The gentle evocation of England as a green and pleasant land holds lasting nostalgic value even today, which is the mood prevailing in Hugh Benham’s collection of modest character pieces, even though only one is titled “Landscape.” The music varies in difficulty from easy to moderately difficult, none of it beyond the reach of a talented amateur pianist. Benham’s idiom is retrospective, remaining largely with simple diatonic harmony. Because the brief bio mentions his involvement with A-Level music courses (for Americans this translates as high-school advanced placement), there is an implied educational slant, too. The album’s title, For Piano, is as plain-spoken as the music itself, and for listeners who are also performers, the scores have been published as sheet music.
Good humor and modest inventiveness are always in evidence, as well as the closeness of family, for example, in one work’s dedication to grandchildren (Mice on the Farm) and a warm memory of the night Benham met his wife while country dancing (“Meeting”). The latter is part of the homey Little Suite, subtitled “The -ings” because each piece has “ing” in the title. For instance, “Phoebe Falling Asleep” is about a family cat. For the grandchildren Mice on the Farm blends “Three Blind Mice” with “Old McDonald Had a Farm” in a charming way.
Such simplicity is artifice, however, since Benham holds a PhD and writes academic articles and books. Since his music falls so easily on the ear, it is surprising that the composer’s program notes offer serious harmonic analysis for each piece. I take this to be an educational touch. Americans might not catch on to two traditions woven into peculiarly British nostalgia. One ifs for idealizing the gentlemanly life in the home counties, in this case Hampshire and its civilized bucolic appeal—hence the pieces evoking Hampshire Morning and Hampshire Night. The dream of retreating to a village as a superior way of life to living in London remains potent, only now it requires a full to bursting retirement account.
The other tradition is the elevation of the amateur, a stubborn English trait that in the past was used as invidious comparison to paid professionalism. The non-English might never suspect how many scientific discoveries, archeological excavations, and fossil hunts arose from the activity of country vicars (who had few duties and sizable livings in the eighteenth and nineteenth century) alongside wealthy aristocratic amateurs, although some major figures in geology and paleontology came from the cottage-dwelling poor.
It is only a personal impression, but For Piano exudes these traits—considerable musical skill went into every piece, but their surface is restrained, even reticent. I think the best recommendation is to piano students who want to purchase the published sheet music with this CD as a performance guide. The Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble consists of the Greek-Australian pianist Panayotis Archontides and Greek pianist Natalie Tsaldarakis. Besides offering adroit, sympathetic readings of the solo works, they have the added bonus of two duets that Benham has dedicated to them, Barbara Allen, a set of variations on the traditional folksong, and Finale, which sounds like the most technically demanding work on the program. Convivium’s recorded sound is good, although I wasn’t impressed by the piano, which seems a little wooden and shallow for a Steinway Model D.
I was happy to have a listen to this attractive release, but its scope is limited enough that another listener is likely to have a different response—a taste for modest aims and hominess might be required. Since Benham’s academic specialty is Tudor church music, his religious choral works on Convivium probably hold deeper appeal.