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: Music For My Love (Toccata)

music-for-my-love

Brahms (arr. Söderlind) Von ewiger Liebe
Casulana (arr. C. Matthews) Il vostro dipartir
Dean Angels’ Wings (Music for Yodit)
Elcock Song for Yodit, Op. 23
Ford Sleep
Holloway Music for Yodit
Kerem A Farewell for Yodit
Lord (arr. Mann) Zarabanda Solitaria
Pickard …forbidding mourning…
Ruders Lullaby for Yodit
Söderlind 15 Variations on a Norwegian Folktune

Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann

Summary

The Music For My Love project has its basis in the life, cut short by cancer, of Yodit Tekle – the Eritrean-born partner of Martin Anderson, whose desire to commemorate her in music led to his contacting those composers he knew personally, resulting in over 100 pieces for string orchestra which he intends to record for his Toccata Classics label. This first volume takes in eight pieces and three arrangements, ranging from around two minutes to a full quarter-hour.

What’s the music like?

Appreciably more varied in expression than might be expected given the context.

Among the original pieces, Robin Holloway has written a pensive elegy whose dance-like central section offers but minimal contrast, whereas Poul Ruders contributes a wistful and affecting lullaby. Mikhel Kerem’s miniature amply sustains its rapt atmosphere, while Andrew Ford takes an earlier vocal setting for his gentle round-lay. Steve Elcock conveys a consolatory mood via the subtlest of means, then Brett Dean draws on an earlier piano piece in music of ethereally diffused harmony. John Pickard draws more obliquely upon an earlier cello piece for what is the most animated of these works in its textural contrasts, while Ragnar Söderlind takes the Norwegian folksong Oh, the cooling wind as the basis for 15 variations whose cumulative impact feels a little diffused in context – for all that its emotional consistency is undeniable.

Among the arrangements, the late Jon Lord’s evocative sarabande for string quartet responds effortlessly to Paul Mann’s skilful adaptation. Framing the sequence overall, Söderlind makes of Brahms’s song a threnody of Grieg-like plaintiveness, whereas Colin Matthews draws out the assertive eloquence inherent in a madrigal by the still little-known Maddalena Casulana.

Does it all work?

Indeed, given that it would have been all too easy to assemble a programme unrelieved in its emotional range. Thanks to judicious sequencing of the pieces at hand, this disc amply fulfils its commemorative function while also making for an hour’s absorbing listen in its own right.

Is it recommended?

Absolutely, not least as the Debrecen-based Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra responds with commitment to Paul Mann’s direction. The sound endows the string textures with plenty of space and definition, while booklet annotations are as comprehensive as ever from Toccata.

Richard Whitehouse

Further instalments in this worthwhile project are much anticipated: in the meantime, read more about its continuation via the Toccata Classics website