On record: Robin Walker: Orchestral Music (Toccata)

Walker Great Rock Is Dead; Odysseus on Ogygia; The Stone King; The Stone Maker

Novaya Rossiya Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Walker

Toccata Classics TOCC0283 58’13”

Producer Pavel Lavrenenkov Engineers Gennady Tarabantov and Alexander Karasev Recorded September 2nd-5th at Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company Kultura, Moscow

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Summary

The first disc devoted to the orchestral music of Robin Walker (b1953), whose idiom evolved over several decades before arriving at the singular and uncompromising music featured here, in what is another venture facilitated by the redoubtable Martin Anderson of Toccata Classics.

What’s the music like?

Readers with longer memories may recall certain pieces by Walker which attracted attention during the 1980s, not least the ensemble piece Dance/Still and the plangent Seven Last Words for electric guitar and percussion. Several of his chamber and instrumental works were issued by Riverrun Records (RVRCD66) at the turn of the century, yet anyone familiar with that disc will likely be surprised with what they find here. Interesting, too, that Walker (to judge by his website) is intent on covering his tracks, Ustvolskaya-like, regarding most of his earlier music.

Much the longest work is The Stone Maker, completed in 1995 after an eight-year gestation and described as a symphonic poem, though it could be assessed in terms of a one-movement symphony. The composer’s booklet note avoids any concrete programme, focussing instead on its modification of symphonic archetypes (notably Beethoven’s Fifth and Brahms’s First) in the light of his own aesthetic. This is worth bearing in mind because, unlike numerous of his contemporaries, Walker has not repudiated Modernism per se but reintegrated it into his highly individual take on the musical past. Tippett and Birtwistle are mentioned as guiding presences, and the more visceral passages of this work do indeed recall the latter composer (notably his Earth Dances), but there is equally a modally-inflected tonal underpinning such as sustains its 32 minutes with demonstrable purpose. No less striking are those stretches of more inward expression, notably that before the inexorable final build-up – while the tailing-off that ensues, and the suspenseful concluding bars are both realized with exquisite finesse.

None of the shorter pieces that emerged a decade on suggest a notable broadening or opening -out of Walker’s approach. The Stone King (2005) is another symphonic poem, though here the overall duration (barely a third of the earlier piece) militates against the emotional force shoe-horned into this music with its elemental ground-plan of equilibrium lost then regained. Great Rock is Dead (2007) is a funeral march inspired by the death of the composer’s father, implacable in its forward motion though any sense of emerging triumph is tenuous at best – not helped by the Bruckner-cum-Sibelius bathos of a coda that fails to convince. Best is the Prelude to Odysseus on Ogygia (2011), as adapted from the eponymous opera Walker wrote after 1995 and whose simmering intensity bodes well for this 90-minute ‘staged symphony’.

Does it all work?

Not always (as detailed above), but when it does come together this is impressive music – imbued with that sense of naturally accruing momentum which readily holds the attention. Anyone responsive to the tradition within which Walker is working needs to hear this disc.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, especially given these performances are so attuned to its essence. Alexander Walker secures a committed response from the Novaya Rossiya Symphony Orchestra, which is heard to advantage in a recorded ambience that amply brings out the filmic opulence of this music.
To listen to clips from this release and for further information visit the Toccata Classics website, while for more on Robin Walker you can visit the composer’s website

On record: The Flautadors – Bavardage (First Hand Records)

The Flautadors (Catherine Fleming, Merlin Harrison, Celia Ireland, Ian Wilson, recorders)

First Hand Records FHR55 Playing time: 60’24”

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Summary

Since its formation in 1997, The Flautadors has been at the forefront of recorder consorts in Europe and this latest disc, its fifth, features a selection of modern pieces, interlaced with arrangements of Scottish traditional songs, celebrating its 20th anniversary in fine fashion.

What’s the music like?

Two works by Japanese composers offer contrasting takes on aspects of Occident and Orient. Black Intention IV (1980) has Making Ishii exploiting microtonal tuning and extended playing techniques as akin to those of the European avant-garde – whereas in Idyll 1 (1976), Ryohei Hirose draws on Indian harmonic procedures to overly sensuous effect. With its combination of recorders and triangles, Arbos (1977) is a microcosm of the interplay between incremental melodic growth and relative harmonic stasis that Arvo Pärt pursued henceforth.

Two pieces by younger British composers underline the virtuosic potential of the recorder consort today. Bavardage (2002) finds David Murphy exploring the idea of gossip as springboard to quick-fire exchanges and emergence of a volatile momentum, whereas the calmer exterior of Leo Chadburn‘s De la Salle (2001) belies the intervallic intricacy (and the number of recorders) in what is atmospheric if at times unsettling music. Which leaves Terry Riley‘s In C (1964), that blueprint for American minimalism whose equably insistent pattern-making responds tellingly to the unity-within-diversity afforded by seven recorder players and 25 recorders.

As arranged by Ian Wilson, the Scottish traditional songs emphasize the lyrical aspect of recorder playing. Thus, the limpid poignancy of Ca the yowes and robust gaiety of Dandy Dancer, the virile impetus of Bose and Butter and reel-driven energy of The Deil Among the Tailors. Neil Gow’s Lament immortalised the 18th-century fiddler’s second wife in warmly elegiac terms effortlessly conveyed here, and though it may be less than four decades old, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies‘s Farewell to Stromness is a timeless classic whose pensiveness (and greater fervency of its central section) comes through unabated in this artless transcription.

Does it all work?

Yes. The Flautadors has long excelled right across the board when it comes to the recorder repertoire and such diversity is in evidence throughout this disc – which is recorded with an ideal blend of space and clarity, and informatively annotated by members of the ensemble.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Those who still hold to antiquated notions of what recorder music is should find this disc stimulating and enjoyable in equal measure. Note that The Flautadors will be playing some of these pieces in their 20th anniversary concert at Milton Court on 26th November.

To listen to clips from this release and for further information visit the Flautadors website, while ticket information for the Milton Court concert can be found here

On record: Steve Elcock: Orchestral Music, Volume One (Toccata)

Elcock Symphony no.3 Op. 16 (2005-10); Choses renversées par le temps ou la destruction op.20 (2013); Festive Overture op.7 (1997)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Summary

The first release devoted to Steve Elcock, whose distinctive and uncompromising music went unheralded until four years ago when Toccata Classics supremo Martin Anderson took up the cause which resulted in the recording of the works featured here in Liverpool earlier this year.

What’s the music like?

Born in Chesterfield in 1957 and residing in central France for over three decades, Elcock has amassed a select catalogue (currently running to op.26) with five symphonies at its core. The present disc is dominated by his Third Symphony, composed over five years and cast in three movements whose relative contrasts become subsumed into the powerfully cumulative whole.

The opening Allegro veers between dynamism and stasis as to override thematic distinctions in its underlying sonata-form, heading to a tensile yet unresolved ending. Elements of parody are accentuated in the ensuing ‘Ostinato’, whose middle section emphasizes a coarse melody which points up the lunging and often violent activity around it. Its climax spills over into a final ‘Passacaglia’ as long as its predecessors combined, while given focus by its methodical alternation between loud and quiet expression, along with a steady sarabande rhythm which underpins the ultimately tragic tone. The winding down to an ominous, trill-suffused centre then intensified surge towards a tragic outcome is duly capped by the stark closing cadence.

A notable achievement, but scarcely less impressive is Choses renversées par le temps ou la destruction (Things knocked down by time or destruction). This symphonic triptych moves from the tense expectancy of ‘broken columns’ with its dismantling of the 14th Prelude from Book Two of Bach’s ‘48’ (played on harpsichord by Richard Casey), through the amorphous textures then eventual eruption of ‘mills of god’, to the all-round confrontation of ‘last man standing’ whose unfolding as a slow rondo effects the blackly humorous waltz near its close.

By contrast, the Festive Overture is in the lineage of pieces by such as Walton and Arnold, though Elcock draws comparably on Shostakovich’s eponymous piece and Elliott Carter’s Holiday Overture for its lively interplay of blithe melody and ingenious counterpoint.

Does it all work?

Yes, notwithstanding a passing tendency to over-score and the occasional pre-emptive climax. Elcock’s music has energy and momentum, but also eloquence and resourcefulness, as amply holds the attention. Mention is made of the ‘Nordic-British’ symphonic tradition, though that of European modernism is frequently detectable with the imaginative handling of orchestral texture and a rhetoric leavened with irony. For someone largely self-taught in composition, moreover, Elcock’s sense of control over form and expression is rarely less than impressive.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least when the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra sounds so committed to the cause under the guidance of Paul Mann. The latter contributes an informative overview of these pieces, complemented by the composer’s autobiographical outline. Further instalments are planned, rightly so, but it would be a pleasure to hear these works – the Third Symphony in particular – in live performance; affording this music the tangibility it amply warrants.

To listen to clips from this release and for further information visit the Toccata Classics website, while for more on Steve Elcock you can visit the composer’s website

On record: John Pickard: Symphony no.5, Sixteen Sunrises etc (BIS)

Pickard Symphony No.5 (2014); Sixteen Sunrises (2013); Concertante Variations (2011); Toccata after Claudio Monteverdi (1998)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins

BIS BIS 2261SACD

Summary

The fourth release in BIS’s survey of orchestral works by John Pickard (b1963), featuring his latest symphony and two shorter pieces which between them underline the expressive scope of his musical thinking; rounded off by his sparkling transcription of a Baroque perennial.

What’s the music like?

Pickard has long been established as a symphonist of stature, with the Fifth as resourceful as its predecessors – a 32-minute continuity which unfolds an uncompromising argument with real subtlety. A key factor is the writing for three sets of timpani, distributed spatially to the rear of the orchestra, that pursue antiphonal exchanges of motifs and chords but also evolve melodic lines to a degree seldom attempted. This is most evident towards the centre, where timpani lines are heard over dense string harmonies in music as audacious as it is mesmeric.

The piece arrives here via a series of interrelated faster and slower tempi, the latter gradually predominating without any tailing-off of momentum so that the greater prominence of faster tempos in the latter stages feels as if a process coming full-circle. Aligned with this is a four-movement outline – the initial Tempestoso segueing into a Prestissimo then a Maestoso, before the final section culminates in a return to the defiant opening gesture. This is followed by a coda that brings suspenseful calm while also intimating activity still to be encountered.

As to the remaining works, Sixteen Sunrises was written for the Nagoya Philharmonic and takes as its inspiration those sunrises observable over 24 hours from the International Space Station. Pickard conveys this through an intensifying sequence of climaxes whose subsiding into stasis feels more pronounced each time; a process enhanced by some of the composer’s headiest and most atmospheric orchestration. Not that this is in any sense a literal depiction, as his admonishment to listeners who might attempt to count the 16 sunrises makes plain!

By contrast, Concertante Variations was written for the Presteigne Festival (and premiered there by Orchestra Nova) and represents Pickard at his most urbane. Scored for wind quintet, strings and timpani, this unfolds as an introduction, five variations and fugal coda. The theme introduces each wind instrument in turn, then the variations (alternately fast and slow) feature them as ‘first among equals’, before the coda sees the strings assume centre-stage as the piece races towards its affirmative ending – albeit given a droll twist by the laconic closing gesture.

Commissioned by the BBC as the ‘fanfare’ to a festival celebrating four centuries of Italian music, Pickard’s transcription of Monteverdi’s Toccata (the extended version as heard at the start of the 1610 Vespers) includes tuned percussion in what is a scintillating curtain-raiser.

Does it all work?

Indeed, not least when the Fifth Symphony is given so powerful a recording (made right after the premiere) by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (spearheaded by truly heroic timpani playing from Steve Barnard, Christina Slominska and Phil Hughes) under Martyn Brabbins, who has championed Pickard over two decades. Other pieces are no less committed in what is a finely balanced programme.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The sound is arguably the best yet in this series (SACD benefits the depth and translucency of this music’s textures), while Pickard’s annotations inform and amuse by turns.

Richard Whitehouse

You can find more information on this release on the BIS website

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On Record: Håkan Hardenberger – Dean: Dramatis Personae; Francesconi: Hard Pace (BIS)

Dean Dramatis Personae (2013), Francesconi Hard Pace (2007)

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra / John Storgårds

BIS (BIS 2067SACD)

What’s it all about?

Håkan Hardenberger returns with a further two concertos to add to the sizable number he has commissioned over these past three decades, as written by two leading composers from the middle generation whose musical aesthetics complement each other in almost every respect.

What’s the music like?

Well established as a violist before turning successfully to composition, Brett Dean (b1961) has several concertos among his output. As its title attests, Dramatis Personae evinces overtly dramatic connotations – not least those of Hamlet, an opera on which Shakespeare play Dean began writing immediately after the present work. Not that this concerto is about existential angst; rather it favours a distinctly sardonic take on the heroic concept – its initial movement, Fall of a Superhero, building from an anticipatory crescendo to an animated if increasingly fatigued interplay as subsides into enervated calm. Soliloquy proceeds as reflective dialogue whose elegiac quality takes on a renewed impetus in The Accidental Revolutionary, whose Chaplinesque humour reaches its apogee in the knockabout recessional which acts as coda.

A composer whose formative years were focussed on electronics, jazz and production, Luca Francesconi (b1956) has amassed a comparably diverse output where instrumental virtuosity is everywhere apparent. Not least in Hard Pace, a trumpet concerto that takes its cue from one of the instrument’s great practitioners. Although he never wrote or commissioned a concerto, Miles Davis delved extensively into those possibilities of varied accompaniment and sound diffusion everywhere audible in the Francesconi. This falls into two parts, the first building from eventful stasis to hectic activity before it suddenly ceases. The second part consists of three increasingly shorter sections – a taciturn Adagio whose emotional intensity spills over into the semi-cadenza of Miles, before the brief Finale brings matters to a decisive close.

Does it all work?

Yes. Neither of these concertos takes the all-round possibilities of the trumpet forward to the same degree as Peter Eötvös’s Jet Stream or Olga Neuwirth’s …miramondo multiplo… (both of which have been recorded by Hardenberger), but there can be no doubt as to their success in terms of demonstrating the instrument’s essential demeanour. That this is Hardenberger’s fourth disc of works for trumpet and orchestra on this label, moreover, wholly confirms his dedication to expanding what was once a genre proscribed both temporally and expressively.

The time has long gone when trumpeters searching for concertos outside of the Baroque or Classical eras had little more than that by Alexander Arutunian to draw on, for which sea-change Hardenberger can take no mean credit. His stentorian playing in both these pieces is further enhanced by an excellent contribution from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds with sure understanding of that expressive ebb-and-flow between soloist and orchestra. Both the SACD sound and booklet notes are well up to BIS’s customary standards.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. A welcome and impressive addition to a discography which, formerly on Philips and latterly on BIS, has no equals when it comes to defining a repertoire for the trumpet such as younger practitioners can take forward in the knowledge its potential is far from exhausted.

Richard Whitehouse

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