Donald Thomson’s Book Review

Piano collections by Donald Thomson are colourful, immediate, and arrestingly communicative anthologies of solo piano music and all three are more than fair reflections of Donald’s most persuasive personality.

As a fellow Scot, I was immediately attracted to ‘Celtic Piano Music’, the impressive compendium at the intermediate to advanced level which is in fact, made up of several anthologies that initially appeared independently.

Read recent interview with Donald Thomson >

 

Donald Thomson’s books offer a tremendous variety in the most effective combination of the pedagogically sensible with the musically exotic. Children and piano teachers alike should be most grateful for such a synthesis of compositional endeavour.

Murray McLachlan

 

 

Winter Piano Music

Thomson’s latest collection is pitched at the Advanced Level. The five contrasting pieces that make up Winter Piano Music show the immediacy and a refreshing take on some familiar, well-loved melodies.

EVC048
ISBN 978-1-911359-42-5
Copyright © 2022

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Starlight and Snowflakes is presented in a mysterious but glistening texture, complete with quirky harmonic twists and surprises to keep both listener and player on their toes.

And what about the scherzo that is Thomson’s version of God rest ye merry gentlemen? Here is a quasi-tarantella take on the famous Christmas Carol, complete with open fifths (a Thomson speciality) and some exciting octave and chordal figuration. 

Thomson’s take on Silent Night sees the piano morph into a string quartet in all but name, with rich textures and some exciting double third pianism for players to get their teeth into. In complete contrast,

Listen to this excellent performance of Sleigh Ride, a wonderfully optimistic study in energy that brings its charm and character in a way that is quite different from Leroy Anderson.

Contents

1. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
2. Meditation on Silent Night
3. We Three Kings
4. Starlight & Snowflakes
5. Sleigh Ride
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Celtic Piano Music

As a whole, this large collection of approachable pieces pays testament to a composer who projects and communicates an intense love not only of Celtic folk music but also of the Scottish landscape.

SKU: EVC041
ISBN 978-1-911359-40-1
Copyrights © 2022

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Guddly Burn immediately sets the bar high with the evocation of Scots fiddle playing with dance rhythms and elements from the pentatonic scale. Left-hand accompaniment figurations are never ‘copied and pasted’ from phrase to phrase: Thomson typically takes care with the details of phrasing and articulation. He is also prone to harmonic surprises and unexpected colouristic moves… 

In Silvery Tay, it is the clarsach (a Celtic harp) rather than the violin that initially is evoked, though the melodic line does resemble a fiddle air in character. To me, the gentle dotted rhythms in the melody nostalgically evoke hints of the old folksong ‘Comin’ through the Rye’.

Indeed, there is much that is exquisite in this twenty-bar miniature. Bitonality and hemiolas (alternating 6/8 and ¾ rhythms) make The Corryvreckan Whirlpool a colourfully charged bravura piece. Young players with smaller hands could omit the left-hand octaves at the end, but they make an excellent springboard for developing post-grade 8 virtuosity.

Stern quasi-Brahmsian chords yield to flowing folksy quavers (echoes of Lord of the Rings?) in the Legend of Loch Ness. Here Thomson introduces some potentially challenging technical hurdles (double thirds from bar 25 and rotary movement from bar 32), which are pedagogically excellent. Indeed, one of the things most striking about the anthology as a whole is that it eloquently introduces pianistic challenges necessary to conquer at an advanced level, but in short bursts of activity. 

Developing techniques in small doses rather than in obsessively charged repetitive studies could prove less daunting for many students, providing them with a springboard towards the more challenging études of Czerny, Moszkowski and Cramer.

Thomson’s substantial melodic gift is most prominent in St Mary’s Loch (also filled with harmonic surprises), whilst the pentatonic bias of much of the collection returns in the playfully persuasive l Brownie of Ballachulish (for someone like me, from the North East of Scotland, this appears as a distant descendant of the folksong ‘The back O’Bennachie’).

The collection continues with the expansively rich, sonorous study in legato pianism that is Song of the Selkies. We then have an essay in bravura entitled The Kelpies’ Jig (grade 7 students who enjoy the finale of Kabalevsky’s C major sonatina will be very much at home here) and a slow, spookily characterised essay in right-hand double notes and left-hand sonoroso called The Grey Lady.

Moving on, Fairy Pools sounds like Scottish Walter Carroll, with the clarsach again evoked in textures that have ethereal sparkle. This could be a pedagogically crucial piece if the chords are firstly played on their own- introduce young players to the harmonic skeleton in this wistful miniature and a whole new facility in reading and understanding could develop, Heriot Water, with its opening Scotch snap figure and brooding nostalgia initially seemed a close bedfellow of Peter Maxwell-Davies’ ‘Farewell to Stromness’, but it soon opens out into something more extensive, with 54 bars of development.

In total contrast, Grey Mare’s Tail is a 37-bar filigree study with a noble left-hand legato makes an excellent vehicle for progressing with finger staccato facility. The parallel triads in the left hand are exploited in a manner that Thomson uses in many of the other pieces in this collection and elsewhere- and again, this is an excellent way for students to understand how music can be structured and connected harmonically.

Innerleithen Air is whimsically poetic- a short exercise in parlando that is utterly charming. Melrose Abbey brings the church organ into the tonal palette for the first time in the collection. The chordal legato textures are essential for students to develop if they wish to move on to the great works of Brahms and Rachmaninov.

Certainly, it makes sense to start here and continue with the pianistic legato fingerings and connections that are necessary for success. Luskentyre Lullaby is an excellent study for the development of textural projection and control. Harris Tweed again returns to fiddle figuration for its main musical impetus- but the left-hand articulation, with small groups of slurred notes set against separate detached sounds, certainly adds to the charming flavour. 

The Isle of Staffa in C minor brings tonal variety and is a valuable study in pedal control- with a need for flowing pianism to capture convincingly the special wistfulness of characterisation. Callanish Stones brings an element of wondrous fantasy to proceedings. Colonsay Ceilidh is adorned with appropriately extroverted colour and bravura, finishing in radiant F major. Finally, Two Golden Circles brings this most generously rich selection of Scottish music to a wistfully lyrical conclusion.

Contents

Scottish Waters
1. The Guddly Burn
2. Тhe Silvery Tay
3. The Corryvreckan Whirlpool
4. The Legend of Loch Ness
5. St Mary’s Loch
Myths & Legends
6. The Brownie of Ballachulish
7. Song of the Selkies
8. The Kelpies’ Jig
9. The Grey Lady
10. The Fairy Pools
A Borders Suite
11. Heriot Water
12. The Grey Mare’s Tail
13. Brodie’s Jig
14. Innerleithen Air
15. Melrose Abbey
A Hebrides Suite
16. Luskentyre Lullaby
17. Harris Tweed
18. The Isle of Staffa
19. The Callanish Stones
20. Colonsay Ceilidh
21. Two Golden Circles

 

Halloween Piano Tunes

Charming Halloween Piano Tunes from Donald for EVC is specifically for the Pre-grade 1 – Grade 4 level student. This most recent addition to the catalogue presents no less than nineteen pieces with titles is intriguingly diverse! 

EVC040
ISBN 978-1-911359-38-8
Copyrights © 2021

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Midnight Feast (excellent introduction to tritones at Pre-grade 1 level), Greedy Goblin (compound time and slurs in groups of two and three notes) and Freaky Frogs (developing both control with acciaccaturas and staccato pianism) would give many a Pre-Grade 1 pupil much fun and fulfilment in the highest register of the instrument.

Whilst Gloomy Forest creates contrasted lugubrious hints via left-hand parallel fifths, Cobwebs and Candlesticks at Grade 1 is an inspirational way to introduce pedalling from an early stage.  

Syncopated rhythms and hand movements in thirds and sixths feature in The Ruined Castle.

Coordination between the hands is also encouraged via Sneaking in the Shadows (hands in parallel and contrary motion), whilst the mixed staccato and slurred articulation in Broomstick Race encourages care over detail. 

In Grade 2, Ghosts in the Air seems like a modern descendant from a famous Schumann Album for the Young Piece (also in 6/8). With its flattened supertonic harmonies and sharpened seventh-degree.

Harry Potter is undoubtedly just around the corner in Halloween Ball at No.13.

Moving on to Grade 3, Creaky Door is an excellent theoretical tool for the study of tritones and bitonality. 

Trick or Treat? has novelty value in that you need to click your fingers at the start (it is constructed as a ground bass pattern and certainly develops a ‘swing’ rhythm).

Skeleton Guards’ Parade is excellent for instilling rhythmic discipline and order consistently whilst Debussy’s ‘Cake Walk’ and Scott Joplin’s are just around the corner with the jaunty ragtime rhythms present in Vampire Vamp. 

Jittery Jig could make a valuable vehicle for building velocity, whilst Haunted Highlander, with its open fifths and wistful bagpipe drone bass, will instil a sense of harmony with the youngest students. 

Witches’ Cat is an excellent left-hand solo with a Hindu Raga twist just before its da capo!

Finally, in Grade 4, Valse Macabre requires nimble right-hand position shifts. Try playing this piece without the ‘extra’ accidentals first, then add them in (they make for spicey augmented/diminished intervallic leaps on the page) as additional colourings.

Contents

1. Midnight Feast
2. The Greedy Gоblin
3. Freaky Frogs
4. Scuttling Spiders
5. he Gloomy Forest
6. “Cobwebs and Candlesticks
7. The ruined Scottish castle
8. Sneaking in the Shadows
9. Broomstick Race
10. Ghosts in the Air

11. Halloween Ball at No. 13
12. Creaky Door
13. Trick or Treat
14. Skeletons Guards Parade
15. Vampire Vamp
16. Jittery Jig
17. The Haunted Highlander
18. The Witch’s Cat
19. Valse Macabre
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