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Philip GRANGE (b. 1956)
Darkness Visible: Cimmerian Nocturne (1978) [16.30]; Lament of the Bow (2000) [17.19]; Variations (1986) [23.17]
Gemini/Ian Mitchell
rec. Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, Manchester University, 4-5 December 2004; 11 June 2005
MÉTIER MSV CD 92083 [57.06]

I used to think that Philip Grange, professor of music at Manchester University was simply a protégé of Peter Maxwell Davies. PMD. now Master of the Queen’s Music, gave Grange his first opportunities when he was asked to compose for ‘The Fires of London’. In my naivety I also thought Grange’s work not unlike Davies’.

Grange tells us in his informative notes which accompany the CD that he numbers amongst his teachers Alan Hacker at York. Hacker was the redoubtable clarinetist who gave the ‘Fires’ their sound ‘signature’.

I changed my view of Grange as a PMD disciple a few years ago when I heard Grange’s fine Piano Trio (1995). Here, I thought, is a new voice, and an entirely arresting one and as unrelated to Maxwell Davies as possible. With this enterprising new CD my view has been developed further.

After the demise of the ‘Fires’ in 1987 Grange was lucky to find the Gemini ensemble who not only often employ a similar instrumental line-up. In addition they are obviously understanding of his language and in sympathy with his sound-world. In two of these works Grange wrote the music for Gemini. He knows exactly how ‘they sound’ and they are completely on top of the music. They play these challenging works with confidence, with belief in the music and, under the composer’s supervision, authority.

It is probably advisable to hear the pieces in the recorded order; the shortest first. One is immediately plunged into an enigmatic world but one so clearly realized and in which every detail is heard.

The composer’s notes refer us to certain literary influences on these three works starting with ‘Cimmerian Nocturne’ which opens with a regularly repeated screeching piccolo. This was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ with its brooding and violent atmosphere. There is in the music, like the novella, a sense of journeying to a central dark point and then journeying back again.

Written when the composer was resident in Taiwan on a sponsored exchange ‘Lament of the Bow’ takes its bow, as it were, from a Lament by the biblical King David on the death of Jonathan. It "tries to convey some of the emotions felt during grieving, as described by Sigmund Freud in his famous essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’". It certainly has a keening quality and is processional in nature. The various contrasting elements of the piece are gradually reconciled.

The Variations, the longest work here, comes out of William Golding’s ‘Darkness Visible’ – hence the CD title. The composer is at pains to point out that the inspiration for any of these works is not the various plots or indeed any specific characters but the formal design of the literary source and the atmosphere engendered. The composer explains the form of Variations as "three variation cycles each of which is differently distributed among the three constituent movements." The plan of advancing arguments towards a certain point and gradually combining them comes from the development of Golding’s novel. In a conventional sense this is a set of variations on three themes.

If this sounds a bit much then it may be worth considering that when a composer writes his own programme notes what you invariably get is a view from over his shoulder in the workshop. You may not want this background detail but most composers feel that you need to know the exact inspiration sometimes for the sack of completeness, but also because it can for some listeners aid and engage their enjoyment and understanding of an unfamiliar language.

Metier is doing a terrific work on behalf of neglected contemporary British composers and here deliver a nicely balanced recording. That said, the volume control may have to be up somewhat higher than usual.

This is sometimes tough music but the disc comes with a highly recommended stamp from me to anyone patient enough to listen to fine performances of good contemporary music.

Gary Higginson


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