Review of LNT110: A Life in Reverse: the Music of Minna Keal
Hard to believe that these pieces were written when the composer was seventy or so. Indeed Minna Keal's destiny is unique in music's history. Here is a composer who studied at the RAM, with William Alwyn among others. She scored some early success with some of her works, who had to stop composing for more than forty years and find other jobs to support her family. She resumed her composition activities in her seventies under the guidance of Justin Connolly and Oliver Knussen.
Her String Quartet Op.1, completed in 1978, is a compact, tightly argued piece of music bringing to mind the works of her near-contemporary Elisabeth Maconchy or her teacher William Alwyn. Actually Keal's music has much in common with Maconchy's: concise formal structure, sureness of touch, uncompromising honesty. Her string quartet is packed with energy, lyricism and tonal contrasts, and is superbly written for the medium.
Much of the same can be said of her Wind Quintet Op.2, completed in 1980 and dedicated to Alwyn. To a certain extent, however, it is a more entertaining, relaxed work; a colourful, contrasted divertimento in five short, varied movements.
Justin Connolly suggested that her next piece should be orchestral. She originally planned a multi-movement suite based on some of her second husband's poems but it soon became evident that the work would be an abstract symphony without any literary or extra-musical programme. It took her five years to complete what became her Symphony Op.3, written between 1980 and 1985. It is - surprisingly enough - her first orchestral score. Again, hard to believe when considering her mastery in handling large forces in a large-scale symphonic structure. Keal's only symphony is quite a substantial piece of music, tightly argued, cast in a moderately modern though very accessible idiom, brimming with energy and invention. A quite impressive achievement and undoubtedly the peak of her smallish output.
By contrast, Cantillation Op.4 for violin and orchestra, completed in 1988, might seem a somewhat lighter work, which actually it is not. This is a small-scale concerto, sometimes redolent of Ernest Bloch, but in a clearly late 20th Century idiom. Again, this is a wonderful piece alternating moments of rapt lyricism and dynamic episodes of some considerable power.
The present release, published in 1996, was, to the best of my knowledge, the first one ever devoted to Minna Keal's music. Later, NMC released a CD [NMC D048S] coupling her earlier Ballad (1929) for cello and piano and her recent Cello Concerto (1994), thus, filling some further gaps in our appreciation of her unusual creative life. All concerned in the Lorelt project put all their heart into these dedicated and affectionate readings. These fine works vastly repay repeated hearings and definitely deserve to be better known. Recommended to those willing to explore some neglected by-ways of the 20th Century British music.