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Rupert BAWDEN (b. 1958)
Two Studies (1994)
The Donkey Dances (1996)
The Sailorís Tale (2002)
Beasts of the Sea (2002)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rupert Bawden (Two Studies)
The Nash Ensemble/Rupert Bawden (The Donkey Dances)
Alexander Grove (tenor); Flora McIntosh (mezzo); Andrew Heggie (baritone); Children of Alderman Peel High School, Norfolk; The Creakes Sinfonia/Gary Cheung (Sailorís Tale and Beasts)
Rec. St. Davidís Hall, Cardiff, 14th September 1994 (Two Studies); Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London, 5th March 1993 (The Donkey Dances); St. Maryís Church, South Creake, Norfolk, 2-3 July 2003 (The Sailorís Tale) DDD
NMC D093 [73:43]


I first encountered the music of Rupert Bawden some years ago, although the reasons for his apparent prolonged periods of absence from the musical scene were unknown to me until I read the sleeve-notes for this CD. Bawdenís career has been a varied one, both in terms of musical and non-musical activity. Composer, conductor, professional violinist and violist, local politician (he has been active as a councillor in the London Borough of Lambeth) and perhaps most surprising of all, paramedic. His tale of refusing a dinner invitation following a concert he shared with Michael Berkeley due to an impending night shift with the London Ambulance Service is an endearing one!

Bawden further states in his booklet interview that he is not composing at the moment and this seems to typify the sporadic nature of his working patterns. Pieces are written as commissions present themselves, often under considerable time pressure (upon which he clearly thrives) and with little apparent continuity.

During his student years a period of study at Cambridge University brought Bawden into contact with Robin Holloway who remains the only composition teacher with whom he has studied. Perhaps not surprisingly then there are moments when Bawdenís work does bear comparison with that of his teacher and mentor. There are certainly occasional passages of lush, even romantic, harmonic orientation alongside the more adventurous side of his creative nature, yet the music never descends into an abyss of dissonance. Rather there is a sense of refinement evident in the transparency of the scoring and the feeling that every note has its place and purpose.

The Two Studies (which bear the titles Prelude and The Flour on the Floor) are closely related to Bawdenís ballet Le Livre de Fauvel and were intended as preliminary studies for a projected further ballet that has not yet come to fruition. The first is almost fragile in its dream-like sound-world, the dynamic largely subdued apart from a brief central climax. The second grows naturally out of the first and Bawden once again creates an affecting soundscape, similarly restrained but this time punctuated by passages of slightly greater animation. The recording captures the BBCNOW and Bawdenís beautifully crafted orchestration well. The composer directs.

The Donkey Dances is the third work that Bawden has written for the Nash Ensemble and is again related to the literary donkey of his earlier ballet Le Livre de Fauvel. The scoring for ensemble includes an accordion, something the composer describes as a Ďgreat treatí. Comprising three brief dances, the first is described by Bawden as "a sparringly seductive dance with the goddess Fortuna". After a slow central dance to the vice of Vain Glory the final dance, Grande Valse, depicts the marriage of Fortuna and the donkey Fauvel, the music gradually gathering in pace and animation to a breathlessly manic conclusion. Once again Bawden demonstrates a finely-tuned ear for instrumental colour and texture with luminous scoring and an adventurous yet never harshly astringent harmonic palette.

The origins of the chamber opera, The Sailorís Tale, lie in an education project commissioned by The Yorke Trust for the 2002 annual summer opera course held in Creake, Norfolk. The libretto, by Kevin Crossley-Holland, who has also worked with Nicola Lefanu, is split into ten short scenes and tells of Horatio Nelsonís life via a series of recollections and reminiscences. Bawden employs a seven-piece ensemble with the two soloists doubling in their roles as Nelson himself, Nelsonís wife Fanny and father the Reverend Edmund, Lady Emma Hamilton and her husband Sir William. In addition there are numerous spoken parts taken by children. This is Bawdenís first foray into opera, albeit on a modest scale, but proves to be an entertaining and creditable debut. The performers acquit themselves well with Andrew Heggie and Flora McIntosh both proving effective in the five principal roles. It is a shame that the sung libretto deviates so frequently from the written version reproduced in the booklet, a most off-putting and annoying point that hampers enjoyable listening at times.

Beasts of the Sea is a novelty childrenís song, originally one of several written by Bawden and Crossley-Holland at the same time as the opera and inserted between Scenes five and six in live performance. In the form of a rumba, it forms a lighthearted if perhaps uncharacteristic conclusion to the disc.

NMC have here once again provided a worthwhile introduction to a versatile and clearly talented composer. It would be good to hear more of the serious side of his work.

Christopher Thomas


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