Regular readers here may remember the positive reviews that I have given to composer Barbara Arens’ recent publications 21 Amazingly Easy Pieces and Piano Misterioso, and it gives me great pleasure to be the first to review her latest publication Rendezvous with Midnight, brought to us by independent publisher Editions Musica Ferrum.
I first heard about this collection several months ago, at which point Barbara was looking for a publisher for it – I had no hesitation in recommending she approach Nikolas Sideris of Editions Musica Ferrum, believing that they would make an exciting creative partnership. So when I learnt that they had indeed teamed up I was delighted – and even more so now that the results are in my hand – a genuinely brilliant publication.
Subtitled ’12+1 Nocturnes for Teens’, these 13 new pieces are more difficult that those in Barbara’s previous books, written for intermediate players at around UK Grades 4-6.
Beautifully presented, and with the outstanding attention to editorial and engraving detail that we have come to expect from Editions Musica Ferrum, Rendezvous with Midnight is a 32-page book printed on high quality cream paper with a sturdy and evocative cover.
The title page includes the following quotation from A Clear Midnight by Walt Whitman, which sets the scene for the book:
“This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art,
the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing,
pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.”
Turning to the Contents, it becomes clear that each of the thirteen pieces in the collection is similarly linked to, and preceded by, a verse from a suitable poem. The poems sourced include the writings of Lord Byron, John Keats, Emily Brontë, H.W. Longfellow and others – and in a couple of cases, specially written verse by Barbara Arens herself.
And in each case the verse adds considerable impact to the music itself: this is no mere gimmick, but a powerful artistic and imaginative bridge between poetic thought and musical sound.
To be clear, the poems here are an essential part of the complete artwork, making Rendezvous with Midnight truly multidimensional in a way that players will rarely encounter elsewhere.
The 12+1 Nocturnes
So what of the music? Well, as with Barbara’s other work, the pieces here are in an accessible contemporary style that incorporates a wide range of influences without descending into pastiche at any point. These are consistently good pieces in their own right, and Barbara’s musical personality certainly shines through, but there is also much here that intermediate players will quickly relate to and identify with.
Readers and learners can access and listen to professional recordings of all 13 pieces on the Editions Music Ferrum website here.
The collection opens with an instant favourite – ‘Moonbeams’ – including the following verse by William Blake:
“The moon, like a flower,
In heaven’s high bower,
With silent delight
Sits and smiles on the night.”
The music perfectly conveys the warmth of sentiment in these words, developing as a contemporary ballad in which the prevailing stillness is underpinned by melodic lyricism.
As the collection progresses we are treated to pieces that evoke the simple pleasures of early c19th Romanticism, including ‘Dreaming of a Gondola’ and ‘Reflections’, alongside the far darker, more dissonant and modernist ‘Stroke of Midnight’ (which portrays rejection with superb power and musical insight) and desperate ‘Darkling’ (in which the evolving bass ostinato is genuinely disturbing).
Highlights include the gentle melodic flow of ‘Summer Moonlight’, the wistful romantic pop ballad ‘Looking Back’, and the rock groove of ‘Graffiti’, while perhaps my personal favourite of all is ‘Nuit Blanche’ – a truly stunning musical portrayal of insomnia.
To compose educational pieces in such a range of styles while retaining one’s own voice is a particularly difficult balance to strike; Barbara Arens succeeds with aplomb.
The final piece – the “plus one” of the book’s subtitle – is called “Sunrise”, so not to be considered a Nocturne. At four pages it is the longest piece in the collection – the pattern based motive provides a dramatic and exciting conclusion to the collection, with a positive tone that conveys the essence of George “A.E.” Russell’s verse:
“From my mountain top I view:
Twilight’s purple flower is gone,
And I send my song to you
On the level light of dawn.”
For Teens only?
I found it interesting that Barbara designated the pieces “for teens”, and asked her about this, particularly bearing in mind that I am certain many of my adult students will love the pieces. Barbara told me:
“I thought that “for teens” will connotate: modern, possibly quite emotional, not for beginners. And I’ve tried them on my teen students, who have shown me:
THIS is what speaks to them and what they want to play!”
This makes good sense, and given how the market has become increasingly saturated with educational piano music aimed at young beginners in particular, it is great to see one of our best composers writing music deliberately geared towards the sometimes difficult to engage teen age range.
All that said, Barbara agrees that the pieces are great for adults to play too; I certainly enjoyed playing through them, and I will be encouraging my intermediate adult students to invest in this book as soon as they can!
Rendezvous with Midnight is, quite simply, a fabulous collection of pieces. I would certainly rank it as the best of Barbara’s works, and a significant addition to the late intermediate piano repertoire.
Judge for yourself – don’t forget that you can listen to recordings of all the 13 pieces on the Editions Musica Ferrum website here.
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