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AN IMAGE OF TRUTH The music of DAVID ELLIS Alison Wells, soprano - John Turner, recorder - Joanna Patton, clarinet - Peter Lawson and Keith Swallow, pianos - Jonathan Price, cello - Keith Elcombe, harpsichord - Coull String Quartet William Byrd Singers conducted by Stephen Wilkinson   ASC RECORDS ASC CS CD6

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Though it was often written on commission and gained its composer quite a number of prizes and awards, David Ellis' music is little-known. The larger audience (including myself) is largely unaware of his music. The present release is thus particularly welcome in that it provides a fine survey of David Ellis' varied output spanning some forty years of composing activity.

The earliest piece is the cycle Dewpoint completed in 1955 to words by Douglas Rawlinson, a friend of the composer. Originally scored for voice and clarinet, harp and strings, it also exists in a chamber version for voice, clarinet and piano recorded here. The overall mood is one of pessimism, maybe the poet's reactions to the war years. Images of darkness with brief flashes of light that nevertheless do not dispel the troubled mood of these songs. Indeed the last song is "an epilogue which promises a dawn without warmth or hope" (David Ellis). In spite of the prevailing mood of these texts, Ellis' music is richly varied and at times warmly lyrical. The music actually transcends the sometimes obscure or enigmatic words of Rawlinson and the result is a very fine work indeed which I would now like to hear in its original scoring.

Completed ten years later the choral Sequentia in Tempore Natali Sancti sets texts taken from the Advent Antiphons interspersed with verses from the well-known carol O My Dear Heart, Young Jesu Sweet. It opens with a setting of the first stanza of the carol sung by a soprano solo. The music then soon gains momentum with rich choral textures which starkly contrast with the comparatively simple refrain (in fact variants of the carol setting). The piece ends with a fuller setting of great beauty of the carol. This is one of the finest works in this collection, a minor masterpiece and a real gem that deserves to be more widely known.

On a smaller scale the delightful Berceuse (1981) for clarinet and piano is yet another fine work that should be better-known and taken-up by clarinetists. Ellis chose "to highlight the clarinet's ability to draw long melodic lines throughout its wide register", and so it does most successfully.

An Image of Truth (1972) is a short piece for soprano, recorder and piano setting a brief text by William Blake. Later it formed the basis of "a much larger choral extravaganza with orchestral accompaniment". The late nineties were obviously very prolific for most pieces in this composer's portrait were written between 1996 and 1998.

The Divertimento Elegiaco (1996) for Baroque trio (i.e. recorder, cello and harpsichord) was written "in memoriam Ida Caroll". It is in three movements: Canticle with tickling ostinato from the harpsichord, pedal from the cello and song-like tune on the recorder. It is followed by a lively scherzo (Impromptu) with a march-like central section and the piece ends with an impressive Chaconne, a serious, deeply moving conclusion to this unusual, though beautiful piece that ends with peacefully tolling bells.

The Second String Quartet also from 1996 is, to me at least, the other gem and a major achievement which repays repeated hearings. again three movements beginning with a Largo ("a solemn procession moving towards a more serene conclusion") followed by a whimsical scherzo with two trios "which parody the styles of a march and a waltz". This too ends peacefully. It leads into the last movement which is a Passacaglia framed by slower introduction and conclusion. This may be the finest work in this collection. (The recording is a BBC production superbly played by the Coull Quartet.)

The song cycle Four Songs (of Hope and Desire) for soprano and piano also dates from 1996. It sets texts by the composer that are "no more than fragments outlining a fantasy-relationship which may have existed in the author's imagination. As in all dreams the incidents jump from bizarre to commonplace without warning or logic". The music is in turn lyrical, at times slightly ironic, sometimes more dramatic or bitter-sweet. A fine piece on all counts.

This compilation also includes two recent pieces dating from 1998 : a short tribute to Sir John Manduell, A Little Cantata for soprano and recorder on a text by the composer and the imposing piano sonata Three-Note Variables. The latter is yet another major achievement. Globally it is a set of variations on a three-note motif heard at the outset. A weighty introduction leads into a dreamy, reflective interlude. This is followed by a massive fugue starting somewhat hesitantly but soon building to a loud climax. It ends abruptly and leads into a Fantasy-Scherzo which is exactly that. The last section Procession with Bells progresses towards an impressive tolling conclusion.

Besides a few shorter pieces the present releases offers a good deal a fine music and some of the works are really major, substantial pieces of music deserving to be better-known : the choral Sequentia, the Second String Quartet, the piano sonata Three-Note Variables and the Divertimento Elegiaco. These are clearly the work of a distinguished artist whose music exudes a deep humanity and honesty that repay repeated hearings and that are undoubtedly the most endearing qualities of David Ellis' music.

John Turner, who was also the leading force behind the present project, is joined by a number of excellent musicians who perform this music with authority and conviction and who thus deserve our wholehearted gratitude. I urge you to get this CD if you were not among the subscribers. Those interested might still get in touch with John Turner.

Unreservedly recommended.


Hubert CULOT

Scores and selected audio cassettes are also available at the British Music Information Centre, 10 Stratford Place, London, W1N 9AE

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Hubert CULOT

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