Portrait Of A Composer Still Living Tradition Of Elgar, Vaughan Williams

Benjamin Frith and Penelope Thwaites perform music by Thwaites on a new disc from Somm Recordings.

Penelope Thwaites Chamber Music: Gardens, Fables, Prisons, Dreams. Tippett Quartet; Benjamin Frith, piano; Laurence Ungless, bass; Penelope Thwaites, piano. Somm Recordings (SOMMCD 0672). Total time: 65:14.

DIGITAL REVIEW — Pianist and composer Penelope Thwaites will turn 80 in 2024. A new retrospective of her chamber works, called Gardens, Fables, Prisons, Dreams, follows the path of inspirations through her creative life, such as heroic acts of political defiance, the writings of Oscar Wilde, the texts of the Psalms, and the poetry of Thwaites’ own father. As this list implies, she has written a good deal of vocal music. This recording, however, offers instrumental versions of some of those works as well as pieces originally composed for instruments. Every track is a first recording, either of the work itself or of a new arrangement.

The British-born Thwaites grew up in Melbourne, Australia. After graduating with a music degree from Melbourne University, she moved to London to study composition with William L. Reed and piano with Albert Ferber. As a performer, she has specialized in works by Australian composers, particularly Percy Grainger. Her first success as a composer came when she wrote the 1976 West End musical Ride! Ride! with lyricist Alan Thornhill about the British theologian John Wesley.

While Thwaites does play the piano on most of the tracks, at the record’s heart is the Tippett Quartet, a U.K.-based ensemble now in its 25th year. Joining them are bassist Laurence Ungless and pianist Benjamin Frith.

Frith and Thwaites team up for a two-piano arrangement (by Thwaites and her teacher, Reed) of the song-cycle A Lambeth Garden, composed in 1986 for a fundraiser for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, and his wife, Rosalind, important for her work restoring public gardens in London. The original version set six poems by Michael Thwaites, Penelope’s father, for vocal quartet and two pianos. The only-pianos arrangement is unabashedly European in the old sense: elegant and graceful (“The Lambeth Waltz”), humorous in a winking way (“A Gardener’s Song”), at times a bit twee and prim (“An English Rose”), and glistening with virtuosic pianism for its own sake (“The Wildlife Garden”).

The other large-scale work is The Selfish Giant, an eight-movement suite composed for a 1968 ballet based on the fairy tale of that name by Oscar Wilde. It’s the story of children who have found a giant’s garden and play in it until he scares them away with a terrifying dance. But then winter comes, bringing the solitary giant to his knees. When spring returns, the children do, too; now the giant gently helps one of them to the top of a tree, understanding the value of being surrounded by warm, joyful hearts.

In a two-piano arrangement by the composer, again shared in a skilled performance with Frith, Thwaites captures every aspect of the tale. The journey from the children’s playfulness and fear to the giant’s loneliness and learning evoke Schumann’s Jugendalbum and Kinderszenen, from the heyday of the piano miniature. These movements, however, are certainly not technically accessible to children, no matter how accurately childlike their perspective.

There are a number of short pieces as well. Jan Palach’s Theme, which opens the recording, is a dense etude for string quartet written for a film about the Czech hero Palach, killed when he stood in front of Soviet tanks as they entered Wenceslas Square. The Tippett Quartet pulls wrenching emotions from their strings, condensing all the seriousness of late Beethoven into the tiny vignette. Vijay’s Fable, on the other hand, is a 2019 piano-trio revision of a work commissioned in 1971 to accompany Indian dancer-choreographer Vijaylakshmi Subramaniam. Its modal melodies and use of long trills as textural devices don’t pretend to be Indian music but offer a genuine amalgam of West and East.

Surprisingly, Thwaites’ Mazurka, subtitled Au Tombeau de Chopin, gives the violin and cello more prominent roles than the piano, which stays in the background as the high and low strings lilt and joust in 3/4 time. Tippett first violinist John Mills and cellist Bozidar Vukotic, with Thwaite at the keyboard, create endless fluidity in this piece that the composer said was largely inspired by memories of seeing Les Sylphides as a child.

As an example of Thwaites’ religious music, the brief but uplifting To the Hills, in a new arrangement for string quartet, began life in the 1960s as a choral setting of Psalm 121. It moves primarily through languorous chords decorated with moments of counterpoint. Also for string quartet is the heart-wrenching For Irina, inspired by the true story of Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, sent to the Siberian gulag for speaking out about censorship of the arts. The single-movement tone poem opens with muted cello, from which the higher string sounds grow, seeming to reach upward in sonic tendrils toward an ideal that humans are never destined to enjoy. Without tipping into overblown expression, the work — and the quartet’s playing — maintain a sense of eternal sorrow, broken only by a section of angular, harrowing dissonance that calls to mind Shostakovich.

Thwaites’ work has never been “cutting edge.” In fact, in an important way, it is purposefully “retro.” She represents the last vestiges of a lush British sound as set forth by Elgar, Walton, and Vaughan Williams. But that musical lode runs deep and wide, its minerals flavoring the development of symphonic, choral, and film-score writing throughout the 20th century. The particular offshoot of that vein that is the music of Penelope Thwaite is rightfully archived here as part of that tradition.