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Carpenter and Skempton

Howard Skempton: Ben Somewhen

Birmingham Contemporary Music group; Exaudi / Weekes

NMC D135

Gary Carpenter: Die Flimmerkiste

Ensemble 10/10 / Rundell; Pamela Nash (clavichord)

NMC D111

Two releases from NMC this month, British composers as different from each other as imaginable.

The beauties of Howard Skempton's simple/simplistic little miniatures for piano and accordion having passed me by, I thought it time to try again with these larger works. The album title Ben Somewhen was attractive, as are the graphic illustrations by Ben Hartley, "equally reclusive" writes Skempton.

Equally reclusive as whom? Not Skempton, surely, he is much in evidence in person on the contemporary music scene, and has a loyal following, represented here by James Weeks' introductory essay.  A disciple of Cornelius Cardew, his teacher in the 60s and 70s, he is characterised as having his roots in the British Experimental tradition. The Chamber Concerto was intended to be 'similar in scale and character to Webern's. What emerged was 'somewhat different'; hmm, yes indeed!  The works here, for various vocal and instrumental forces, range from six to eighteen minutes; I found myself too imkpatient to listen right through any of them, so will pass on the disc to one of our reviewers who is  a Cardew expert...

Gary Carpenter is quite other, and I share Simon Bainbrfidge's delight that at last there is a portrait CD of this individualist's music, which I have enjoyed - but heard too rarely - since the '70s. He draws on earlier music (Arcadelt and Mozart) and on the visual arts for stimulation (Vermeer and Braque feature in his titles here). There  is a playfulness and interest in games and Cageian chance operations, which really don't need to bother the listener too much, because the music is ever intriguing in aural terms and with its striking instrumentation. Carpenter is never too serious; Bainbridge suggests Satie as the composer nearest to his heart, with lightness and irony ever present in Carpenter's works.

A word about an odd one out, the only piece for a solo instrument here, that the clavichord! Carpenter  won a British Clavichord Society prize with it, and I have recently reviewed their concert in which it was featured.  Gary Carpenter tells us that he was attracted by 'the small and evanescent sound' - - of music 'half heard, half sensed'; one movement of his Van Assendelft's Vermeer 'more silence than sound'.

Where did he encounter it, in a concert hall??  An important domestic instrument in the 17th/18th C,  it is enjoying revival. Dynamics are relative, and in my bedroom one finds that alternating ff and p (e.g. in CPE Bach) can be surprisingly powerful. Carpenter and Mermikides have chosen to record Pamela Nash at a very low level; be warned that if you are tempted to raise it, you risk having your ears blown out by the beginning of the following piece.

A delightful disc, one that you will want to play more than once.