf, particularly To the Lighthouse and her posthumous essay A Sketch of the Past. Roberts wrote that “The death which occurs in the interval between Part I and Part II recalls that of Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf ’s Novel. The silencing of the viola and the resulting hole in the musical texture trigger the reactions and eventually the outcome which form the narrative of the second part.”

This is fascinating modern music, emotional and moving, played with great technique and commitment by the Kreutzer Quartet and guest cellist Bridget MacRae. Well worth seeking out!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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