Bernard Roberts Plays Stephen Dodgson’s Sonatas


DODGSON: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2, 4 & 5 / Bernard Roberts, pno / Claudio Contemporary CC4431-2

Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013) was a British composer primarily known by his works for the guitar. His other output was and remains somewhat obscure, known to a limited circle of musicians. He apparently wrote a “large output of music for harpsichord,” of which I’ve heard none, as well as music for piano, of which three of his sonatas appear here.

Listening to the opening of the second sonata, it’s easy to hear this music being written for guitar instead of piano, simply because it begins with a simple motif that could be played on one string followed by little flurries of notes that could be played on several. This opening music, then, is not “pianistic” in the strict sense of the word, though it is indeed written for piano, but it is interesting and, considering how softly and uninterestingly more classical guitarists play, I’d much rather hear it played here like this on a piano. Despite its lyric proclivities, the music does contain several modern harmonies but is not abrasive to the ear, but rather fairly lyrical in a modern way. Parts of it, in fact, remind one of Debussy, except that Dodgson’s music is not as tightly constructed; rather, he seems to be telling his story by allusion, with many little sidetracks in his narrative.

This style of writing continues into the lively second movement as well, using thin textures, mostly with just single notes in the left hand or runs that connect to the right. This same style, with variants in both rhythm and the figures used, is also heard in the fourth sonata, except that here Dodgson is livelier and rather more varied in his rhythms, including a quirky fast waltz in the first movement. Still, these works, though rather interesting, have more the character of fantasias than a “real” piano sonata in the strict definition of the term. It is also, I should mention, not without a sense of humor, albeit a somewhat dry one.

The problem I heard in the fourth sonata is that the music tends to be rather loose in structure, so much so that it sometimes sounds as if Dodgson were repeating themes and motifs when he really isn’t. It also tends to lose even the attentive listener because of these moments of sameness. It’s almost as if Dodgson had sat down at a piano, spent a couple of hours ruminating on it, and sketched some of his better ideas down as he played or perhaps recorded the whole session and reduced it to a sonata. It’s interesting to a point, but the apparent formlessness has its drawbacks.

And, alas, I heard only a little difference in the fifth sonata as well. These are the kinds of works that, programmed in between more tightly structured works, whether old or new, could make an impression because they sound so different, but heard in succession on a CD like this, monotony sets in and one begins to tire of Dodgson’s sameness of approach.

Which is not to say that Bernard Roberts plays them poorly. On the contrary, I think he approached these scores with an open mind and gave them everything he had. They just have that inherent weakness in them to begin with.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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