Penllyn Piano music by Peter Reynolds

Penllyn | Piano music by Peter Reynolds

David Truslove casts a benevolent eye over Penllyn, the collected solo piano music of Peter Reynolds published by Prima Facie Records.

This recent disc forms an affectionate tribute to the piano music of Welsh composer Peter Reynolds (1958-2016), whose untimely death just over six years ago was mourned by numerous friends, colleagues and Cardiff-based composers on whom he had made a lasting impression. Penllyn is the culmination and premiere recording of not only all of Peter’s works for solo piano, tracked down at The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and at Tŷ Cerdd in Cardiff, but it also represents an outpouring of love from many of those who knew Peter best. He was an exceptionally unassuming man, a fine composer and a keen supporter of other musicians, both in his capacity as a teacher at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and as a champion of performances and recordings of new and neglected works.

Peter’s music takes up the lion’s share of this 70-minute CD (with additional solo piano tracks by David Power and Luke Whitlock), the whole curated by pianist Duncan Honeybourne. His generous assessment of Peter’s piano works can be found within the disc’s booklet notes where he points to an “immaculately crafted” compositional process and an “overarching integrity”. Honeybourne describes the disc’s title work, Penllyn, as a “moving little essay in tone colour, shifting harmony and darkly-etched cantabile lines.” Peter was never a church goer in the sense of a regular worshipper, but the four and a half minutes of Penllyn (based on an early 19th century Welsh hymn tune by David Jenkin Morgan) suggests a celestial vision, something which Peter would undoubtedly have dismissed as romantic nonsense. Yet to hear just a few bars of its floating phrases is to enter a quietly meditative and self-effacing world, an intimate domain in which stillness and a pared down transparency hide a solid technique where no note is out of place. 

Across this survey of works mostly written between 2009 and 2016, there’s an intermittent nod to the past in works such as the Monteverdi-inspired Ecco Mormorar L’onde, its madrigalian outlines refracted through contemporary resonances. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is faintly referenced in Peter’s humorous Ein Kleines Albumblatt für Bären, where the opening phrase of The Teddy Bear’s Picnic forms a conspicuous presence and, like several works on the disc, was conceived for friends. Two other gifts are the charming piano triptych Far down the Forest (based on the tales of Hans Christian Andersen) and Epithalamion with its ironic pitch extremes and bare sonorities. Lullaby demonstrates a versatility in its optional scoring for “any two suitable instruments”. 

In the 1980s Peter had briefly studied with Morten Feldman – a composer whom he much admired, identifying closely with his spare textures and often slow tempi. Like Morten’s music, one can perhaps better appreciate Peter’s when you abandon the idea that music should be dynamic and pushing forward in a bold, energetic manner. Brevity is also most often associated with Peter’s music, famously acquiring an entry into the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s shortest opera, The Sands of Time. But, by far the longest of his works presented here is Bayvil, a nine-minute ‘processional’ of timeless bell-like effects inspired by a visit to a small, redundant church (adorned with boxed pews and a 12th century font) not far from the Pembrokeshire coast. The work reveals Peter’s attraction to remote places, particularly ancient chapels, and a preoccupation with transferring a building’s unique atmosphere onto the printed page, something he achieved in other works prompted by churches at Cippyn and Partrishow.

Nature, or at least the sea, provides a creative starting point for Luke Whitlock, whose three Oceanic Interludes form a sort of neo-romantic encounter with minimalism. Composed during the global pandemic, these glimmering evocations are propelled by an introspective “emotional drive” and culminate in a light-filled portrayal of a shoal of fish. David Power’s Seven Afterthoughts also form an attractive ‘palette cleanser’. If these short, directly communicative pieces (each mostly under two minutes) can be likened to mood pictures, the first betrays Power’s early affiliation with rock music, while the fifth is redolent of Erik Satie.  

However, this disc is dedicated to the memory of Peter Reynolds, whose remarkable gifts and encyclopaedic knowledge found a tireless and unselfish outlet as a composer, teacher, writer, administrator and festival director, and whom I was privileged to call a friend. He is still sorely missed, but his craftsmanship, generosity and gentle humour all readily resurface in this commemorative disc, sensitively performed by Duncan Honeybourne and sympathetically produced by Luke Whitlock.