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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Gavin BRYARS (b. 1943)
A Portrait (60th Birthday Celebration)

Cello Concerto (Farewell to Philosophy) (1995) ¹
One Last Bar, Then Joe Can Sing (1994) º
Les Fiançailles (1983, revised 1996) ²
Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1975, this version 1993) (single - A & B "sides")+
The Green Ray (1991) ³
Adnan Songbook (1992-96) ²*
Titanic Lament from "The Sinking of The Titanic" (1975, this version 1994) ²
The North Shore (1994) ²
Julian Lloyd Webber, cello¹
English Chamber Orchestra¹/James Judd, conductor¹
Nexusº
Gavin Bryars Ensemble²
Tom Waits, voice+
John Harle, saxophone³
Bournemouth Sinfonietta³/Ivor Bolton, conductor³
Valerie Anderson, soprano*
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, November 1995 (Cello Concerto), Eastman School of Music, Rochester, NY, May 1995 (One Last Bar), Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, October 1996 (Fiançailles) and November 1997 (Adnan Songbook, North Shore) Looking Glass Studios, NY and Prairie Inn Studio, California (Jesus' Blood), Winter Gardens, Bournemouth, July 1991 (Green Ray) and Le Chateau d'Eau, Bourges, Westleton Church Suffolk, DAT Studios, London, Dave Hunt Studio, London, 1994 (Titanic).
PHILIPS 473 296-2 [77.05 + 73.14]



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Gavin Bryars is a contemporary composer of rare integrity and vision. This 60th birthday "best of" is a fitting tribute, provided one accepts the (necessary?) absence of the early Obscure/Virgin/EMI(?) material and that from the ECM sojourn (After The Requiem would have surely otherwise been included). This composer-sanctioned selection therefore focuses on music that first appeared on the Argo and Point labels. On his website Gavin Bryars sets out the functional rationale for the selections very eloquently, i.e. to keep as many pieces as possible in circulation. Again by necessity, most of the music on this pair of discs is either from the 1990s or was revised during that period.

Julian Lloyd Webber is someone who can be taken on absolute trust where British music is concerned and his performance of the Haydn inspired (but much more austere sounding) Cello Concerto is, and no doubt will remain, definitive (and prove to be yet another defining moment in the brilliant career of James Judd - Elgar, Lilburn, Gershwin etc.). The concerto's wonderfully elegiac mood grates a little against the following One Last Bar, Then Joe Can Sing, an undoubted exercise in brilliant percussive arrangement but one that, to these ears, rings rather hollow against some of the other music on this set.

Les Fiançailles is a pleasant piece but its avowed Viennese feel is not one that I find brings out the best in this composer. The fact it was composed for Robert Wilson's CIVIL warS makes for an interesting comparison with Philip Glass but, the ruminative melancholy of the concerto notwithstanding, the best music on the CD is yet to come. The original 1975 version of Jesus' Blood, from Brian Eno's Obscure imprint, was (fairly) recently re-released and remains the benchmark for this piece (and The Sinking of the Titanic, also included) but the two short derived pieces here (re-recorded and featuring the gravel voiced Tom Waits alongside the long departed tramp) are effective and communicative. The Titanic excerpt is less successful and I would recommend hearing the entire piece, either in its original incarnation or the full, indeed expanded, early 1990s re-recording.

The Green Ray is a stunning musical evocation of an occasional solar phenomenon experienced when watching the sun setting over the sea, an artistic inspiration previously to Jules Verne (Bryars took his lead from the great French writer's novel of the same name), and, musically, the superb Bagad de Lann Bihoué (on their Glann Glaz (Green Wave) album) and possibly even Van Morrison (Celtic Ray? I concede that I may be stretching the imagination here a little). Whatever its source, the ebbing and flowing music, predominantly slow, builds to a highly evocative climax. Here Bryars shows how great he can be. The maritime inspirations of Sibelius (Oceanides), Nielsen (Helios, Faeroese Fantasy) and Bax (Tintagel) plus those of the underrated British composer Philip Sainton (The Island, Moby Dick), while more similar in feel than in form, are all happily brought to memory. I haven't even mentioned, so far, the contribution of soloist John Harle; suffice to say that it is up to (and beyond) his usual high standards. The song cycle that follows, settings of the Lebanese poet Adnan, is also highly evocative and expertly realised. However Bryars’ music rings far truer, aforementioned reservations aside, in the short excerpt/edit from The Sinking of the Titanic and, especially, The North Shore. The latter was inspired by the bleak, cliff-top setting of St. Hilda's Abbey in Whitby. Again often slow, Bryars' music evokes the landscape without a hint of recourse to melodrama (Bram Stoker is not on the map but Bryars namechecks Glenn Gould and the pianist's Idea of North trilogy in his always highly readable and informative notes.). Whereas The Green Ray is an Atlantic idyll, here we can almost hear the fret billowing in off the North Sea, establishing Bryars' credentials as a modern day "sea composer" to rival even Maxwell Davies.

Here, as in all his music, Gavin Bryars reveals his inner self, a combination of the truly innovative and a real respect for tradition has generated something wonderful. Writing this now, I am transported back ten years to The Grapes (Sheffield), with a guitarist friend playing acoustic instrumentals of Gershwin songs. Both of us were secure in the knowledge that Gavin would have approved, remembering his sessions in the same establishment with Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley, twenty years earlier, as a member of the improvising trio Josef Holbrooke (named for the now critically rehabilitated "Cockney Wagner"). Later a member of the creative circle which also included Brian Eno, Michael Nyman, Harold Budd, John Cale etc. and then one of the stalwarts of Philip Glass's Point project, Bryars has an impeccable pedigree. Whether writing for the Hilliard Ensemble or jazz legend Charlie Haden (and you will have to go beyond this disc to find those excellent collaborations), he continues to produce music which both challenges and enthralls.

Neil Horner

Hubert Culot has also listened to this disc

I first came to know Bryars’ music through some of his early works such as My First Homage (1978) or The English Mail-Coach (1980) which were still much indebted to Minimalism. Later works such as his First String Quartet had him departing from Minimalism to explore new territories although his later music retained much of its original simplicity and tunefulness. This trait is still clearly evident in most pieces featured in this compilation celebrating the composer’s sixtieth birthday. This music dates from the decade 1990-2000, with the exception of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet of which the first version dates back to Bryars’ experimental years. The short Titanic Lament is also of earlier origin and is adapted from The Sinking of the Titanic of which the first version was available on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records (that was during the LP era). Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet from 1975 was reworked and extensively enlarged in its final full version of 1993 (available on POINT MUSIC 438 823-2). That version, which is the one to have if you are interested in Bryars’ work, is deeply moving and makes its point by slow unfolding and by progressive accumulation until it reaches its final climax bathed in searing intensity. This long piece, however, may fascinate or irritate depending on the listener’s frame of mind; but its global impact cannot be denied. Bryars was asked to make a ‘single’ version compressing this long work into a five-minute miniature that "follows the sequence of instrumental entries in the original version in accelerated form" (the composer’s words). The difference between both versions heard here is that Version A (CD1 – Track 12) opens with the tramp’s frail singing joined later by Tom Waits’ voice whereas Version B (CD2 – Track 12) has it the other way round.

Les Fiançailles of 1983 with revisions in 1996 is heard here in the revised version, scored for piano, string quintet and percussion. Both this work and the saxophone concerto The Green Ray still display minimalist features though both are characteristic of Bryars’ melodic, often elegiac, writing. That style is still more evident in the overtly lyrical Cello Concerto and the beautiful song sequence The Adnan Songbook in which Bryars’ lyricism is effortlessly displayed in absolute freedom. The Cello Concerto "Farewell to Philosophy" was composed at the request of Julian Lloyd Webber who wanted a companion piece to one of the Haydn concertos, hence the comparatively traditional orchestral layout as well as the oblique allusions to two well-known Haydn symphonies (Farewell and The Philosopher). A professional bass player, Bryars writes idiomatically for strings, and his expert scoring never obscures the ever present cello that is thus allowed to sing unhindered all the way through. Bryars’ lyrical gifts are much in evidence in the beautiful vocal cycle The Adnan Songbook on words by the Lebanese writer Etel Adnan. The intimate nature of Adnan’s verse is subtly echoed in the economical scoring for small instrumental forces (2 violas, cello, double bass, electric/acoustic guitar [1 player] and clarinet/bass clarinet [1 player]). This is a minor masterpiece, as far as I am concerned, and the real gem here.

The North Shore, a tone poem in all but name, is cast in the form of a concerto for viola, strings, piano and percussion (originally for viola and piano). The present extended version was made in 1994. Again, it is a predominantly lyrical, slow moving piece evoking the cliffs by St Hilda’s Abbey and also alluding to Jules Verne who also partly inspired The Green Ray.

One Last Bar, Then Joe Can Sing, written for the American percussion ensemble Nexus, originates from the last bar of the first part of Bryars’ opera Medea, "a very short coda for untuned percussion". The composer also mentions that the piece focuses more on Nexus’s musicality than their technical skills, though these cannot pass unnoticed. This is no mere ‘banging’ percussion piece. It is, on the whole, rather restrained and moves on in many subtle shadings (much bowing on the instruments) imparting a song-like quality to the music.

Bryars’ is a quiet voice in contemporary music. His more recent works, however, in spite of their superficial simplicity and for all their direct expression, are often emotionally complex and conceal sincere, deeply-felt human concerns. This is most evident in the full version of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.

All these recordings have been available over the last few years and are probably well-known to Bryars’ fans. Those new to his music or still undecided about it may safely investigate this welcome compilation. It provides a fair survey of Bryars’ personal sound world and sincere music making. A splendid birthday present anyway.

Hubert Culot

A fair survey of Bryars’ personal sound world and sincere music making. A splendid birthday present … see Full Review

 



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