> Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird [HC] [CSS]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Music for recorder and string quartet

David FORSHAW (b.1938)

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (1996)
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990)

Variations on an Octatonic Scale (1989)
Richard ARNELL (b.1917)

Quintet "The Gambian" Op.107 (1965)
David ELLIS (b.1933)

Elegiac Variations Op.66 (2001)
Robert SIMPSON (1921 – 1997)

Variations and Fugue (1959)
Beth WISEMAN (b.1951)

Dances on my Grave (2000)
Mátyás SEIBER (1905 – 1960)

Pastorale (1941)
Philip WOOD (b.1972)

Concertino for Recorder & String Quartet (2000)
John Turner (recorders); The Camerata Ensemble (Richard Howard, Julian Hanson [violins]; Tom Dunn [viola]; Jonathan Price [cello])
Recorded: ASC Studios, Macclesfield, December 2000 and May 2001
OLYMPIA OCD 710 [60:40]


Most pieces here are actually written for recorders and string quartet, but, as will be seen, some are for some other instrumental combinations.

David Forshaw’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (1996), based on the eponymous poem by Wallace Stevens (the same poem that also inspired a similarly titled piece by Boris Blacher), was originally written for recorder and piano. The string quartet version was premiered by the present performers in December 2000. No programmatic piece ("the composer has not counted whether there are thirteen songs!") but a delightful evocation of bird and bird song to which the recorder is particularly well suited. Neither Messiaen nor ornithology is here.

Leonard Bernstein’s Variations on an Octatonic Scale for recorder and cello, completed in 1989, is one of his last completed works. The octatonic scale, on which the variations are based, was used in his ballet score Dybbuk (1973) and the present variations were reworked in his Jubilee Games of 1989.

Richard Arnell’s Quintet "The Gambian" Op.107 has a somewhat curious origin. At the time of Gambia’s independence, the then High Commissioner sang a tune notated by Arnell and entered in a competition for a new national anthem for Gambia. Apparently without success. Arnell then composed his quintet by way of consolation and the tune was used as the theme for the variations which make-up the second movement of the Quintet Op.107 dedicated to, and first performed by, Carl Dolmetsch. The short first movement serves as an introduction to the main part of the work which is a fine addition to the scant discography of this shamefully neglected composer.

The late Robert Simpson, generally known for his symphonies and string quartets, never mentioned his Variations and Fugue for recorder and string quartet. It was completed in 1959 for Carl Dolmetsch. The score was found in the Dolmetsch Archives and reconstructed for this recording. Anyone who knows Simpson’s output will know that he never wrote a single indifferent work. This quintet is no exception. It is a serious piece of great integrity and the material is worked out with Simpson’s customary mastery of form and sense of purpose. Quite a substantial piece and, quite likely, the most welcome novelty here.

David Ellis completed his short Elegiac Variations Op.66 for recorder, viola and cello in 2001 for John Turner. Two slow outer sections frame the short, very contrasted variations which make up the main part of this short, though quite varied and attractive, tribute to John’s artistry.

Beth Wiseman’s Dances on my Grave was first performed in November 2000 by John Turner and the Camerata Ensemble. This is somewhat more "modern sounding" than the other pieces, but it is also a most welcome, accessible novelty.

Mátyás Seiber is also a much neglected composer nowadays. There is very little of his music on disc, besides his delightful Clarinet Concertino (available now on HELIOS) so this short colourful Pastorale of 1941 is again most welcome.

This enterprising release ends with the delightfully neo-classical Concertino for Recorder and String Quartet by Philip Wood, the youngest composer here. A long slow movement of great melodic charm is followed by a lively Scherzo. I wonder what his other works are like, for this one is – to put bluntly – a jolly good piece of joyful music making.

One of those enterprising compilations in which John Turner’s unrivalled flair for unearthing rarities or commissioning new works for his instruments pays high dividends. A wonderful sequel to his earlier collection (on OLYMPIA OCD 667) and I for one hope that there might be many other similar ones soon.

Hubert Culot


And now Colin Scott-Sutherland …….

This disc, opening in a veritable orgy of bird-song as picturesque as anything in Messiaen, explores many curious paths - the bird, if blackbird it be, rhapsodising eloquently from within deep thickets of harmony in a variety of musical weathers.

It is of course only the opening piece of aerial graffiti giving the disc its title that pretends to a truly avian accoutrement - for the greater proportion of the eight compositions are more formally serious in intent - the most exotic element being the transcendental virtuosity of the recorders of John Turner. If anyone thinks of the recorder as belonging only to the IVth form music room, having little else by way of repertoire beyond the limitations of old folk dances and the conventions of the 16th century, then think again. There seems no limit to the range of expression - from contrabass to sopranino, flutter-tonguing, over-blowing - with perhaps flute-bec pursuing the feathered analogy? The whole thing is a kaleidoscope of sonorities.

The most substantial work, Robert Simpson's Variations and Fugue, is a serious elegiac piece. The expansive fugue - a three-part phrase with a florid tailpiece - occupies rather more than half the work and is meant, says the composer, "to go like a whispering wind." The fact that the variations are palindromic means little to the listener without a score.

Bernstein's variations, opens with a statement of the octatonic scale on which the work is based. There are five variations - pointillistic, canonic (and here there does sound an occasional 'chirrup') - Bachian, with a cheerfully Poulencian penultimate section.

Overall however the music on this disc has a distinctly elegiac note. David Ellis's Variations, two dark-hued passages framing an energetic central section, Beth Wiseman's portamento preoccupation with birds, ghosts and angels that could only be set in the gloom of a haunted wood (the mood is nocturnal - and the sleeve has a lovely quote from Geoffrey Poole, "in a world of rapid information and media hype, the poet of stillness can all too easily be overlooked")

A measure of contrast appears however in the cheerfully perky Gambian melody of Arnell's quintet, and also in the Seiber Pastorale, a delighful work merely reinforcing the sad fact that his music has been long and unjustly neglected. Philip Wood's Concertino is a mellifluous piece of writing from the pen of the youngest composer represented - just as Seiber is the oldest.

It is not at all surprising, recalling 'John & Peter's Whistling Book' to find that the enterprising spirit behind not only the recording itself, but behind much of the music also, is the indefatigable John Turner for whom so many pieces have been written and who (in the sleeve note) "devotes his time to playing, writing, reviewing, publishing, composing and "generally energising" (my italics). The disc is brightly recorded, with pleasures to be found in all of the thirteen ways ……

Colin Scott-Sutherland

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