From the Sleevenotes: The Piano Music of Geoff Cummings-Knight, by Duncan Honeybourne

The Road Less Travelled CD

Prima Facie CD PFCD120 The Road Less Travelled – described as “this splendid CD” by John France – features the piano music of Geoff Cummings-Knight, performed by Duncan Honeybourne.

Here, from the sleevenotes to the CD, Duncan Honeybourne discusses Geoff Cummings-Knight’s music:

“I was introduced to the work of Geoff Cummings-Knight in 2000 by the pianist and music historian Michael Jones. Michael and Geoff had met as students at the Birmingham School of Music, and Michael had gone on to become a lifelong friend of the composer and an energetic champion of Geoff’s music. Michael Jones has commented that Cummings-Knight’s music evinces “an ease of expression as well as a depth, and a melodic memorability and harmonic originality”. He spoke enthusiastically of his friend’s distinctive gifts, and allowed me to hear recordings of some of Geoff’s works. In 2004, Michael played one of Geoff’s piano sonata no.3 in a recital he gave as part of my own Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts series, for which I turned pages! I was impressed by Cummings-Knight’s impassioned mode of expression, his piquant harmonic language and vivid melodic gift.

Three years later I met Geoff for the first time when Michael organised a special concert in Bristol to celebrate Geoff’s 60th birthday. He asked me to join him in the Grand Duo, the two-piano version of the Piano Concerto, and, characteristically generous to other musicians, Michael also invited me to contribute a solo piece to the programme. I chose the early Ballade and, as a listener, I was also impressed and moved by a range of Geoff’s works heard that evening. Cummings-Knight’s music is visceral in its impact, tender and vigorous by turns, and his distinctive and highly personal piano works are central to his output. A pianist himself, he treats the instrument in a virtuosic, late Romantic manner, requiring warmth and breadth of sound and plenty of lyrical voice-leading. Often beautiful and occasionally sensuous, his work often surprises with its unexpected modulations and astringent harmonic twists. Cummings-Knight’s is an instantly recognisable individual voice.

When this album was in preparation, Geoff wrote to me suggesting a title for it: The Road Less Travelled. As well as being a quote from the famous Robert Frost poem The Road not Taken it is, Geoff pointed out, “the title of a very famous book on counseling by M Scott Peck MD which has sold millions of copies and has influenced me.” Never one to take the easiest or the most obvious route, Geoff Cummings-Knight has always remained entirely true to his heritage, his instincts and his highly personal musical character, tended over decades with industry, discipline and a vast melting pot of sensitively-felt and assiduously-considered musical and non-musical influences. His own creative road is a rewarding one and his substantial catalogue of piano music central to any consideration of it. This is a journey on which I am honoured and delighted to accompany the inquisitive and enterprising listener.

Geoff kindly wrote his Piano Sonata No.1 for me to premiere at St John’s Church, Wimbledon, on 27th January 2012, when I coupled it with Schumann’s Carnaval. Eagle-eyed readers will already have noticed an apparent anomaly in the designations of the Cummings-Knight piano sonatas. This is not an error – for, indeed, the first was composed after the third, and Cummings-Knight had already destroyed his original, youthful first piano sonata. Indeed, whereas composers usually number their sonatas, symphonies etc chronologically in order of composition, Geoff – always very much his own man – has throughout his life adopted a different approach. He conceives his piano sonatas as a cycle and has in mind what he feels would be their most effective and dramatic order of performance. Thus, he regards the arresting opening of the Sonata No.1 as his preferred opening to the set. And so on…..

The Sonata No.1 is surely one of Geoff ’s finest works. Cast in two movements, it is an intensely passionate narrative. Always steeped in his musical inheritance and the example of composers he loves, Cummings-Knight casts the second movement in the form of a set of “diversions” on the medieval hymn Pange Lingua, paying direct tribute to the Franco-Flemish Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. The theme itself is stated at the end of the movement, close on the heels of a set of elaborate and imaginative diversions upon it – including a sultry Spanish seguidilla and a homage to Monteverdi. The excitable first movement, with its fiery outbursts and impassioned lyricism, makes subtle reference to the Sonata’s second movement as well, giving the whole work dramatic cohesion. Storm clouds gather, erupt and disperse throughout this richly-contoured and big-boned piece, leaving the majestic Pange lingua theme to have the final word.

The three Russian Tableaux, written in 1970, are Geoff ’s earliest mature piano works. Inspired by Geoff’s frequent visits to the USSR, they were premiered in Arundel, West Sussex, by the legendary Yorkshire-born pianist Philip Challis, who was a great champion of Cummings-Knight’s music. Challis also broadcast two of them from London on BBC Radio 3’s Matinee Musicale in May 1984. For this recording I have chosen the first two. Snowfall in Suzdal recalls the city of Suzdal, one of Russia’s most historic towns. Sixteen miles north of the city of Vladimir, in the 12th century Suzdal was the capital of the principality of Rostov-Suzdal, with neighbouring Moscow merely a satellite village. Suzdal remains a charming town with fine medieval architecture and an agreeably pastoral location, and Cummings-Knight’s portrayal is a deliciously energised and breezy piece. Kolomenskoe on a cloudy day depicts the grand palace at Kolomenskoye, south-east of central Moscow, the preferred residence of Tsar Alexis I which was demolished and rebuilt by Catherine the Great in 1768. It was in the earlier, wooden palace at Kolomenskoye that Peter the Great spent much of his childhood, and the ornate, intricate and opulent structure was widely famed. Cummings-Knight’s tone picture is atmospheric and expansive.

Geoff’s 24 Preludes were premiered by Michael Jones, at the lamented British Music Information Centre in London’s Stratford Place on 29th October 1991. The complete cycle was given a second performance in November 1991 at St Agnes Church, Moseley, Birmingham. The set is ambitious and traverses a wide emotional and colouristic landscape. Published (by Roberton Publications) in 1987, many of the Preludes were subsequently revised and I play the later versions on the present recording. In the first edition, the Roberton directors made the unusually bold statement that “we present (the Preludes) in the confidence that the music will be widely played and enjoyed for many years to come.” Such is the immediate appeal and impact of this vibrant music. Drenched in chromatic ambiguity and leavened by rhythmic vitality and contrapuntal ingenuity, the E major Mahlerian Adagio is especially visionary in its long-breathed climactic ascents.

Geoff Cummings-Knight’s Ballade is a piece of warm sensuality and autumnal poetry, its outer improvisatory meanderings framing a central section of turbulent energy. It is dedicated to Michael Jones, who gave the first performance at an internal concert in the Birmingham School of Music’s Recital Hall in 1974, followed by the public premiere at Peterborough Cathedral in 1975. It takes as its point of reference John Keats’s famous poem To Autumn; fittingly, the lyrical writing glows with contented ardour.”

Notes Copyright 2019 Duncan Honeybourne