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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

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Michael TORKE (b.1961)
An American Abroad (1998-2001)
Jasper (1998-2001)
Rapture - Concerto for Percussion and Orchestraš (1998-2001)
Colin Currie, percussionš
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 3rd-4th February 2002.
NAXOS 8.559167 [61.20]
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In a vintage year for Naxos, this disc will probably rank in my top six of the label's output. While it cannot touch the Lilburn, Moeran and Tveitt discs for emotional intensity, it provides further evidence of the burgeoning talent of the contemporary American composer Michael Torke. His work is tonal, melodic and positive in outlook; you may be aware of some his earlier CDs on the now sadly defunct Argo imprint or possibly his superb Javelin, written for the Atlanta Olympiad in 1996. In the latter he managed to bring together some of the lyrical aspects of Sibelius's later, more concise nature painting (especially symphony No. 6) with overtly American elements (the outdoor atmosphere of Copland, the jazz inflections of Gershwin and Bernstein).

I am happy to report that this new disc, containing world premiere recordings of compositions written in Torke's capacity as the Associate Composer of the RSNO, continues in much the same vein. Additionally, it provides, in the concerto, a wonderful showcase for the brilliant young Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, who is following very much the same starlit trajectory as Evelyn Glennie before him.

An American Abroad is probably the most romantic piece on the disc. I use the term "romantic" in the same sense that it might apply to many of John Adams' (an obvious point of reference) recent works. Superbly orchestrated, it moves through various moods, from fairly florid impressionism to Coplandesque "outdoor" music. It is meant to express "the natural naïvety an American might feel when travelling abroad" but is in no way simplistically programmatic. It is an enjoyable piece in which the different sections blend seamlessly to form a satisfying whole. Extended in duration, probably the only criticism that could be laid at Torke's door here is that the material is not treated as economically as it might have been; not a comment that could be applied to the following piece Jasper. The latter was inspired by the surroundings (Lake Superior) in which it had its genesis and its shape-shifting but highly melodic nature music is archetypal Torke. The composer's always informative booklet notes emphasise its unique employment of "each of the seven pitches of the diatonic scale" but knowledge of this fact is hardly essential to an appreciation of the piece.

Torke cites a late W.B. Yeats poem (News for a Delphic Oracle) as the inspiration for Rapture, his percussion concerto, an attempt to unite "the religious with the sexual"! I am not sure that this aim is achieved but the music stands up well against similar recent works. Colin Currie has also recorded James MacMillan's Veni, Veni, Emmanuel for Naxos (a performance that is in no way diminished by comparison with Evelyn Glennie's original) and it must be said that, in comparison, Torke's work is more accessible and tuneful but ultimately less deeply affecting. It is a brilliant orchestral spectacle, in which the RSNO, under the mercurial baton of Marin Alsop, supports the soloist superbly, but Torke may have done himself no favours by giving so many clues to the piece's inspiration. Rightly or wrongly, W.B. Yeats is associated, musically, in this listener's mind, with Arnold Bax and his ilk. As an entertainment, it is great fun but it doesn't really hit the emotions that much. The three movements are titled after the main percussion instruments used (e.g. the second is Mallets). This reminds us of Steve Reich and, in fairness, the concerto is where Torke comes closest to the minimalist mainstream.

The best music on the disc, and very good it is too, comes in the latter stages of An American Abroad and in Jasper, where rather more lofty and enduring antecedents are effectively invoked. I would recommend this CD, particularly at bargain price, to anyone interested in contemporary American music. Like Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Torke is a composer to be treasured and hopefully nurtured to even greater things.

Neil Horner


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