On record – Skempton: Man and Bat, Piano Concerto & The Moon is Flashing (First Hand Records)

Howard Skempton
Eternity’s Sunrise (2003)
The Moon is Flashing (2007, arr. 2018)
Piano Concerto (2015, arr. 2018)
Man and Bat (2017)

James Gilchrist (tenor, The Moon is Flashing); Roderick Williams (baritone, Man and Bat); Tim Horton (piano, Piano Concerto); Ensemble 360

First Hand Records FHR90 [70’25”]

English texts included
Producer Tim Oldham
Engineer Phil Rowlands

Recorded 20 July 2019 at Upper Chapel, Sheffield (Man and Bat), 5-7 February 2019 at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London (others)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A welcome addition to the recorded representation of Howard Skempton (b1947), including two pieces specially arranged by the composer for reduced forces and also two pieces written specifically for ensemble, all performed by artists closely associated with Skempton’s music.

What’s the music like?

Vocal writing has been a mainstay of Skempton’s in over recent years, the two largest pieces here setting poems by D.H. Lawrence. The term ‘setting’ is used advisedly, given Skempton’s approach is not one of expressive interpretation; rather one in which those individual words articulate a vocal line which, in its turn, articulates the instrumental writing so as to provide context.

Such is the premise on which Man and Bat operates – Lawrence’s highly descriptive, indeed discursive poem treated as a formal framework around which the ensemble unfolds a dialogue of constantly varying (not necessarily developing) motifs and phrases as provide an aural equivalent to what is being described. A not dissimilar approach is pursued in Snake, but here the musical treatment is audibly more static as befits a poem centred upon thought rather than action. This provides the concluding stage in a triptych preceded by a setting of Chris Newman’s self-deprecating A Day in 3 Wipes then, before it, the quizzical humour of Skempton’s own The Moon is Flashing which affords this diverse cycle its overall title.

The other two pieces are both instrumental, while being highly differentiated in themselves. Skempton has used generic titles only sparingly, his Piano Concerto predictable only in its avoidance of obvious models or precursors – the five movements (each lasting between two and four minutes) amounting to a series of vignettes in which the soloist variously combines with the ensemble, here a string quartet rather than string orchestra as originally conceived. Its title might suggest a natural piece with which to open, but Eternity’s Sunrise also makes for a persuasive rounding-off – a perfectly proportioned entity which amounts to a sequence of variations on an undulating theme apposite to the lines from William Blake that provided inspiration. Once again, Skempton’s writing is affecting through its sheer self-effacement.

Does it all work?

Very much so. From an output dominated by miniatures for the piano or accordion (his own instrument), Skempton has amassed a sizable and ever more varied catalogue from which the present release offers a judicious selection. It helps when the performances are so responsive to those qualities of emotional restraint and attention to detail that define the essence of this music. Roderick Williams and James Gilchrist can be relied upon for unforced insight, as too can the underrated pianist Tim Horton and the grouping of soloists which is Ensemble 360.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Skempton now enjoys a substantial discography which features a number of releases devoted to his music (most notably those on the NMC label), to which should now be added this latest from the always enterprising First Hand Records. The sound has all the focus and detail necessary with this composer, whose succinctly informative notes on each piece are complemented by anecdotal observations from each of the soloists. Those who are new to Skempton will find this an ideal way into his compositional ethos, where little is as it seems.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Presto 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