Knighted by the Queen in 2015, Sir Karl Jenkins is established as one of the most performed living composers in the world, his music instantly recognised by anyone who takes even a casual interest in contemporary culture.
In this, his 75th birthday year, Jenkins celebrates his astonishing career with Karl Jenkins: Piano, a new recording from Decca Records with an accompanying sheet music collection published by Boosey & Hawkes, which is the subject of this review.
According to the publishers, Karl Jenkins: Piano offers,
“Intimate and spiritually uplifting classics reimagined for solo piano, including Adiemus, Cantilena, Benedictus, Palladio, Ave verum, And the Moster did Weep and In paradisum. Also included are original piano solos Quirky Blue and Canción plateada, plus White Water, specially composed for the album. Recreate for yourself the mystery, pathos and enchantment of these iconic sounds.”
But to what extent can the mystery, pathos and enchantment of Jenkins’ music actually be realised in simple piano arrangements? Let’s find out…
Reimagined for Piano
Like so many, my first knowing encounter with the music of Karl Jenkins was his 1995 crossover album Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary, although he already had a substantial career behind him, dating back to his stint with jazz-fusion band Soft Machine in the 1970’s.
The Adiemus project eventually spawned five studio albums as well as live recordings and compilations. In his later works Jenkins built on his signature sound in the context of large-scale choral concert works such as the global hits The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace (1999) and Requiem (2005), among many others.
Introducing his new album, Jenkins writes:
“This solo piano album represents intimate and reflective realisations of music from my œuvre from 1995 to the present day, with the addition of three new pieces.
The greater part of this sortie was for themes from my choral works: Adiemus, The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, Requiem, Stabat Mater, Gloria and The Peacemakers, together with an introspective version of Palladio. The originals are pared down to the bare bones and almost sound as they did when originally conceived at the piano.”
On his website, the composer clarifies:
“When I first wrote these pieces, I was thinking about them in an orchestral style, so this album has given me the opportunity to go back to the origins and recreate them on piano in an intimate and personal way. It has been quite nostalgic and also very enjoyable to revisit my old scores and transform them into something new.”
When the Decca Records album appeared on Apple Music a couple of months ago, I must admit that I had misgivings about whether these solo piano versions of such beloved and epic music would succeed; even after listening to the recording a few times I was still in two minds.
However, it was in sitting down with the sheet music score and playing through the arrangements for myself that I found myself fully won over by them. These are purposefully more intimate, domestic realisations of Jenkins’ compositions, and as such they are not only effective, but deeply touching.
In some cases, certainly, I found myself embellishing and expanding on the minimal score, a practice which I suspect (and must hope) Jenkins would heartily approve of. However, such musical shenanigans are not necessary in order to gain genuine satisfaction from these imaginative and exquisitely concentrated arrangements.
In his introduction, Jenkins underlines the point that he is not himself a virtuoso player; his arrangements would suit late-intermediate to early-advanced players (around UK Grade 4-6). They are no more than three minutes long in performance, and all comfortably succeed in making their mark within this humble time-frame, and using concise pianistic resources.
Here, then, is the list of included pieces:
- Benedictus, from The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace
- White Water
- Hymn, from Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary
- Lullay, from Sella Natalis
- The Prayer: Laudamus te, from Gloria
- Adiemus, from Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary
- Agnus Dei, the The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace
- Quirky Blue
- Pie Jesu, from Requiem
- Ave verum, from Stabat Mater
- Healing Light: a Celtic Prayer, from The Peacemakers
- I’ll Make Music, from Gloria
- In paradisum, from Requiem
- And the Mother did Weep, from Stabat Mater
- The Girl with the Green Eyes
- Canción plateada, from Adiemus Colores
- Only Heavenly Music, from Stella Natalis
- Lacrimosa, from Requiem
- Kyrie, from The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace
- The Mystics
The music book itself is produced to the highest standard, as one would expect for a high-profile publication delivered by a publisher with Boosey & Hawkes‘ experience and pedigree.
The book sports a delightfully apt glossy cover design to match Decca’s recording, tastefully channelling imagery from Jenkins’ previous work (notable The Armed Man).
The 60-page interior includes the composer’s introduction, copyright and contents pages, and the music itself. This is clearly presented, generously sized and well-spaced throughout. Some pieces include pages turns, which are generally well positioned. Minimal pedalling suggestions are included, although there are no fingering suggestions.
The transcriptions mirror those of the recording, although notably White Water appears as a solo piece here, while on the album it is a gorgeous duet (for which Jenkins is joined at the piano by his wife, the pianist, composer and well-loved educator Carol Barrett).
Fans of Jenkins’ music are unlikely to be disappointed either with his selection of pieces here, or with the unimpeachable quality of the solo piano arrangements, each work seemingly distilled to perfection.
It is no wonder that any composer would arrange their music with sympathy for the originals, but the particular intelligence and aplomb with which Jenkins achieves this, though unsurprising, is hugely impressive.
Playing through the collection has proved to be a trip down several memory lanes, highlighting the major role that Jenkins’ work has played in contemporary musical culture. While I was enthusiastic to explore this album, I loved it far more than I had initially expected to.
The piano originals here are also well worth exploring. Quirky Blue will appeal to those who enjoy approachable jazzy piano pieces, while White Water is an impressionistic delight; both these pieces are at the top level of difficult within the collection, and would make excellent recital solos.
To summarise, then, Karl Jenkins: Piano is proving to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding publications of the year.
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