On record – Param Vir: Wheeling Past the Stars (NMC Recordings)

param-vir

cPatricia Auchterlonie (soprano); cUlrich Heinen (cello); aSoumik Datta (sarod), aKlangforum Wien / Enno Poppe; bLondon Chamber Orchestra / Odaline de la Martínez dSchönberg Ensemble / Micha Hamel

Param Vir

Raga Fields (2014)a
Before Krishna (1987)b
Wheeling Past the Stars (2007)c
Hayagriva (2005)d

NMC Recordings NMC D265 [69’07”] 

Producers aFlorian Rosensteiner, bStephen Plaistow, cDavid Lefeber, dAnneke van Dulken, dWim Laman
Engineers aFritz Trondel, dDick Lucas

Recorded b14 December 1988 at BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London; d13 December 2005 at Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam; a23 May at Konzerthaus, Vienna; c10 October 2020 at Henry Wood Hall, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Not a little surprisingly, this release from NMC is the first devoted to Param Vir (b1952), his music a welcome though undervalued presence in the UK over the almost four decades since relocating here from his native India and making for a ‘portrait’ whose appearance is timely.

What’s the music like?

Right from his earliest pieces written in the UK, Vir possessed a distinctive and engaging idiom – as can be heard in Before Krishna, subtitled an ‘Overture for Strings’, in which the narrative leading up to the deity’s birth is evoked through an intensive development of the ‘Krishna row’; heard in the context of string writing as is audibly influenced by (if never beholden to) the sonorist techniques from previous decades. Especially striking are those deftly enveloping chordal harmonics into which the music diffuses during the final bars.

Hayagriva is demonstrably more personal in approach – not least in its evoking the horse-headed being and mythological archetype behind a work whose headlong rhythmic energy gradually moves, via an intricately detailed transition, to a closing section whose subdued manner does not preclude music of fastidious textural variety and expressive nuance from emerging. The colour sequence ‘red/crimson-green/gold-blue’ evolves in parallel, but the aural trajectory pursued by this ‘mixed ensemble of 15 players’ is appreciably more subtle.

The song-cycle Wheeling Past the Stars draws on four poems by Rabindranath Tagore (sung in widely praised translations by William Radice). ‘Unending Love’ opens the sequence with its ecstatic vocal melisma and cello glissandi, while ‘Palm-tree’ portrays night-ride and storm with no mean resourcefulness. The unaffected charm and vivacity of ‘Grandfather’s Holiday’ then provides an admirable foil to ‘New Birth’, its frequently impassioned contemplation of those ‘who come later’ making for an earnest yet always eloquent conclusion to this cycle.

Raga Fields is outwardly a concerto for sarod but one where the orchestral contribution can be perceived as growing out of the soloist – whether in the gradual textural proliferation of ‘Void’; the comparable melodic interplay, notably through a variety of insinuating solos for woodwind, of ‘Tranquil’; then the stealthy rhythmic accumulation of ‘Vibrant’, in which the constant shifting between notated and improvisatory passages is heard at its most intensive. As the coming together of differing concepts, this is a productive and engrossing synthesis.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that Vir’s music exhibits its Indian antecedents distinctly yet always subtly. Allied to unforced harmonic clarity and a keen feeling for textural finesse is a sure sense of where each piece is headed formally, such that the considerable emotional intensity never risks becoming turgid or self-indulgent. It helps that these performances are attuned to the work at hand – not least Patricia Auchterlonie with Ulrich Heinen in the song-cycle, or the three ensembles that are heard in the remaining items. Whatever else, Vir has been well served by his performers.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound has, in some cases, been remastered to mitigate the considerable time-span between performances, while Paul Conway pens his customary reliable notes. Hopefully, a follow-up release, maybe of Vir’s wide-ranging orchestral output, will not be long in coming.

Listen & Buy

 

You can get more information on the disc at the NMC website, where you can also purchase the album. For more on Param Vir, you can visit the composer’s website

On record – Nash Ensemble – Julian Anderson: Poetry Nearing Silence (NMC)

Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins

Julian Anderson
Ring Dance (1987) Benjamin Nabarro, Michael Gurevich (violins)
The Bearded Lady (1994) Richard Hosford (clarinet), Ian Brown (piano)
The Colour of Pomegranates (1994) Philippa Davies (alto flute), Ian Brown (piano)
Prayer (2009) Lawrence Power (viola)
Poetry Nearing Silence (1997) Benjamin Nabarro (violin, triangle), Michael Gurevich (violin, triangle), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)
Another Prayer (2012) Benjamin Nabarro (viola)
Van Gogh Blue (2015) Ian Brown (piano), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Marie Lloyd (clarinet, bass clarinet), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)

Producer and Engineer David Lefeber
Digital Editing Susanne Stanzeleit

Recorded 1-3 April 2019 at Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Cobham, Kent

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Back in 2007 NMC released a disc called Book of Hours, a highly enjoyable compendium of the work of Julian Anderson, where smaller-scale music rubbed shoulders with ambitious works like the Symphony and the Book of Hours itself, which combined an ensemble and electronics to fascinating effect.

Poetry Nearing Silence is to all intents and purposes a follow-up release to that Gramophone Award winner, and features the Nash Ensemble and their members in short works by Anderson. They range from solo instrumental pieces to suites for ensemble, written from 1987 to 2015.

What’s the music like?

Concentrated, effective and stimulating. It is great to have such variety within a disc the listener can either dip into or experience in full. Either approach brings dividends.

Ring Dance, for two violins, opens the collection with the instruction that it should ‘be played with unimaginable joy!’ The open string drones with which the piece starts give a penetrating sound, and this approach is consistent with the piece. The instruction with some of the bowing is often to dig in hard near the strings, which gives an extra scratchy timbre. The sound is also striking when the open strings shift up a fifth, accentuating the positive if not always obviously joyful.

The Bearded Lady is next, receiving a tour de force account from clarinetist Richard Hosford and pianist Ian Brown. After the bold opening it becomes more lyrical if still high in its register, defiant yet mournful in its regret at how characters such as the bearded lady – in this case, Baba the Turk from Auden’s The Rake’s Progress – have been portrayed on stage. The uncompromising notes from the piano at the end speak plenty here.

It is surprising not more composers write for alto flute, for the instrument has a really appealing sonority. Anderson writes enchantingly on his nocturne The Colour of Pomegranates, aided by a richly coloured performance from Philippa Davies and Ian Brown, which builds to the sound of tolling bells on the piano and sharper, bird like squawks from the flute. This piece sounds a lot further East than England – and indeed is named after an Armenian film.

Another change of sound brings in the husky viola of Lawrence Power for Prayer, a more recent piece in which Anderson enjoys writing for the instrument he learned briefly in his teens. Here is a reminder that the instrument has a much bigger range than composers often use, grainy in its lower register but with a penetrating line higher up where Anderson capitalises for his melodic material. You might expect Prayer to be a contemplation but this one lets its thoughts unravel and regroup.

After four pieces bringing forward solo instruments, the disc moves to the ensemble number that gave its name. Poetry Nearing Silence is for seven players and runs through eight short movements, where Anderson reacts to the unusual drawings and words therein of Tom Phillips. The crisp chords that open Muse in Rocks or Pebbles or Clouds or Foliage are immediately appealing for their watery colours, and the suite continues to deliver keen illustrations of its subject matter. Anderson writes dreamy lines through Know Vienna, while the intriguing buzzing of a ratchet, played by the second violin, adds mystery to the bigger ensemble number My Future as the Star in a Film of My Room. As the suite progresses Anderson makes keen use of his resources in concentrated, expressive music that charms and impresses in equal measure. Shrill clarinet and gritty strings make notable colours, yet when the piece collapses as the bell tolls in Tall Rain Rattled Over Paris, the music subsides into silence. A dramatic piece well worth returning to.

Another Prayer returns us to solo instruments, this time for violin. It is around the same length as its viola counterpart heard earlier on, and shares some melodic material. It shares its restlessness too, forthright from the start and buzzing with nervous energy. Benjamin Nabarro rises to its challenges comfortably, but also creates a rarefied atmosphere with the harmonics of the central section.

Finally the most substantial piece, Van Gogh Blue, based on the painter’s letters that relish ‘the sheer stuff of which his own art is made’. This is the most obviously expressive piece of the collection, with clarinet-rich sonorities and expansive piano teamed to immediate effect in L’Aube, soleil naissant. Second movement Les Vignobles invokes the dance, while Les Alpilles teems with activity and life, the painter seemingly writing faster than his pen will allow. The clarinets dominate here. Eygalieres is a heat haze, with lovely colours emanating from the suspended chords of the ensemble, expanded by the piano. They create fuzzy yet bright sound worlds. Finally la nuit, peindre les étoiles is more playful, pizzicato violin and clarinet often in cahoots. There is a bigger scope to this movement, the recording playing effectively with perspective as some of the group sound detached and distant, almost bickering in the room next door.  The sparring, completed over solemn piano notes, completes an eventful and compelling piece.

Does it all work?

Yes. It is well worth giving the disc several airings so the works make themselves clear. It will be apparent that Julian Anderson is capable of writing concentrated music that sticks, and that he is incredibly versatile in his writing either for alto flute, viola or even the ratchet. Martyn Brabbins conducts superb accounts of the ensemble pieces, technically fault free in the way the Nash Ensemble tend to be – but also finding the sensitive centre of Van Gogh Blue in the beautifully voiced Eygalieres.

Is it recommended?

Yes, very much so. While Anderson’s orchestral works have rightly enjoyed good exposure of late, the chamber music has tended to drift under the radar. What it needed was a collection like this to push it into the spotlight.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from Poetry Nearing Silence and to purchase a copy at the Presto website here