Leighton Winter Scenes. Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 27. Piano Sonata Op. 64. Five Preludes. Leighton Symphony No. 1, Op. 42. Piano Concerto No. 3, “Concerto Estivo,” Op. 571

LEIGHTON Winter Scenes. Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 27. Piano Sonata, Op. 64.  Five Preludes. ● Margaret Fingerhut (pn) ● CHANDOS CHAN-10601 (70:16)

LEIGHTON Symphony No. 1, Op. 42. Piano Concerto No. 3, “Concerto Estivo,” Op. 57 ● Martyn Brabbins, cond; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Howard Shelley (pn) ● CHANDOS CHAN-10608 (73:03)

It was less than a decade ago that I was introduced to the music of Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988). Increasing my familiarity with his output during the ensuing years, I have reached the point where I would describe him as the most compelling English composer of his generation. Yet aside from his generous contribution to Anglican church music, there is nothing about his work that strikes me as identifiably English; rather, his music inhabits a generally “international” style, but not the “internationalism” of his avant-garde contemporaries like Boulez or Stockhausen. From my admittedly Americocentric perspective, he shares a remarkable affinity with such modern traditionalists as the late Benjamin Lees, who was just five years his senior. (I must add—not to defend the originality of my thinking, but to emphasize the strength of the affinity—that I had arrived at this observation before reading a recent review in these pages by Paul Snook, who made the very same association.) Thus Leighton’s music falls into that gap between the defiantly luxuriant tonalism of the neo-romantics and the lively sanguinity of the neo-classicists on the one hand, and the antiseptic cerebralism of the serialists on the other. This is an area of 20th-century musical language and style that is quite out of fashion these days—at least in the United States—as it is still difficult for general audiences to grasp, while lacking any of the peripheral sensationalism that often generates interest in more experimental efforts. Although English commentators stress Leighton’s roots in the music of such composers as Vaughan Williams, Rubbra, Walton, and Finzi, what I hear is much more an outgrowth—as is the music of Lees—of the sensibilities of Bartók and Prokofiev. A period of study with Goffredo Petrassi in 1951-52 is said to have been a significant influence in broadening Leighton’s perspective, and his work drew a good deal of attention in England during the years that followed. Leighton’s mature music is serious, aggressively feisty, and unflinchingly dramatic, yet wholly abstract, shunning the warm relief of  personal confession. These two recent releases offer a representative sample of his work, through compositions and performances that show him in a most favorable light.

Margaret Fingerhut’s previous recordings of lesser-known piano works have impressed me with their sensitivity to the music’s expressive import, and with a mastery and self-assurance that allow her to realize her interpretive intentions unhindered by any technical challenges that may be encountered. Leighton was reportedly a formidable pianist, and much of his music highlights that instrument. Fingerhut’s program includes works composed by Leighton as early as 1953 and as late as 1988—his last few pieces. Her technical facility and musical sensitivity are again apparent throughout this recital.

Winter Scenes is a group of seven pieces, each of 2-3 minutes in duration. These are perhaps the least remarkable or striking part of the program, as such character pieces in a post-Impressionistic, neo-Prokofiev vein are frequently encountered among the works of piano-oriented composers who flourished during the mid-20th century. Most suites of this kind are pleasantly engaging, while rarely plumbing great depths, and Leighton’s suite is no better or worse than the norm, offering 20 minutes of consistently engaging and pleasantly evocative music.

Leighton’s Piano Sonata No. 3 dates from the following year. Not unlike the piano music Benjamin Lees was writing at the time, Leighton’s sonata is a dissonant, freely atonal work whose mood is consistently dark and severe, though one whose origins in the traditional rhetoric of the Russian school remain apparent. In Fingerhut’s incisive reading there is barely a moment that fails to compel the listener’s attention.

The Piano Sonata, Op. 64, was composed in 1971-72. Though it may be the composer’s fourth contribution to the genre, it is not so indicated on the recording or in any of the work-lists I checked. This is the harshest, most aggressive music on the program, although it never abandons its convincingly expressive intentions. A sense of mystery is evoked throughout, suggesting the sort of music Scriabin might have written had he lived another 20 or 30 years. But despite its moments of mystery, much of the music is muscular and propulsive, projecting feelings of considerable emotional duress.

Although he had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would end his life at age 59, in May of 1988 Leighton began what was to have been a cycle of 24 preludes, one in each major and minor key, as had been done by so many composers before him. However, he lived to complete only five, which comprise the most poignant music on the disc, as each of them is a gem, suggesting how extraordinary the project might have been if he had lived to complete it. As it is, these five preludes reveal a broader, richer, and more varied expressive palette than any of the other pieces on the program, with moments of the human warmth that some may find lacking in the two sonatas just described.

Of the three symphonies composed by Leighton, only No. 1 is purely orchestral; the other two feature voices in prominent roles. Composed in 1963-64, the First Symphony won first prize in the City of Trieste International Competition. Its three movements lasting somewhat more half an hour, it is an extraordinarily powerful work—perhaps even a great one. Utilizing the same freely atonal language heard in the piano sonatas, the slow first movement sets a somber, searching tone, as a highly chromatic line is developed canonically, gradually building in power and intensity. Growing from mournful to defiant, there is a sense of dire, imminent catastrophe that almost suggests the music of Allan Pettersson, though, on the whole, the work leaves behind any remnants of other compositional voices. The second movement may be seen as a scherzo, but one that is far from the jocular paradigm. Here the music is both aggressive and macabre. The third movement returns to the slow tempo and rhetorical tone of the opening, Displaying a degree of Angst reminiscent of the late works of Shostakovich, the symphony seems to be death-obsessed, even ending with repeated falling minor-thirds, a traditional “death motif.”

Leighton wrote three piano concertos, of which the last, dating from 1969, is subtitled, “Concerto Estivo,” or “Summer Concerto.” The composer’s stated intention was to capture “something of the warmth and beauty” of the summer during which the work was composed. He felt that it was a “more relaxed, more lyrical, and certainly more tonal” work than its predecessors. However, notwithstanding hints of Messiaenic ecstasy and bird-song, listeners who are expecting something of a lush, pastoral frolic are likely to be disappointed. Based entirely on the opening motif, the work is nearly as stern, harsh, and tight-lipped as the other pieces discussed here, but it is also as compelling in its sense of urgency. I’m not familiar with the two previous piano concertos, but this is a very substantial and engrossing work. And once the listener has become accustomed to Leighton’s language, the lyricism of the second movement and the almost Bernstein-like rhythmic zest of the finale are not so difficult to recognize.

The performances of these two large works are excellent. Pianist Howard Shelley offers a reading of brilliant, incisive vitality, while the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, under the direction of Martyn Brabbins, exhibits a level of proficiency comparable to the best British orchestras.

Kenneth Leighton was an important composer, one whose works will be stimulating and rewarding to those who appreciate the modern traditionalist school, and illuminating to those who seek a fuller understanding of English music of the 20th century.