On the back of this new CD by Richard Casey, The Piano Music of Anthony Burgess, there's a great picture of the author/composer sitting down at a pub piano with a cigarette in his mouth. You know there's a pint of bitter at hand. This, I think, is where he was happiest: not with a novel manuscript, but messing around with his music. The best pieces on this excellent disc have an improvising-at-the-keyboard feel; those are the freshest bits, a bit off-kilter, with an odd shift or abrupt ending.
One of Burgess's guises is a slightly academic one that perhaps hides some self-consciousness and worry about his own musical bona fides. This involves a fair amount of simple fugal writing, the odd call-out to Bach or Gibbons or Ravel, some jokes for the cognoscenti (the Six Short Pieces are subtitled "The Bad-Tempered Electronic Keyboard"), and modernist pieces in the style of Debussy, Stravinsky and Britten. But I think Burgess's heart was with a more popular style. This might be folkloric, like his clever fugue on Ye Banks and Braes. Or it could come from the grand old tradition of English Light Music. Friends is an outstanding example, sounding like something from a West End show in 1933, while Tango is more international but maybe from Act 2 of the same show. These last two pieces are, I think, as good as Burgess got as a composer. That's not to damn his musical abilities with faint praise, since it's not easy, I'm sure, to write quality music of this sort. But I believe authenticity is vitally important, and this is the music where Burgess is most himself. The whole program is beautiful played by Richard Casey, who tosses off the lighter pieces nonchalantly, and gives the more serious pieces more care, but no more than they can bear. I came away from this disc feeling much more warmly towards Burgess the composer than I did from the first disc of his Orchestral Music, back in April. Thanks to Prima Facie for this disc, and to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation for their support.