The Piano Music of Andrew Downes: a personal note by Duncan Honeybourne

My association with Andrew Downes’ piano music has been woven into the very fabric of my development as a pianist and musician. At the Royal Academy of Music, where I was a Junior Exhibitioner in my teens, my professor – Rosemarie Wright – instilled in me the importance of playing new music, and awakened a sense of responsibility towards contemporary composers. This adventurous taste for new and unusual repertoire had been a cornerstone of her own long career, and it was a mantle I inherited gladly and enthusiastically, playing plenty of works by composers from my own and recent generations in recitals from an early age.

At eighteen I arrived at the Birmingham Conservatoire (I had been awarded a place to stay at the RAM but had opted to pursue my undergraduate study outside London) and one of my first tasks was to suss out the musical landscape and characters surrounding me in my new milieu. Part of Rosemarie Wright’s substantial legacy to me was a curiosity to find out which composers were working around me, and what their music sounded like. Accordingly, I quickly discovered that the Head of Composition at Birmingham was a certain Andrew Downes, member of a distinguished Midland family of professional musicians. As was my wont, my next port of call was the BC Library and a scouring of the shelves for all Downes had written for piano. The first work I discovered was the First Piano Sonata – then the only piano sonata! I borrowed it, tried it out, and took a great liking to it.

My next encounter with Downes’ music came soon afterwards when, in the only experience of singing in a choir to which I have ever subjected myself and others, the First Year Undergraduate Chorus programmed his evocative and majestic St Luke Passion. I took an immediate fancy to the work, and recognised a family likeness to the Piano Sonata I had been exploring at home. By this time, I was already obsessively absorbed in the study and performance of English piano music from the earlier 20th century – Ireland, Moeran, Bax and others – and I could see that Downes’ music, whilst distinctive, eclectic and thoroughly contemporary, fitted loosely into that same trajectory. He had walked the same paths, and was tracing his own route into the present and future. I found that thoroughly bracing and exciting.

Events overtook me, however, and it was to be nearly four years before I actually performed any of Downes’ piano music. In the summer of 2000, after graduating from Birmingham, I was asked to give a recital at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford, and the requested programme included that Downes Sonata which had so captured my imagination in September 1996. I learned it, played it at Hereford, and played it again at St Martin-in-the-Fields in November the same year – the first London performance, I believe. A few months later Andrew asked me to play his early Sonatina for the BBC, my first Radio 3 appearance. Things went from there, and the following year Andrew announced his intention to write me a Second Sonata. This work was completed late in 2002, in which year I had moved back to my home county of Dorset. Andrew and Cynthia used to visit regularly and loved Dorset, where we would regularly frequent country pubs. It seemed natural to Andrew to give the Sonata a Dorset flavour to reflect my roots and my new home base, and we shared a love of Hardy’s writing, especially his poetry. Andrew’s Hardy opera, Far From the Madding Crowd, was coming to life in Andrew’s imagination around this time, and I know that Andrew felt this deepening acquaintance with Hardy’s great novel heralded a new phase for him as a composer. Indeed, Downes’s op.1, Casterbridge Fair, written in 1973, was a setting of five Hardy poems, and it doesn’t seem too fanciful to discern a ubiquitous thread of influence and inspiration flickering across the artistic conscience of the young composer, now a mature master.

The Seven Preludes came in late 2005, and I premiered them the following spring at Chichester University, where I had recently been appointed a Lecturer in Piano. In Memoriam Herbert Howells followed in 2008, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the death of Andrew’s beloved composition teacher at the Royal College of Music. Howells has always been a composer whose works I adore, and I had frequently juxtaposed his music with Andrew’s in concert programmes. When I was invited to give a recital in Howells’s home town in Gloucestershire, as part of the Lydney Festival in July 2008, I asked Andrew for a short piece to mark the occasion. He responded with this compelling and introspective miniature which, if it sounds more like Downes than Howells, displays all the fastidious craftsmanship and feeling for colour and texture that would surely have delighted his distinguished mentor.

 In March 2009 I premiered Andrew’s Piano Concerto at Birmingham’s newly reopened and magnificently refurbished Town Hall and some years later I was able to realise a long-held ambition to perform his Five Miniatures for Piano and String Orchestra, which Malcolm Wilson had premiered in 1976. In 2015 Andrew followed the Seven Preludes of a decade earlier with a set of Seven Postludes, elegant, succinct and sharply characterised. These I premiered in the historic setting of St Lawrence Chapel, the beautifully restored arts centre in the Devon market town of Ashburton, in October 2016, just a week before the present recording. 

Just one further work remains: the Sonata for Two Pianos. This was commissioned in 1987 by the Interdenominational Society for Soviet Jewry and premiered at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, by the legendary Hungarian pianist Joseph Weingarten, for many years a professor at the Birmingham School of Music, and his sometime student and later colleague on the professorial staff of the Birmingham Conservatoire and the then Trinity College of Music, Margaret Newman. Margaret’s insight into this remarkable work is naturally compelling and thoroughly authoritative, and it was an honour to perform the piece with her in 2006, some ten years after Joseph’s death, to mark the 150th anniversary of Birmingham’s great Singers Hill Synagogue. Margaret, together with her late husband, Dr Stuart Green, is a longstanding and dear friend, and her artistry a real inspiration. I am joined on this recording by another close and dear friend, and another Birmingham colleague, Katharine Lam.

It has been a fascinating privilege to work so closely with a constantly evolving composer of the stature of Andrew Downes, and I have derived much joy from the process of living and growing with these works. Alongside the piano music I have played many of Andrew’s duo works and song cycles, the latter especially significant for a composer whose purely instrumental music has often revealed literary connections. In 2006 it was a rewarding experience to work closely with Andrew in bringing to performance his opera, Far From the Madding Crowd, at the Thomas Hardy Festival. And I have played some of his organ works, redolent of Downes’ heritage as a singer steeped in the rich tradition of English choral and church music. Downes writes skillfully and idiomatically for piano, exploiting the instrument’s potential for virtuosic display and percussive insistence, but it is his exploration of the instrument’s colouristic possibilities, and the yearning of his music for “singing” tone and sheer beauty of sound, that I especially treasure.

The Downes piano music traces a telling journey across more than four decades. Between the lean lines of the sharply-defined, astringently focused Sonatina and the mellower opulence of the Seven Postludes from forty years later there lies a lifetime of artistic growth. Yet, as with all the best composers, the thumbprint of Downes’ personality is just as unmistakeable in the creation of the 24-year old as in the immeasurably profounder later works. The language is passionately that of the same man, albeit distilled and burnished by four decades of life experience, professional exploration, spiritual and personal growth. The piano music, here recorded complete for the first time, provides a revealing and rewarding companion and parallel narrative to the cycle of symphonic works, committed to disc by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra last year. It is a remarkable body of work representing a composer of technical fastidiousness, eclectic taste and warm-hearted sincerity.