June Armstrong has proven not only to be one of our more imaginative contemporary educational composers, but also to have a keen eye for gaps in the existing pedagogic repertoire.
Her many excellent and innovative publications via her business Pianissimo Publishing (see my reviews) fill a wide range of such gaps, and between them comprise a genuinely important body of work. Every collection, too, is a joy to explore and a delight to own.
June’s latest collection is Six Little Preludes and Fugues, and looks set to continue this trend, living up to the high standards of previous publications.
Why Preludes and Fugues?
June opens this collection with the question:
“Why write preludes and fugues? Not many young pianists relish the thought of learning a fugue. Not many pianists ever learn more than one or two preludes and fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier by Bach. However, playing a fugue is one of the most satisfying musical experiences there is.”
Having played through the six preludes and fugues in this new collection, I would concur that they are indeed highly satisfying to play.
Aimed at intermediate players of around UK Grades 2 to 4 level, these short works condense the language of counterpoint into approachable and melodic pieces which seem sure to succeed in making two-part writing accessible and enjoyable for players who haven’t previously encountered it.
For the most part, the sound-world here is neo-baroque, albeit with some dissonance (especially in the final fugue, which heavily features the harmonic minor scale pattern with interesting effect).
Although perhaps not as “atmospheric and descriptive” as June’s music usually is (see her bio), she has taken care to encourage an expressive response to the pieces, noting in her introductory comments:
“All the music is designed to be played without the use of the sustaining pedal, but the performer is free to enhance the pieces using the pedal if they so wish …
I have decided not to include dynamic markings or phrasing, as I wish the performer to feel free to experiment with their own ideas.”
You can listen to the whole collection in this video while reading on, and decide for yourself whether the music stirs your curiosity:
Six Little Preludes and Fugues appears in Pianissimo Publishing’s handsome house style, which will be immediately familiar to all who have bought previous collections by June.
In addition to the introduction, June has included some performing tips and suggestions for each of the works – these are very helpful, without being overly prescriptive.
The music engraving is clean and very spacious, leaving plenty of space for the player and teacher to add comments of their own. Minimal, but helpful fingering is included throughout.
The cover, also in the house style, is as eye-catching as ever, and incorporates a detail of the composer’s Villeroy and Boch Intarsia plate, which hangs in her Music Room:
In their Grade 1 exam syllabus of 2013-14, ABRSM included a simple Fugue by the English composer Alec Rowley (1892-1958), taken from his Five Miniature Preludes and Fugues. The surprise at the time was not so much the existence of such an accessible fugue, but its popularity with players of all ages: several students picked it in preference to the more obviously melodic alternatives.
June Armstrong’s new collection occupies a similar space, and it would not surprise me to find that it is a big hit with students young and old. As with June’s other pieces, these works are likely to appeal to adults wanting to access the more serious classical repertoire as well as, equally, younger players excited to discover new sound worlds.
Each of these Preludes and Fugues gently offers a fresh spin to an age-old format. Familiar tropes of highly satisfying harmonic “sequences” give way to unexpected twists that will delight those familiar with the genre, while bringing fresh appeal to players new to contrapuntal writing.
As a vehicle for teaching elementary to intermediate players about voice leading, distribution of balance and weight between the hands, and how to shape both melodic subject and countermelody, these works may well come to occupy a special place in the pedagogic repertoire.
And should they, like the Alec Rowley piece, find their way into exam syllabi, they are sure to be popular choices!
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