This CD, entitled Elements of London, interleaves 17 short four-hand works by two British experimentalists, both born in 1947: Hugh Shrapnel, whose selections are inspired by the history and politics of London; and John Lewis, whose contributions are inspired by chemical elements. Although the two have had very different composing trajectories, there’s a commonality in most of the music here: a commitment to tonality; a textural lucidity that comes from a general resistance to counterpoint and a reliance instead on fairly clear melody and accompaniments (often oompah-like in style); a preference for short gestures rather than long melodic spans; and—despite a moment of mourning in In Memoriam Jane Clouson, written as an homage to a 16-year-old girl who was murdered in 1871—an upbeat spirit.
We’re told that the music tends to merge Minimalism and jazz, and I suppose it does—but don’t expect a scorching combination of Steve Reich and Thelonious Monk. We know as well that Shrapnel is something of a political activist, but don’t expect the righteous fury of Rzewski—this music is generally far less contentious in spirit. Then, too, we’re told that Lewis is a great Ives admirer (in fact, he was the first person to perform Ives’s Concord Sonata in Iceland)—but don’t expect to find Ives’s musical juxtapositions, either vertical or horizontal, either. Rather, the music is closer in spirit to Satie (a specific influence, it appears, in Cerium) and Milhaud (the music often seems ready to merge into Scaramouche or Boeuf sur le toit), with some recollections of French street music and the British music hall (Hunt Hunt, written to support a campaign to prevent the downgrading of a local hospital, incorporates a song used to support the campaign, which was itself taken from the backwards-looking theme song to the BBC comedy series Dad’s Army). Even the pieces with the wildest rhythmic premises here—for instance, Phosphorus, which superimposes a variety of metrical patterns—maintain a certain decorum.
The Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble, made up of Natalie Tsaldarakis and Panayotis Archontides, plays with confidence and wit; the engineering is first-rate; and the program notes are refreshingly full.