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


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

In concert – NEXT and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Past the Stars


NEXT [Joe Howson & Mikaela Livadiotis (pianos), Gavin Stewart (bass flute), Olivia Jago (violin)

Adams Hallelujah Junction (1996)
Saunders Bite (2016)
Mason When Joy Became Mixed with Grief (2007)

Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Ulrich Heinen (cello), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Geoffrey Paterson

Birtwistle Cantus Iambeus (2004)
Vir Wheeling Past the Stars (2007) – Songs 3 and 4; Hayagriva (2005) [UK premiere]

Town Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 20 June 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It might have taken 15 months plus a couple of false alarms, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (above) finally resumed live performances en masse this afternoon and with this wide-raging concert typical of its programming across more than three decades of music-making.

Not least with its throwing the spotlight onto players of the next generation, the opening half featuring NEXT musicians as mentored by their senior colleagues. Things got underway with Hallelujah Junction, John Adams’ alternately incisive and soulful evoking of a truck-stop on the California-Nevada border; along with a tribute to orchestra manager Ernest Fleischmann, which doubtless explains its heightened peroration. Nor, despite some occasional vagaries of coordination, was there any doubting the conviction of Joe Howson and Mikaela Livadiotis.

From two pianists situated amid tables in the stalls to a bass flautist just in front of the organ console: Gavin Stewart made the most of this unlikely context with a committed reading of Rebecca SaundersBite, less a setting than paraphrase of the thirteenth from Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing in which words or syllables are variously sounded in anticipation, or as consequence of the flute’s contribution. It certainly left a fragmented, even rebarbative impression compared to the seamlessness of When Joy Became Mixed with GriefChristian Mason’s contemplation of a sixth-century Jainist account over several ages of declining natural and human wonder; in which violinist Olivia Jago rendered the music’s gently enveloping pathos with unfailing poise, as well as a sure sense of where this deceptively understated music might be headed.

BCMG accordingly took to the stage for Cantus Iambeus, among the more recent of Harrison Birtwistle’s curtain-raisers for ensemble and arguably his most approachable in the unfolding of expressive contours and its frequently diaphanous textures; all underpinned by the role of iambic rhythm in promoting continuity through to an almost inviting final cadence. Nor was there a lack of that intensive interplay as has been a hallmark of this composer’s music from the outset, and to which these musicians responded with their customary precision and verve.

The other pieces (both included on a new NMC release) were by Param Vir, whose music has been a welcome if undervalued presence over four decades. Firstly, the latter two items from his song-cycle Wheeling Past the Stars after Rabindranath Tagore – the charm and vivacity of Grandfather’s Holiday then musing inwardness of New Birth, both eloquently rendered by Patricia Auchterlonie with Ulrich Heinen. Finally, to Hayagriva – the horse-headed being and mythological archetype behind a work whose headlong rhythmic energy suddenly moves, via an intricately detailed transition, to a final section whose subdued manner does not preclude music of fastidious textural variety emerging. The analogous sequence ‘red-green-blue’ was reinforced by overhead lighting, even if Vir’s musical trajectory is appreciably more subtle.

BCMG responded to Geoffrey Paterson’s direction with alacrity, not unreasonably pleased to be back performing for a live audience in an impressive indication of what can be expected from this ensemble during the 2021-22 season and barring, one hopes, no more false alarms!

You can find information on further BCMG activities here, while further information on Wheeling Past the Stars by Param Vir can be found at the NMC website