Sheet Music Review
Spectrum launched in 1996 with the aim of commissioning serious solo contemporary works by distiguished composers, to be playable by talented amateur, student and professional pianists. Since its inception, the series has produced six compilations for piano (including Spectrum for Piano Duet) and additional anthologies for cello, clarinet and violin, containing a total of 225 new works.
Once again compiled by aclaimed pianist Thalia Myers, Spectrum 5 includes 15 specially commissioned works by leading composers Victoria Borisova-Ollas, Philip Cashian, Chen Yi, Michael Finnissy, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Graham Fitkin, Helen Grime, Gavin Higgins, Gabriel Jackson, Harold Meltzer, Poul Ruders, Timothy Salter, Howard Skempton, Karen Tanaka and Huw Watkins.
The pieces range in length from 2-5 pages, with most being 3 pages long. According to ABRSM they range in difficulty from Grade 6 to Diploma (and they should know!) but I would qualify this by assuring readers that the majority here are squarely Grade 7-8 in my view, meaning that you should not be put off by the thought that the pieces will mostly be at the top end of the difficulty level.
In her introduction to the collection Thalia Myers writes:
“Although the pieces in Spectrum 5 are generally rather harder to play than many of those in earlier piano volumes, the purpose of Spectrum has remained unchanged since the first anthology was the mere glimmer of an idea twenty-odd years ago: to commission some of the world’s finest composers to write non-virtuosic miniatures that capture the essence of their concert music style, and to provide pieces that will appeal equally to student, amateur and professional performers and their audiences.”
The presentation is outstanding, in keeping with the whole series. The cover follows the style established by the first Spectrum book 20 years ago, yet seems remarkably fresh and up-to-date. The inside of the book is reassuringly familiar too, with short biographies of the 15 composers whose works are included, followed by the pieces themselves, all beautifully engraved and with brief footnotes by the composers.
While many of the pieces themselves are (as with the series as a whole) atonal, the collection is full of accessible musical and imaginative character, and never austere. I expect that many of these pieces will be hugely popular with players, and will no doubt be regular exam choices in future years too.
In short, here’s the best collection of new “contemporary classical” miniatures for piano that I have seen in years.
While there is great consistency of quality across the 15 pieces, my personal favourites are Gabriel Jackson’s ’Imaginary Birds’, Karen Tanaka’s highly catchy ’Masquerade’, Howard Skempton’s ’Aside’ (with its hints of Prokofiev) and Philip Caspian’s beautifully evocative ’Swale’.
Supporting the publication, there is a full recording of the 15 pieces by Thalia Myers herself, available as a digital download from Amazon here.
I would recommend the recording as an essential purchase if you plan to play or teach these pieces. I assume it is a digital download because, at just over 30 minutes it doesn’t justify CD release. The quality is superb however, with a beautifully warm but clean recording of the piano, revealing every detail of these exquisite pieces.
ABRSM Publishing, £10.25