REVIEWS:  divine art   dda 25060 Music by David Earl

Do you despair of hearing contemporary music that is neither bland nor rebarbative, that excites and stirs, both viscerally and spiritually, and does not constantly remind you of other composers? If so, this disc is for you.

Here is a strikingly original voice; and Earl’s originality lies principally in his handling of harmony. Essentially tonal, his music is characterised by unexpected – frequently surprising, sometimes shocking but always expressively convincing – shifts, displacements and modulations, like the ever-changing surface of water under the influence of wind and light. For example, the heavenly Lento tranquillo from Mandalas (the only movement reminiscent – though clearly intentionally – of another composer’s work, Chopin’s Berceuse) begins in D flat major, like its model, but a stray G natural heralds a gradual drift away from the home key into distant tonal and emotional realms.

This is water that runs deep but is not still. Earl’s own notes to Divine Art’s laudable release – the long-overdue first commercial recording of any of the 56-year-old composer’s 30 works, might suggest that his music is coolly intellectual. Nothing could be further from the truth: it is literally bursting with passion, its rhythms energising, its melodies soaring and searing. In Mandalas (Earl’s most recent solo piano composition, completed in 1996) one constantly expects an orchestral tutti to erupt from the texture, such is the intensity of the piano writing – and of Earl’s blistering pianism.

The 1998 Cello Sonata (in three movements and, like Mandalas, lasting almost half an hour) is no less intoxicating, opening in bright, extrovert mood but ending with an elegy of indescribable poignancy. Do not be put off by the bathroomy recordings or the young cellist’s shaky intonation; this disc will blow you away.
Joe Laredo

This record has been the first opportunity I have had of encountering the music of David Earl, and my first reaction was that I am astonished that music this good should be so little known. I do not know how old David Earl is – the booklet does not give his birth year – nor do I know his musical provenance, but these two large-scale works betoken a genuine composer of considerable talent. Earl is clearly a serious creative artist, and each of these pieces will surely replay close study by the attentive listener.

Earl's language is what mnemonically one might term ‘traditional', but there is nothing old-fashioned in his use of his material or his sense of harmonic movement, even if there is nothing particularly individual or distinctive in the thematic material itself. His writing for both cello and piano in the Sonata are exceptional, being clearly very rewarding for the players, who have honoured him with what I can well believe is a fine performance. The solo piano Suite is also admirably laid out for the keyboard and equally demands a player of no little virtuosity; the third ‘mandala', with a fascinatingly complex three-part texture, is superbly played by Earl himself, demonstrably a master of the instrument – as one might expect from someone who studied Bliss's Piano Concerto with the composer. There is nothing in either of these works which will insult the intelligence of any truly musical listener; I find this music compelling and fascinating at the same time, and I strongly urge these pieces on you.

By way of ‘fixing' Earl's style in one's sensibilities, it comes across as that of a latter-day inhabitant of an admixture of Rubbra and Walton, set in a structural mastery that ultimately derives from Brahms in the Sonata with an occasional greater aura of mystery, such as Holst and Malcolm Williamson exhibit, in the Suite. The recordings are excellent and this CD is strongly recommended.
Robert Matthew-Walker

The Gramophone Debate in the March issue asked “Where are all the tunes?”. John Rutter admitted to “a sadness that we have almost lost permission to include a tune that the world will remember in a contemporary concert composition”. I should add my regret that so many high-profile composers today feel they have to eschew both melody and tonality. But there is hope. Andrew Lamb gave a warm welcome to the music of Grant Foster in the same issue. I’d like to do the same to David Earl’s.

His 1998 Sonata for Cello and Piano begins, after its opening bars of gloomy foreboding, with a broad, sweeping movement of appealing lyricism in traditional sonata form. Unexpectedly, the following two movements (Moderato assai and Elegiaco) become progressively more subdued, gradually subsiding into an elegy of “implacable resignation” (Earl’s own description). A rewarding work played with laudable conviction by the two young musicians who gave its first performance.

Earl was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order in 2001 and his 1996 Piano Suite is inspired by Buddhist imagery (“mandala” is a Sanskrit word meaning “circle” or “ring”). The composer goes into some detail in the booklet about this and its effect on the work’s structure, but the four movements can be enjoyed perfectly well without reference to “vajras”, “flames”, “lotuses” and a “mandala of the Five Archetypal Buddhas” that they depict. I was particularly taken with the motoric second movement and serene third. Earl is an accomplished performer who knows how to make the instrument sing, For those who like their contemporary music tonal, substantial and individual, I suggest you investigate.
Jeremy Nicholas

David Earl was born in South Africa. Having moved to London in the early 1950s he has performed widely as a professional pianist. The Bliss and Joubert piano concertos are numbered amongst his repertoire. His career as a composer began in 1980 and his list of works is impressive. The piano concertos are from 1980 and 2007. In addition there are concertos for cello (1998), violin (1990) and trumpet (2005). His piano solo suites are: Mosaics, Gargoyles and the present one featured here. There is also a symphonic setting of Intimations of Immortality to join the Finzi and the Somervell. You can find out more at

This ambitious Cello Sonata was premiered in 2006 by the artists who made this recording. The work is in three movements the first of which has a very grand Rachmaninovian sweep and follow-through. The central moderato assai is a most beautifully nuanced meditation which, as with the rest of the music, stays pretty firmly rooted in tonality. This is no obstacle to tension and stormy passion. The finale is marked Elegiaco. The sonata was written in the late summer on the North Norfolk coast. This performance is movingly done although the demands on the cellist result in slight tremors and falterings from time to time. The style should present no problems if you already enjoy the cello sonatas by Fauré, Moeran, Rachmaninov and Foulds. This is a moving work and I do hope that one day I will be able to hear the concertos for cello and violin; not to mention the two piano concertos.

The Third Suite was first performed by the composer at the Maidenhead Music Society concert on 27 April 1997. The notes tell us or remind us that Mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning circle or ring. The five movements include three short preludes which refer to the three protective Mandalas. The first is crystalline and flamboyantly Rachmaninovian in the manner of the Etudes-Tableaux. This is music that shimmers and flames. Harmonic collisions explode before the third movement Lento explores a MacDowell-like simplicity of utterance that glitters with the unadorned directness of de Hartmann. After these three short movements the fourth is the Adagio ma non troppo: ... a mandala of the Five Archetypal Buddhas. This lasts almost quarter of an hour. It moves through a realm of rhapsodic meditation which at times looks backwards to the Java Suite by Godowsky and to the piano music of Debussy. The notes tell us much about the Five Wisdoms but this is music that can be comprehended and appreciated for its own heard values. It carries a certain peaceful cargo and an absorbing concentration of purpose. The composer is a fine advocate of his own music.
Rob Barnett