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Kaner chamber DCD34231
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Matthew Kaner (b. 1986)
Piano Trio (2016)
Suite for Cello (2020)
At Night, for clarinet quintet
Flight Studies, for basset clarinet
Five Highland Scenes, for violin and piano (2016)
Mark Simpson (basset clarinet)
Guy Johnston (cello: suite)
Daniel Lebhardt (piano), Benjamin Baker (violin), Matthias Balzat (cello)
Goldfield Ensemble
rec. 2022, Stapleford Granary, Cambridge, UK
First recordings
DELPHIAN DCD34231 [70]

Because it takes so long for packages from the UK to arrive in New Zealand, there are occasions when I open a new batch of review discs and wonder “why did I request this?”. This first recording of music dedicated to the British composer Matthew Kaner is one such instance. Contemporary chamber music is not my usual area of listening and while there is a work from my favourite chamber genre, the piano trio, the other works are less obvious choices, especially a substantial work for solo clarinet. Given that I had listened to some samples before offering to review the disc, clearly I must have heard something to my liking.

I hadn’t heard of Kaner before, so a little Googling found that he was BBC Radio 3’s Composer-in-Residence in 2016. The booklet notes describe him as “a musical storyteller” and each work here, except the cello suite, is programmatic. His musical style is modern in that the music has hard edges, honed by dissonance and spiky, unsettling rhythms, but not so modernist that the traditional elements of melody, harmony and rhythm have been left behind.

The Piano Trio’s three movements each have titles – Glints in the Water, Ripples and Eroding Lines – which provide their individual stories. The music is very effective in the first movements in painting the pictures: staccato piano and pizzicato strings in the first, slow, almost static music in the second. The third movement has nothing to do with water, rather being inspired by a piece of textile art created by the composer’s mother. It is not entirely obvious what story, if any, is being told here, and I found it much less effective than the first two.

The Suite for Cello was written for the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, and cleverly uses a quotation from a piece written by Orlando Gibbons for Robert Cecil, for whom the house was built. Any work for solo cello named as a suite inevitably has the large shadow of Bach’s six looming over it, and Kaner doesn’t shy away from this, with two of the eight movements given baroque dance titles (both are called Sarabande). However, I am not convinced that naming a movement in this way and then providing no rhythmic aspect remotely resembling a stately dance is doing any more than paying lip service to Bach. The work was written in 2020 during lockdown, and attempts to capture some of the uncertainty of those times, and is more successful in those terms, though I can’t say that I really enjoyed any of its thirteen minutes much.

The clarinet quintet, At Night, is based on two poems on the theme of night. The first, The Land of Nod, by Robert Louis Stevenson, starts with the antics of a young child as bedtime approaches, then falling asleep, and dreaming of strange creatures. The second movement, called Searching for the Dimmest Stars, has no connection to the first, and is based on a poem by Rebecca Elson, which contemplates the existence of dark matter and the like. It is another very static piece of music, and I really feel that the total separation in tone and style between the two movements would have meant that they would have been more effective as standalone pieces. I can’t say that I was carried away with pleasure by them, but I felt that each was very effective in depicting its source material.

Flight Studies is again in two movements, though the booklet notes suggest that they are part of a continuing series. They are portrayals of two birds, the swift and the kestrel, which have very contrasting behaviours, the former almost never resting, the latter being able to hover for extended periods. I would not have thought that it would have been possible to successfully achieve this aim with a single wind instrument, but it is testament to, both composer and performer that each portrait works well. Yes, the eight minutes of the kestrel movement might be a little long, given that so much is given over to hovering; there is a brief depiction of the bird swooping onto prey to provide contrast. Again, admiration rather pleasure.

Five Highland Pieces paints pictures of walking in the Scottish highlands, and especially the variable weather. It is the longest of the five works at over eighteen minutes, and by some margin the most dissonant. I found it very hard going, failing to hear much of what was apparently being portrayed.

Performances are uniformly excellent, and the sound is very natural, detailed but not too close. The notes, in part contributed by the composer are a perfect blend of background and description; all in all, production values at the high level that I’ve come to expect from Delphian.

As you will have gathered, I couldn’t warm to the music, but could very easily see the qualities in much of it. If your ear is better attuned to contemporary chamber music, I think you will like this very much. For me, I need to be more careful in my review choices.

David Barker

Published: November 29, 2022

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