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John BULLER (b.1927)
Proença (1977)a
The Theatre of Memory (1981)
Sarah Walker (mezzo-soprano)a; Timothy Walker (electric guitar)a;
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Mark Elder
Recorded: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London, November 1979 (Proença) and January 1985 (The Theatre of Memory)
NMC ANCORA D 081 [70:58]
Though he had an early work accepted by the BBC in 1946, John Buller decided against a musical career and worked as an architectural surveyor until the early 1970s. He resumed his musical studies and from 1959 studied with the late Anthony Milner, taking his B.Mus. (London) in 1964. From the early 1970s, he composed a number of substantial works that put him firmly on the British musical map, though it should be noted that his list of works is not over-abundant.. Beside the pieces recorded here, his output includes a full evening opera BAKXAI controversially sung in the original ancient Greek and two large-scale orchestral works Bacchae Meters and Illusions as well as some chamber and vocal pieces.

Proença, a commission for the Proms Jubilee season in 1977, was a resounding success and the work was selected by the 1978 International Rostrum of Composers in 1978. It is scored for mezzo-soprano, electric guitar and large orchestra. French Provence is something of a historical paradox. In the 11th and 12th centuries, it witnessed the blossoming of poetry, that of the troubadours who celebrated courtly and not-so-courtly love but who also commented on the brutal events of the so-called crusade against the Albigensian heretics, which led to numerous massacres. The ruined castle of Montségur became the symbol of these terrible events. Buller’s settings of Provençal poems by some of the best known troubadours such as Jaufré Rudel, Pèire d’Alvernha, Bernard de Ventadorn, Marcabrun, Comtesse de Dia, Bertrand de Born and Pèire Cardenal, to name but a few, deal with the manifold aspects of Provençal culture and history, courtly and warlike. Significantly enough, the last section sets a poem by Guiraud Riquièr, ‘the last of the troubadours’ who "was born too late" (his own words). The first section dealing with the troubadours’ desire to sing new songs emerges out of the indeterminate sounds of the orchestra’s tuning, thus suggesting the flowering of a new poetical era. The second section deals with sexual love whereas the third illustrates the aristocrat’s feudal love showing that things were not always as idyllic or romantic as one might have thought. The fourth section is a peaceful interlude calmly speaking of wisdom. The fifth, seventh and ninth sections (poems by Arnaud Danièl described by Dante as ‘the finer maker’) are interspersed by the sixth and eighth sections that deal with the mounting pressures on the society, sometimes in strong terms (Churchmen pass for shepherds/but they’re murderers – Pèire Cardenal [6th section] or The pope and the legate and the cardinal/have twisted such a cord ... that no-one can escape committing treachery – Pèire Cardenal [8th section]). The instrumental tenth section briefly but tellingly reflects on the final collapse of that society, symbolised by the ruins of Montségur, the destruction of which signalled the end of the Albigensian heresy. All that is left is regret, poignantly expressed by Guiraud Riquièr, "who was born too late" and who prays the Virgin that she might "obtain for us, through pity of your son, our Redeemer, grace, pardon and love". The piece ends with a lonely sad flute echoing the last word Amor. Although based on material drawn from troubadour sources Buller’s music is never bluntly picturesque. Among these sources is a song by Folquet de Marseilles who in his early manhood was a troubadour and who later became Abbot of Le Thoronet and later still the hated Bishop of Toulouse and one of the fiercest persecutors of the Albigensian heretics. The work digs deep under the surface and reflects the many moods suggested by the poems in vivid musical terms of great urgency, passion and violence; but its most striking quality is its gripping expressive strength. A major work.

Buller’s large-scale symphonic score The Theatre of Memory, another BBC commission for the 1981 Proms season, is a substantial concerto for orchestra in all but the name. The piece also reflects two of Buller’s concerns, i.e. Greek theatre and architecture. I will not repeat the composer’s detailed notes. Suffice it to say that the orchestra is laid-out as the classical Greek theatre, i.e. in seven tiers divided by seven gangways. In the front row at the foot of the ‘amphitheatre’, seven players function as the ancient Greek chorus: flute, cor anglais, bass clarinet, trumpet, harp, celesta and cello. The basic material makes use of several Greek meters derived e.g. from the first Delphic hymn. All this is again intricately woven into the musical fabric and worked-out with much imagination and invention. The Theatre of Memory opens in much the same way as Proença. A powerful trumpet call emerges out of the orchestra’s tuning. From then on, the music moves on in several inter-linked sections playing without break and ending with a deeply moving dirge.

Two major works by a distinguished composer who still has not been given his due. He is well served by exceptional performances. Sarah Walker obviously loves Proença and her superb singing works wonders in this beautiful, though exacting work. She is superbly partnered by Timothy Walker and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in top form. The performance of The Theatre of Memory is hardly less compelling and is beautifully recorded. The uncredited solo players are William Boughton (trumpet), David Butt (flute), Jane Marshall (cor anglais), Anthony Jennings (bass clarinet), John Marson (harp), Malcolm Hicks (celesta) and Ross Pople (cello). Originally released by Unicorn during the LP era and re-issued in CD format some time ago (Unicorn DKPC 9045), these excellent recorded performances are again available, and, we must hope, for the long run.

Hubert Culot

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