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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On record: Allan Pettersson : Symphony no.14 (BIS)

Allan Pettersson Symphony no.14

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg

BIS 2230 [1SACD & 1DVD, 52’38’’ & 1h58m] Producer Jens Braun Engineer Stephan Reh. Recorded January 2016 at Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping

Summary

BIS nears the end of its cycle of the symphonies of Allan Pettersson (1911-80), as begun in Norrköping with Leif Segerstam then continued by Christian Lindberg, with the Fourteenth from his last years, when greater recognition did not dilute his music’s emotional intensity.

What’s the music like?

The mid-1970s was a difficult time for Pettersson, not least through the ban that he imposed on the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra after it abandoned its intention to take his Seventh Symphony on a US tour and which, though lifted before too long, consolidated his reputation as someone awkward to handle. After the frequently assaultive impact of its predecessor, the Fourteenth initially seems a more inward and restrained entity, yet an underlying plangency is seldom absent – its expressive ambit centred on a quotation from the song ‘Wise Men and Clenched Hands’, one of the 24 Barefoot Songs Pettersson had written three decades before and whose melodic profile here attains a special potency. Orchestrally the work is not so far removed from his earlier symphonies, albeit with an emergent sense of fatalistic acceptance.

As with all Pettersson’s symphonies except the Third and Eighth, No. 14 unfolds as a single movement in which traditional formal structures are scarcely apparent. It is possible, though, to hear the piece as comprising six main sections: in terms of this recording – these extend up to 2’18’’ of track 3, with its exposition of ominous and pensive states; the remainder of track 3, with its impulsively developmental character; track 4, a processional slow movement and one of the composer’s finest passages; track 5, which combines the process of development and start of the reprise on to a cathartic climax; tracks 6 and 7, continuing the reprise with the ‘Barefoot’ motif at its most acute; tracks 8 and 9, outlining a coda where the initial states are recalled prior to a close that embraces tonal closure more out of resignation than resolution.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that Pettersson controls his potentially disparate and unwieldy material with a sure underlying conviction. It helps that the Norrköping SO conveys this music’s fractious yet communicative expression with precision and finesse. By comparison, Sergiu Comissiona with the Stockholm Philharmonic (Phono Suecia, made soon after the world premiere) are undeniably feeling their way, while Johan M. Arnell with the then Berlin Radio Symphony (CPO, made soon after the German premiere) offer a spirited yet often diffuse run-through.

Further enhancements of this version are the superb SACD sound, the informative booklet note by Per-Henning Olsson and, above all, an accompanying DVD documentary The Song of Life. Made for Sveriges Television in 1987, this draws on footage from Pettersson’s final seven years, with fascinating insights into his formative years and wartime studies in Paris   as may well alter perceptions of this composer. Almost two hours of interviews and images, which Lindberg is to be commended for having restored and made available commercially.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, though anyone new to Pettersson should begin with one of his earlier symphonies (of which the Sixth, Seventh or Ninth all make worthwhile starting-points). Those who heve been following this BIS series, or who want to acquire the Fourteenth Symphony, need not hesitate.

Richard Whitehouse

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For more information, visit the BIS website

On record: BVDUB – Epilogues for the End of the Sky (Glacial Movements)

The apocalyptic title suggests a large scale work from BVDUB, aka Brock van Wey, one that deals with the end of mortality. Appearances are deceptive however. The End Of The Sky may in this case be the point where the sky stops being blue and moves to become the dark edges of the universe. Either way, there are some incredibly ambient moments to be enjoyed here.

What’s the music like?

BVDUB manages the delicate balancing act of creating long lasting atmospheres but also dropping in shorter, more melodic loops to keep the listener’s interest high. The music floats on a cushion of air, with a distant voice used for With Broken Wings and Giants Tall. Sparkling Legions Turn to Black uses a far off chant, conducting powerful emotion through carefully constructed foreground loops.

Meanwhile a delicate piano floats over the top of Footsteps Fade If Not Your Pain, the purest of sounds. Long, held background notes create a stillness over which slightly shorter patterns operate – with the addition of outdoor sounds and vocal fragments to create a scene of calm.

Does it all work?

Yes, on several levels. BVDUB creates some wondrously beautiful scenes through this album, conceived on a level that matches the title and the cover image. The tonal bases help, giving the music a clear anchor. This sequence, working extremely well in a single listen, is music that can be taken out from the whole and listened to in smaller chunks, or enjoyed as a whole that literally washes over the ears of the listener.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. BVDUB provides solace from the rush and incessant noise of everyday life, slowing things down, taking in the awesome scenery and surfing the wave of it.

Ben Hogwood

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