> CONNOLLY Night Thoughts [CT]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Justin CONNOLLY (b. 1933)
Night Thoughts

Sonatina No. 2: Ennead Op. 26 (2000) for piano
Nocturnal Op. 33 (1991) for flutes, piano, double bass and percussion
Tesserae F: "Domination of Black" Op. 15f (1999) for bass clarinet
Scardanelli Dreams Op. 37 (1997-98) for mezzo-soprano and piano

Nicholas Hodges (piano) Nancy Ruffer (flutes) Corrado Canonici (double bass)
Julian Warburton (percussion) Andrew Sparling (bass clarinet)
Sue Anderson (mezzo-soprano)
Recorded at St George’s Brandon Hill, Bristol January 31-February 1 and June 19, 2000 DDD
METIER MSV CD92046 [72:57]


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I am sad to say that I have heard relatively little of Justin Connolly’s name in recent years and this new release from the ever enterprising and commercially fearless Metier label is therefore most welcome. Furthermore it provides yet greater evidence (as if it were needed) of David Lefeber’s personal crusade to bring "difficult" yet rewarding, but above all deserving music to disc.

All of these works are from the last ten or eleven years although I am not too certain of the reasons for the apparently wayward designation of the opus numbers. The central thread that runs through them all is a preoccupation with night and images of darkness.

In the case of the Sonatina No. 2 for piano, this takes the form, quite literally, of "Night Thoughts", a poem by Edward Young, later illustrated by William Blake. The composer explains in his booklet note that he had originally intended to give the work the same title as the poem until he realised that Aaron Copland had beaten him to it. Like the poem, the Sonatina is an ennead, cast in nine parts each of which explores wide ranging yet interrelated material, the soloist often flitting between sections of technically complex pyrotechnics to comparative tranquillity. As with all of these works the language is uncompromisingly atonal although Connolly also frequently shows that there can be a lyrically expressive side to his compositional nature.

It is the lyricism of the final two movements that I enjoyed particularly in Nocturnal, a virtuoso homage to the late composer and music printer Edward Shipley that effectively comprises a series of six sea pictures prefaced by a quotation from Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’. Flautist Nancy Ruffer is called upon to play four different instruments, piccolo, concert flute, alto flute and bass flute, which Connolly uses in a soloistic role, supported by an ensemble of double bass, percussion and piano. The composer’s evocative images of the sound of wind and wave, the creaking of canvas and cordage are equally evocatively played out in the music, which eventually drifts away on the wind in the form of a "sea-lullaby".

Tesserae F: Domination of Black (incidentally the booklet notes frequently confuse here, referring to the work as ‘Domination in Black’ on the outer and inner covers) is a study in the character of the solo bass clarinet, one of several similarly titled works for, amongst other instruments, cello and trumpet with tape. As in Ennead poetry is a source of inspiration, in this case Wallace Stevens, and again like Ennead Connolly uses the form of the poem as a means of organising his material, casting the piece in three "verses". The composer’s common intention with the poet was to "fill the mind with sounds and images" and what results is a highly imaginative, technically challenging work that once again demonstrates Connolly’s gift for musical imagery. [In the 1970s this poem also drew a major orchestral work, sharing the same title, from Robin Holloway. Ed.]

Connolly describes Scardanelli Dreams as a Cantata on texts of Friedrich Hölderlin, a cantata in the sense of the piano providing an obbligato commentary as opposed to an accompaniment, a function the composer compares with the solo instrumental contributions in Bach cantatas. What emerges is a complex, rhythmically dense yet intensely wrought cycle of five Hölderlin settings, set against a simultaneous cycle of ten sections in the piano which can often move in unrelated musical directions to the vocal part. The texts themselves were selected by Connolly for their diversity in reflecting the range of the poet’s inspiration and it is the contradictions of the texts that he emulates in the "disassociation" of the piano and vocal part. It is a toughly challenging work but with an underlying expressive depth that becomes increasingly manifest upon repeated listening. Sue Anderson, who commissioned the work and clearly demonstrates an innate understanding of it, sings with confidence and admirable control.

The playing in all of these works is exemplary although I would single out pianist Nicholas Hodges, who handles the considerable technical demands of Connolly’s writing with aplomb and Andrew Sparling’s fabulous bass clarinet sounds in Domination of Black as particularly praiseworthy. Indeed, the affinity that Nicholas Hodges has developed with Connolly’s music has resulted in the commissioning of a Piano Concerto by the BBC, a work that is in progress at present. One minor gripe. It would have been very helpful if each of the movements in these works could have been tracked individually. Not only is a work of over twenty one minutes and cast in nine sections (Sonatina No. 2) simply too long not to be tracked, it is also very helpful for the contemporary music listener to be able to navigate their way around a work as a vital part of the learning process. Other than this I am simply grateful that another deserving British compositional talent has eventually had a long overdue disc devoted to his music.

Christopher Thomas

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