Those who like to measure out composers’ lives in anniversaries can count themselves connoisseurs if they made this particular birthday party. Jeremy Dale Roberts, who was born in Gloucestershire in 1934 and came to his brand of internationalist modernism only after early contact with the very English father figures of Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughan Williams, has never received attention comparable to that which brings his exact contemporaries Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle major Proms features this summer. But he has kept his integrity through the changes of the stylistic weather-vane suggested by invoking those four names, and produced a considered and refined output of carefully crafted chamber works through what is now close on fifty years.
Not the least reason Dale Roberts has remained such a well-kept secret must be the near absence of orchestral music from his worklist. He is a composer predisposed to the small and carefully made, whether in terms of instrumental forces, movement size, or expressive gesture. Which is not to say that he has eschewed the substantial utterance: rather that, as with Oggetti – Omaggio a Morandi (2001–3), a half-hour piano work premiered in this year’s Park Lane Group January concerts, or its predecessor, Tombeau, written in 1966–9 for Stephen Kovacevich, he prefers to put together a sequence of miniatures, a mosaic-like construction which speaks obliquely out of its intersections and odd angles of juxtaposition.
The visual analogy is not accidental. Dale Roberts’ oeuvre manifests a collector’s openness to influence from other art-forms, other areas of life (everyday bric-à-brac as much as exquisite rarities), other cultures. Encountering this music, one imagines the composer surrounded by an array of objects, some strange, some prosaic, all ripe for absorption in a new work of art.
Lontano’s tribute concert assembled four chamber pieces covering twenty-five years of production, and put on display several related preoccupations: the miniature form and associated possibilities of extended structuring; the use of quotation from other composers’ music; and a fondness for unusual instrumentations. Hamadryad (2001), for alto flute, viola and guitar, showed most clearly its composer’s international cast of mind and his primary stylistic orientation, a kind of ascetically sumptuous exoticism here evoking a sound-world of late-Debussy-via-Le marteau sans maître, yet quite personal in its oblique beauty.
Perhaps the least ‘French’ of the works heard tonight, despite its title, was Croquis, composed in 1976–80 for members of the Arditti Quartet, a suite-like convolute (to borrow a term from Walter Benjamin’s English translators) obeying – or confirming – Brian Ferneyhough’s dictum that the string trio has a history and a genetic make-up more ‘alternative’ and more various than that of the quartet. The title means ‘sketch’, and appears to designate certain sections as well as the work as a whole, though the programme notes were so poorly presented that I remain unsure whether we heard the complete work or, as I suspect, movements of a larger opus designed for partial performance in this manner. There was a piece of exquisite chinoiserie and a shadowily fascinating berceuse ‘pour les violes’. Snatches of Vivaldi, Elgar, Bartók, Lutosławski and others were just the musical allusions in a piece which drew for its inspiration on a diverse list of objets trouvés from all art-forms: Blake’s woodcuts and the drawings of Watteau were also among those cited by the composer.
Other musics got a look-in, too, in Layers (1995), Purcell in his tercentenary year meeting Chopin, Debussy and Mahler in a rather uglified response to Dido’s beautiful lament. This was one of two pieces, framing the programme, which originated as commissions from the ensemble Sounds Positive for its idiosyncratic line-up of four high melody instruments – flute, oboe, clarinet and trumpet. But it was the evocative Winter Music (1990) which seemed the more successful solution to the inherent problems of how to achieve variety and relief with four wind instruments of similar register and limited compass, with a judicious use of the cor anglais and of the chalumeau octave of the clarinet, as well as the halo of tuned percussion and bells surrounding the core quartet.
Both pieces were played, like all of the music tonight, by a line-up of committed Lontano regulars. The Dale Roberts recordings scheduled for release in early 2005 will make a more than usually welcome addition to the same group’s burgeoning discography (on its own Lorelt label) of neglected composers, and a welcome chance to re-hear this difficult, rewarding music, which gives up its secrets slowly.