On record: The Waldegrave Ensemble – Matthew Taylor: Chamber Music Vol.3 – Music for Winds (Toccata)

Taylor Chamber Music, Volume Three: Music for Winds

The Waldegrave Ensemble and friends

Introduction and Capriccio op.7 (1990)
Trio in memoriam VH op.21 (1997/2018)
Serenata Trionfale op.34 (2005)
Wind Quintet op.51 (2014-15)
Skål! (2004)

Toccata Classics TOCC0486 [54’16”]

Producer/Engineer Michael Whight
Recorded July 20-21 at Trinity United Reformed Church, Wimbledon; Trio recorded March 3 2018 at St Barnabas, Mitcham

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc from Toccata Classics of Matthew Taylor (b. 1964) focussing on his not inconsiderable output for wind ensemble, played by musicians who have worked with this composer on numerous occasions and have a sure understanding of his unmistakable idiom.

What’s the music like?

Most substantial in actual content are the two pieces for wind octet. Among Taylor’s earliest acknowledged works, Introduction and Capriccio comprises an opening section that exudes an ominous expectancy, duly offset by the main section which, with its vaunting motion and ever more demonstrative exchanges, provides a succinct yet eventful showcase for what is still a largely untried medium. Any stylistic uncertainty has been ironed out by the time of Serenata Trionfale, a companion piece to Nielsen’s Serenata in vano and proffering a rather different scenario from its deadpan stoicism. Formally Taylor’s work unfolds in deceptively Classical fashion from the alluring harmonies and unforced motion of its initial Andante, via the impetuous exchanges (not a little Tippett-like) of its scherzo then the more nuanced and often speculative dialogue of its intermezzo, to a finale whose bewitching introduction from offstage oboe is succeeded by a Presto which drives forward to its suitably uproarious close – the taciturn protagonist having in this instance been purposefully and successfully wooed.

Mention of Nielsen is a reminder his Wind Quintet remains unequalled in this genre. Taylor plays oblique tribute to in with Skål!, a jeux d’esprit that coincidentally offers a masterclass in how to fit the maximum allusions to Nielsen’s six symphonies into a minimal time-span (that to the First Symphony might well take some spotting). Only recently has Taylor essayed a Wind Quintet, and here the underlying model is not Nielsen but Malcolm Arnold. Its seven short movements play continuously – beginning with a lively Preludio festivo then taking in a skittish Hornpipe and Pensive Waltz with more than a hint of wistfulness; followed by a teasing Habanera and energetic Tarantella, before a Pastorale evinces the most searching and soulful music prior to an Epilogue which brings the whole work infectiously full circle.

That leaves the Trio in memoriam VH for flute, violin and cello, a typically individual tribute to the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-96). The opening movements are both marked Allegretto, with the elegant interplay and often reticent expression of the former (pointedly marked ‘innocente’) finding potent contrast in the playful manner of its successor; the work closing with a Moderato whose plangent musing draws on timbral shadings of real poise and finesse. Taylor’s commemoration results in the deepest and most eloquent music on this disc.

Does it all work?

Yes. Taylor has an instinctive feel for wind instruments (not surprising given he played the oboe during his formative years), evident throughout those works featured here – idiomatic and innovative despite (or even because of?) the absence of ‘advanced’ playing techniques.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Performances by the Waldegrave Ensemble and associated musicians do full justice to this music’s distinctive qualities, abetted by a recording that affords clarity without undue closeness of perspective. Taylor himself provides the informative and amusing booklet notes.

You can read more about this release and listen to clips on the Toccata Classics website, or listen in full on Spotify below:

Matthew Taylor’s composer website can be found here, while for more on the Waldegrave Ensemble click here

On record: Clare Hammond – Robert Saxton: Piano Music (Toccata Classics)

Saxton Piano Music

Clare Hammond

Saxton
Hortus Musicae, Books One (2013) and Two (2015)
Chacony for the Left Hand (1988)
Sonata (1981)
Lullaby for Rosa (2016)

Toccata Classics TOCC0458 [55’44”]

Producer / EngineerMichael Ponder
Recorded21 & 22 August 2017 at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Oxford

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A disc collating most of the solo piano output by Robert Saxton (b1953) in performances by Clare Hammond, who has championed his work over recent years and is the dedicatee of two books of shorter pieces comprising Saxton’s most significant music for this instrument so far.

What’s the music like?

Saxton came of age as a composer during the early 1980s, with such pieces as the Sonata for Piano. This was completed in 1981, the centenary of Bartók’s birth and the pivoting of whose mature piano music between stasis and dynamism is evident in the present work’s methodical unfolding towards a coruscating climax; rounded off by a limpid if by no means valedictory chorale. Hammond has the measure of this compact yet eventful piece, not least its unforced and resourceful tonal follow-through as subsequently became a hallmark of Saxton’s thinking.

Such is audible in the Chacony for Piano Left Hand composed in 1988 for Leon Fleischer. Its antecedents in archetypal examples by Purcell and Bach are never hard to detect, but Saxton ‘personalizes’ this form through a tonal framework that facilitates its evolution as a sequence of interrelated variations – as defined harmonically as it is seamless texturally. Concerning the latter aspect, Saxton notes that he was at pains to ensure his music sounded as though written for two hands – a quality that is audibly to the fore in Hammond’s admirably fluent reading.

Both these pieces have been previously recorded, but the two volumes of Hortus Musicae are new to disc and evince piano writing no less idiomatic and arguably more personal than before. The inspiration is that of a ‘musical garden’ in all its allegorical and metaphysical implications, with the five pieces which comprise the First Book (2013) embodying this in ingenious ways – not least the stealthy (Andrew Marvell-inspired) floral clock of Hortus Temporis, or synthesis of formal precision and expressive eloquence in Hortus Infinitatis.

The seven pieces of the Second Book (2015) are even more diverse and contrasted in and between themselves. Here, too, the inspiration is often more concrete – hence the invoking of fondly remembered music in Beech Bank (á la recherche)…, or deft play on meanings which motivates the heady course of Hortus Animae Alis Fugacis; a concluding piece in every sense. The fact these 12 pieces outline a circular tonal trajectory makes further books unlikely, but Saxton will hopefully find a means of extending the sequence up to 24 pieces.

Does it all work?

Indeed. Saxton has long been a composer able to fuse serial and tonal elements without the results seeming at all contrived or inhibited. The two books of Hortus Musicae abound in evocative and arresting musical imagery which Hammond conveys as convincingly as she realizes the not inconsiderable technical challenges. The disc is rounded off by Lullaby for Rosa (2016), a minute-long ‘welcome gift’ for this pianist’s daughter and a further instance of how deftly Saxton integrates technical ingenuity within a context of limpid wistfulness.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The piano sound is spacious in balance as well as realistic in tone, while the composer contributes an entertaining booklet note that takes in an overview of his ancestry and formative years. Hopefully there will be further releases of his music from this source.

You can read more about this release and listen to clips on the Toccata Classics website, or listen in full on Spotify below:

On record: Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann – Rodney Newton: Orchestral Music Vol.1 (Toccata)

Newton Orchestral Music, Volume One – Symphony no.1; Symphony no.4 ‘Distant Nebulae’

Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann

Newton
Symphony no.1 (1969)
Symphony no.4 (1975)
Distant Nebulae (1979)

Toccata Classics TOCC0459 [70’29”]

Producer/Engineer Albert Moraleda
Recorded September 18-22 at Sala Beethoven, Sala de Ensayos de Carranque, Málaga

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The ever-enterprising Toccata Classics begins another series, devoted to the orchestral output of Rodney Newton (b1945) who, best known for his brass band and film music, has been no less active in the concert domain, with 14 symphonies to date and numerous other pieces.

What’s the music like?

We begin at the start of this symphonic output, with the Symphony no.1 that Newton completed in 1969. He suggests Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams as primary influences, though that of Malcolm Arnold (then the leading British symphonist of the younger generation) is also detectable in the livelier episodes of the opening movement and a finale alternating between jazzy incisiveness and high-flown eloquence. Best, though, is the central Lento – its serenity increasingly undermined by more troubled elements on the way to a radiant close. Had this symphony appeared a decade or so before, it might well have found favour at a Cheltenham Festival of the period; heard today, its wide-eyed naivety – in terms of expression while not technique – appears more a resolute statement of intent for where its composer was headed.

One instance is the Symphony no.4 of 1975, its more forward-looking idiom underpinned by an adept recourse to serial technique and a continuous variation at its most resourceful in the opening Metamorphosis whose seamless and cumulative momentum readily confirms   a symphonist of conviction. There follows an Elegy of overt if not unrelieved sombreness, then a Scherzo malevolo dominated by suitably strident material and climaxing in a ‘break’ for kit-percussion such as leads into the finale. This Passacaglia, Variations and Epilogue builds stealthily, with increasing allusions to earlier ideas, to a powerful culmination whose impact resonates throughout the raptly inward concluding bars. Had Sir Charles Groves been able to secure its premiere, Newton’s symphonic profile would surely have been far greater.

The disc is rounded off by Distant Nebulae (1979), which received two semi-professional performances before this recording. Although inspired by the ‘cosmic landscape’ of Ives’s The Unanswered Question, its interplay of chorale-like melody and modal harmony suggests more Copland and even Barber; the music evoking that ‘’gentle meditation on the night sky and the mysteries of the universe’’, of which the composer speaks, in suitably pensive terms. Just maybe this could be Newton’s means of finding favour with a non-specialist audience?

Does it all work?

Very largely. That the First Symphony is a ‘starting out’ piece does not lesson its undoubted appeal, and it clearly commended itself to the Málaga Philharmonic players who render it with relish. The Fourth presents tougher challenges which are not entirely surmounted here (notably in the extensive outer movements), but this is not to question the commitment of these musicians – presided over by the dependable Paul Mann, whose service to present-day British symphonism (at least as represented by Toccata Classics!) could hardly be gainsaid.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is spacious and well-focussed (if just a touch overbearing at climaxes), while Newton contributes an informative and personable booklet note. As with Steve Elcock and Matthew Taylor, one looks forward to further symphonic odysseys from this source.

You can read more about this release and listen to clips on the Toccata Classics website, or listen in full on Spotify below:

On record: Eve Daniell, Roderick Williams & Simon Lepper – John Pickard: Songs (Toccata)

John Pickard Songs Eve Daniell (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Simon Lepper (piano)

Pickard
The Borders of Sleep
Binyon Songs
The Phoenix

Toccata Classics TOCC0413 [61’01’’] English texts included
Producer/Engineer Michael Ponder
Recorded January 7th and 8th 2017 at St George’s, Bristol

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc of music by John Pickard (b1963) from Toccata Classics, this time focussing on his output for voice and piano which to date comprises just three works, though these are no less personal than his more extensive contributions to the orchestral and chamber genres.

What’s the music like?

In his booklet notes, Pickard speaks of the difficulty in finding the right words for music thus intended. His works featuring baritone evince due discernment in those poets he has set. Not least the Binyon Songs – five settings of Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), the ubiquity of whose For the Fallen has detracted from a large and varied corpus. The present sequence is nothing if not representative – conveying abused benevolence in Nature, re-emergence in Sowing Seed and hectic transition in Autumn Song. The warm confessional of When all the world is hidden (a likely counterpart to Mahler’s Liebst du um Schönheit?) makes for a telling foil to the relatively expansive The Burning of the Leaves, affording closure through its insight into the immutable process of decay and renewal – an apotheosis as probing as it is profound.

Whereas the Binyon songs are a loosely related sequence, The Borders of Sleep is a song-cycle in formal intent and expressive scope. Here the texts are by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), considered a ‘wat poet’ (he died at Arras) though one whose poetry tends toward the speculative and even oblique. These concerns are pursued across the course of nine songs – taking in such as the sombre monotony of The Mill-Water, black irony of The Gallows and impermanence of Rain. The final settings comprise a fitting culmination: the mood of Last Poem, made concrete by its alternate title The sorrow of true love, transmuted into the fatalistic calm of Lights Out whose initial line also provides the title of this work and whose intimation of transcendence through the release of sleep affords its own benediction.

In contrast, the earliest piece here sets the earliest text, The Phoenix freely adapted from R. K. Gordon’s translation of a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem found in the Exeter Book. In fining down the expansive original (677 lines), Pickard has created a scena for soprano and piano where the evocation of this mythical bird’s demise and rebirth becomes metaphor for change and renewal; hence aligning it with the more recent poets featured here then, by extension, the underlying concerns to be found in even the most abstract among Pickard’s compositions.

Does it all work?

Very much so – not least when the performances are so attuned to the spirit and sensibility of Pickard’s music. A stalwart of English-song repertoire, Roderick Williams invests the Binyon and Thomas settings with unsparing emotional acuity, and if Eve Daniell experiences passing difficulty with pitching and intonation, her command of high-flown rhetoric in The Phoenix leaves no doubt as to her identity with this piece. Simon Lepper’s accompaniment is of the highest order, while recorded sound judges balance between voice and piano to perfection.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and Pickard will hopefully add to his output for voice and piano in due course. In the meantime, acquire this disc and check out the composer’s orchestrations of his Binyon songs (also performed by Williams) on the English Music Records’ anthology Now Comes Beauty.

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website, while for more on John Pickard, you can visit his website here

On record: Robin Walker: Orchestral Music (Toccata)

Walker Great Rock Is Dead; Odysseus on Ogygia; The Stone King; The Stone Maker

Novaya Rossiya Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Walker

Toccata Classics TOCC0283 58’13”

Producer Pavel Lavrenenkov Engineers Gennady Tarabantov and Alexander Karasev Recorded September 2nd-5th at Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company Kultura, Moscow

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Summary

The first disc devoted to the orchestral music of Robin Walker (b1953), whose idiom evolved over several decades before arriving at the singular and uncompromising music featured here, in what is another venture facilitated by the redoubtable Martin Anderson of Toccata Classics.

What’s the music like?

Readers with longer memories may recall certain pieces by Walker which attracted attention during the 1980s, not least the ensemble piece Dance/Still and the plangent Seven Last Words for electric guitar and percussion. Several of his chamber and instrumental works were issued by Riverrun Records (RVRCD66) at the turn of the century, yet anyone familiar with that disc will likely be surprised with what they find here. Interesting, too, that Walker (to judge by his website) is intent on covering his tracks, Ustvolskaya-like, regarding most of his earlier music.

Much the longest work is The Stone Maker, completed in 1995 after an eight-year gestation and described as a symphonic poem, though it could be assessed in terms of a one-movement symphony. The composer’s booklet note avoids any concrete programme, focussing instead on its modification of symphonic archetypes (notably Beethoven’s Fifth and Brahms’s First) in the light of his own aesthetic. This is worth bearing in mind because, unlike numerous of his contemporaries, Walker has not repudiated Modernism per se but reintegrated it into his highly individual take on the musical past. Tippett and Birtwistle are mentioned as guiding presences, and the more visceral passages of this work do indeed recall the latter composer (notably his Earth Dances), but there is equally a modally-inflected tonal underpinning such as sustains its 32 minutes with demonstrable purpose. No less striking are those stretches of more inward expression, notably that before the inexorable final build-up – while the tailing-off that ensues, and the suspenseful concluding bars are both realized with exquisite finesse.

None of the shorter pieces that emerged a decade on suggest a notable broadening or opening -out of Walker’s approach. The Stone King (2005) is another symphonic poem, though here the overall duration (barely a third of the earlier piece) militates against the emotional force shoe-horned into this music with its elemental ground-plan of equilibrium lost then regained. Great Rock is Dead (2007) is a funeral march inspired by the death of the composer’s father, implacable in its forward motion though any sense of emerging triumph is tenuous at best – not helped by the Bruckner-cum-Sibelius bathos of a coda that fails to convince. Best is the Prelude to Odysseus on Ogygia (2011), as adapted from the eponymous opera Walker wrote after 1995 and whose simmering intensity bodes well for this 90-minute ‘staged symphony’.

Does it all work?

Not always (as detailed above), but when it does come together this is impressive music – imbued with that sense of naturally accruing momentum which readily holds the attention. Anyone responsive to the tradition within which Walker is working needs to hear this disc.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, especially given these performances are so attuned to its essence. Alexander Walker secures a committed response from the Novaya Rossiya Symphony Orchestra, which is heard to advantage in a recorded ambience that amply brings out the filmic opulence of this music.
To listen to clips from this release and for further information visit the Toccata Classics website, while for more on Robin Walker you can visit the composer’s website