Few composers have created such an impact on the British contemporary music scene over the last twenty years or so as Mark-Anthony Turnage, and deservedly so. His success in developing a highly sophisticated, strongly jazz-influenced language has resulted in a voice which is at once distinctive and tough, yet at the same time accessible, partly through the windows of urban, social and cultural issues that predominate in his work.
As a result there are few of his pieces that have not had the benefit of a commercial recording and in many ways I would recommend that anyone new to his music would be best to approach it through his orchestral works and in particular Three Screaming Popes, one of his earliest major successes and usefully coupled with two other orchestral works from the early 1990s, Drowned Out and Momentum, together with Kai for solo cello and ensemble (EMI British Composers 5.55091 2 3). Inspired by the famous Francis Bacon distortion of Velasquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, Three Screaming Popes is a hugely accomplished orchestral canvas exhibiting the essential elements of Turnage’s music that he was to later refine and develop still further in works such as Your Rockaby and Dispelling the Fears.
As an alternative I found it interesting to journey through this two disc set chronologically, beginning with Night Dances, which pre-dates Three Screaming Popes by some seven years. Although this four movement work for instrumental solo group (oboe doubling cor anglais, trumpet, harp and celesta), string quartet and orchestra does not strike me as quite fully formed, it certainly points the way forward, not least in its debt to Black Afro/American music, being written, as the composer says, to "evoke feelings and emotions aroused by my first encounter with Black music". The melody here is slightly more angular, the harmony more "classically" atonal than in the later works, with the occasional influence of Turnage’s teacher Oliver Knussen, notably in the second movement, Dance 1. The influence of black music is once again integral to Some Days, an orchestral song cycle of 1989 setting words by African and American writers with a disturbing, tormented instrumental Tango at its heart. The opening song, Come away, my love, setting words by Kenyan, Joseph Kariuki together with the fourth which gives the work its title, Some Days, this time using words by the American, James Baldwin, are fine examples of Turnage’s lyrical gifts, beautiful albeit often with an underlying sense of anguish. This is also evident in the final blues inspired Now I am absolutely Alone, Forever in which the mezzo-soprano sings wordlessly until her final statement of the title words. This world premiere recording features fine singing by Cynthia Clarey who accesses the individual emotional and sound world of each song with admirable insight and contrast.
Turnage’s fondness for the saxophone has resulted in a highly fruitful relationship with Martin Robertson and Your Rockaby, written in 1994 for Robertson and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, is effectively a concerto in one movement based around the Beckett monologue, ‘Rockaby’. This is Turnage at his most characteristic, his highly personal language now very much in evidence and striking in its originality, the orchestration wonderfully animated and in this case coloured by the distinctive sound of the cimbalom. Likewise, Dispelling the Fears, a double trumpet concerto first performed by and played here with remarkable artistry by John Wallace and Håkan Hardenberger, is quite unlike anyone else, the jazz elements distilled into Turnage’s dark yet fascinating world. The closing minutes of this piece, one trumpet muted answering the other unmuted, are mesmerisingly effective.
Dispelling the Fears forms a convenient link with Blood on the Floor, the final movement of which, still bearing the title Dispelling the Fears, is a reworked and slightly condensed version of the work for two trumpets. Designed as an evening of ensemble pieces for the Ensemble Modern, the work takes up the complete second disc of this double set and comprises nine substantial movements, the result of studio experimentation with samples and drum tracks that the composer had been working on at the time. Here Turnage takes his fascination with jazz to a new level, incorporating elements of improvisation into the music and utilising the talents of jazz musicians such as drummer Peter Erskine and guitarist John Scofield, both heroes of the composer by his own admission. The titles of the pieces reflect Turnage’s recurring concerns with urban culture, Junior Addict, Needles, Cut Up and Crackdown giving a clear indication that he is not one to shy away from the topical or the controversial. The moods of the pieces range from the energy of the opening Blood on the Floor, to the moving, melancholic saxophone dominated sounds of Junior Addict and Elegy for Andy (dedicated to the composer’s own brother who died tragically) to the Zappa-esque riot of Shout (incidentally the Ensemble Modern are leading exponents of Frank Zappa’s ensemble music). Given the musicians involved here this is a performance that can be regarded as pretty well definitive and grim though the subject matter and underlying moods of the music can be, it makes for compelling listening.
This is a valuable collection of works by a composer who is one of our undoubted individualists. Turnage possesses the power to disturb, compel, beguile and fascinate, a dauntingly rare gift indeed. The performances here are first class without exception and Turnage admirers should not be without them. For newcomers though, do also explore the orchestral works mentioned earlier. They are well worth getting to know.