On record: Steve Elcock: Orchestral Music, Volume Two (Toccata)

Steve Elcock
Incubus Op.28 (2017)
Haven: Fantasia on a Theme by J.S. Bach Op.4 (1995, rev. 2011-17)
Symphony no.5 Op.21 (2014)

Siberian Symphony Orchestra / Dmitry Vasiliev

Producer/Engineer Sergei Zhiganov
Recorded 8-12 July 2019, Philharmonic Hall, Omsk

Toccata Classics TOCC0445 [77’20”]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its coverage of Steve Elcock (b1957) with this second instalment of orchestral music – dominated by the Fifth Symphony with provocative allusions to its most famous predecessor, together with shorter yet distinctive pieces from either end of his output.

What’s the music like?

Although it marks a return to the four-movement format of his first two such works, the Fifth Symphony is hardly conventional in formal or expressive follow through. As with the almost contemporaneous Fifth by the late Christopher Rouse, the presence of that archetypal ‘No. 5’ feels undeniable – even more so given Elcock’s explicit referencing at the start of each outer movement; a head-on approach hardly less confrontational than that with Beethoven Nine in Tippett’s Third Symphony a half-century ago. In all other respects, Elcock goes entirely his own way: the visceral charge of that beginning quickly subsides into an opening movement whose restive searching seems becalmed emotionally while not tonally, as the music strives increasingly to regain its initial energy before relapsing into a mood of pervasive desolation.

The next two movements unfold without pause as a contrasting duality. As its title suggests, the Ostinato builds explosive impetus over a remorseless rhythmic motto that climactically implodes to leave a musing clarinet melody as expands into the ensuing Canzonetta. Less a slow movement than extended intermezzo, what might have brought a return to the earlier sombreness rather assumes a more compassionate aura that makes possible the final Allegro. Comparable to the first movement in its scale, this unfolds as a sonata design of unflagging dynamism whose twin themes are drawn into a process of continuous development on route to a peroration which, though it could hardly evince the triumph of Beethoven, is never less than affirmative in its bringing the work decisively and, moreover, demonstrably full circle.

A notable achievement, then – less ruggedly distinctive if ultimately more cohesive than the Third Symphony (recorded on TOCC0400), and evidently a statement with which to reckon. It is preceded here by two pieces that further attest to the consistency of Elcock’s underlying vision. Haven: Fantasia on a Theme by J.S. Bach takes the Sarabande from the First Violin Partita as basis for a series less of variations than of paraphrases such as pass from nostalgia, through militaristic brutality, to renewed concord with the theme newly explicit at the close. Derived from a recent string quartet, Incubus is a study in nocturnal imaginings – ostensibly the result of insomnia – which seems predictable only in its marshalling a disparate range of ideas into a taut ‘curtain raiser’ whose outcome is the more telling for being so unexpected.

Does it all work?

It does. Just occasionally taxed in those more demonstrative passages, the Siberian Symphony Orchestra otherwise yields little to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as to the conviction of its playing, with Dmitry Vasiliev demonstrating an absolute grasp of Elcock’s combative musical vision.

Is it recommended?

It is. Orchestral sound has commendable heft and perspective, while Francis Pott’s extensive annotations situate all three pieces within an appropriately wide context. Hopefully Elcock’s Fourth Symphony will feature on the next volume in what is an absorbing and valuable series.

Listen

Buy

For further information, audio clips and purchase information visit the Toccata Classics website. For more on Steve Elcock you can visit the composer’s website

On record – Steve Elcock: Chamber Music Vol.1 (Toccata Classics)

The Veles Ensemble (Hartmut Richter (violin), Ralitsa Naydenova (viola), Evva Mizerska (cello), with Daniel Shao (flute), Peter Cigleris (clarinet), Yuri Kalnits (violin), Leon Bosch (double bass), Catalina Ardelean (piano)

Steve Elcock
Clarinet Sextet Op.11b (2001/14)
String Trio no.1 Op.8b (1998/2016)
The Shed Dances Op.26b (2016)
An Outstretched Hand Op.24 (2015)

Toccata Classics TOCC0506 [79’36”]

Producer & Engineer Michael Ponder

Recorded 21-22 May 2018, St Silas, Chalk Farm, London, 24 May 2018 (Sextet, Trio, The Shed Dances), Henry Wood Hall (An Outstretched Hand)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following an impressive disc of his orchestral music (TOCC0400, reviewed on Arcana here), Steve Elcock (b1957) is given further coverage by Toccata Classics with this release of chamber music, reaffirming him as a force to be reckoned with among those symphonic composers from his generation.

What’s the music like?

Every bit as engrossing as the works on that earlier release – that is, uncompromising without being unyielding and serious without being (unduly) earnest. This is evident from the earliest piece here, Elcock’s First String Trio having been conceived for two violins and viola before reaching its present guise. A tensile single movement pivots constantly between the fractious and consoling, at times encroaching upon a more equable expression that nevertheless fails to sustain itself, and with a conclusion where even the most tenuous poise is summarily denied.

Starting out as a Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra, the Clarinet Sextet is on a larger scale – opening with an Allegro whose clear-cut sonata design opens-out intriguingly with a cadenza-like passage just before the reprise. Similarly, the Romanza is thrown off-balance by a faster central section which duly intensifies the climactic stages, and if the progress of the final Variations and Theme seems more arresting as regards form rather than content, the gentle evanescence after the theme has been elaborated feels as subtle as it is intriguing.

More immediately approachable, The Shed Dances began life as a sequence for violin and piano before being recast for clarinet and string trio. Written at the suggestion of a sufferer from the neurological condition known as ataxia, all six dances are thwarted or undermined by rhythmic imbalances that are only effortfully overcome – the most memorable being the inhibited gait of Petrified minuet, edgy impulsiveness of Boneyard antics and winsome swaying of Marion’s pavane which confirms Elcock as possessing no mean melodic gift.

Finally, to An Outstretched Hand whose inspiration in the stark contrasts of composing as an act of friendship across the centuries and the burgeoning refugee crisis across Europe became fused into this powerfully sustained single movement for flute, clarinet and piano quartet. Its sombre initial Largo is followed by two Allegros (themselves separated by a stark interlude) whose increasingly confrontational manner carries over to a final Largo which recalls earlier material in a mood that, fatalistic rather than merely defeatist, exudes the keenest poignancy.

Does it all work?

Yes, in almost all respects. It helps when these performances are so evidently attuned to this idiom, teasing subtleties out of the charged formal processes and grating expressive contrasts that are recognizable Elcock traits. The overall programme is carried by the Veles Ensemble, whose tonal finesse and tangible commitment to this music is evident throughout – which is hardly to decry the contributions of those other musicians featured here. Hopefully it should prove possible for these pieces to be heard in public performance on some future occasion.

Is it recommended?

Certainly – not least when the sound is unexceptionally fine, and the composer’s annotations are unfailingly to the point. Elcock’s growing admirers will be pleased to hear that a further disc of orchestral music (including the Fifth Symphony) is scheduled for imminent release.

Listen and Buy

You can listen to clips and purchase this disc from the Toccata Classics website

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