Nathan Williamson piano

Lyrita SRCD.2431 (3 CDs)

It is a brave composer who chooses to write a set of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys as, consciously, or subconsciously, instant comparison with the sets by JS Bach and Shostakovich will occur. Just such a brave soul is 80-year-old Christopher Brown who began writing them in 2011 with the hope they would be complete by his 70th birthday in 2013. Well, his self-imposed deadline passed, and the set were completed in 2019. 

He is eminently qualified to write preludes and the arcane form of the fugue as he was a pupil of Lennox Berkeley, himself a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, who insisted all her students had a firm knowledge of Baroque forms and of Boris Blacher. Mr Brown decided before starting that he would acknowledge the masterworks by Bach and Shostakovich by including their well-known cyphers BACH and DSCH into his works. 

As if these formal considerations were not enough, he also acceded to requests from the many different commissioners to include references to favourite works or even their own cyphers. The pieces are divided into four books all of which have a different feel to them.

Book 1 sounds the most traditional in terms of the length of the pieces and the treatment of the musical materials. They give a real sense of beginning a journey. Unlike Bach who began in C major Mr Brown begins in B flat minor. In his notes he tells us this was the first of Bach’s 48 that he learned as a child, and the B of BACH is b flat in German notation.  His notes are a great read full of fascinating technical and personal detail.  The set covers a wide range of expressive moods such as no 5 in F major commissioned by the recorder player John Turner.  The prelude is fun and skittish, while the 4-voice fugue is sombre and elaborate.

The preludes in Book 2 are all based around Baroque dance forms, sarabande, gigue etc. The composer has extracted them from their fugues as a standalone work, Baroquery, which is added as a bonus on disc 3. The dance nature of the preludes makes the music sound lighter than those in Book 1. A number of these works reference other music.  It is a pleasant surprise to hear snippets of Scarborough Fair and Amazing Grace appear in the f minor fugue (no 9). No 11 in C# minor was commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music who specified a 5-voice fugue using the cryptograms Re A Mi (the notes D A and E) and ACADEMi. Well, he certainly rose to the challenge, and he makes light of these musical difficulties, even finding space to quote from Bach’s C# minor fugue and ending triumphantly in the major key.

Book Three is much more traditionally virtuosic and bears the closest resemblance to the Shostakovich set. The set opens dramatically in C minor and makes much play of the opposite ends of the keyboard. The set ends in C major and pays homage to Bach’s famous 1st prelude, and is in the form of a  passacaglia, the ground bass being formed of the 6 keynotes of Book 3 – this man is clever!

Book Four includes some more varied piano techniques, nothing extreme but no 20 in E flat minor uses the pedals to magically capture silently depressed harmonics. No 23 in E, commissioned by a farmer friend, sees glistening scale patterns in the right hand over a steady left-hand melody and a reference to Mr Snow from the musical Carousel. Is the spiky fugue a humorous portrait of his friend ?The set concludes with a dramatic, extended fugue in B minor which at just over 9 minutes is the longest of the works.  It builds organically to a tremendous climax in the coda that pulls away into a radiantly triumphant B major. 

The whole set is a tour de force, both technically and musically. At no stage is the composer stymied by the limitations of the forms, or the unusual extra musical requests.  He manages to include musical quotes, however outlandish, and even references a number of his own works within the musical material. Let us be honest, fugues are tough to write, but Mr Brown has the skill to make all 24 sound fresh and interesting.  The accompanying preludes complement and contrast brilliantly. The four books are subtly different and would be a useful addition to any concert programme, either complete or, as is more likely, as extracts.  A discerning pianist could arrange a suitable selection.

Nathan Williamson plays superbly.  Each of the preludes is beautifully drawn and in each of the fugues all of the contrapuntal lines are clearly brought out. Even with the most complex pieces Mr Williamson’s sound is full and rounded, and the tone of the piano is sensitively captured in a warm acoustic. The project has clearly been a labour of love from all concerned, the composer, the pianist, the commissioners, and the numerous funders who have made it possible. This is another feather in Lyrita’s already full cap.

Review by Paul RW Jackson