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Edward GREGSON (b.1945)
Clarinet Concerto (1994, rev. 2002)
Violin Concerto (1999 rev. 2001)
Blazon (1992)
Stepping Out (1996)
Michael Collins (clarinet); Olivier Charlier (violin),
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins.
Rec. Manchester 21, 22 February 2002 DDD
All premiere recordings
CHANDOS CHAN 10105 [74:48]

For impact, Gregson’s music, as demonstrated by this CD, takes some beating. Edward Gregson is the Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, and as a composer he has enjoyed a considerable reputation for thirty years largely for a variety of vividly realised music for band, including several concertos which have been variously recorded (notably on the Doyen label). Some years ago now I encountered Gregson’s Missa Brevis Pacem when my daughter played in it as a member of the National Children’s Wind Orchestra, and it was immediately apparent that here was a composer with the common touch of a Britten in such music. One can only rejoice that Gregson has at last stamped his personality on the wider orchestral repertoire with this very successful Chandos disc.

The coruscating extended opening fanfares of Blazon feature those aspects of the orchestra which Gregson has always done best – brass and percussion. Paul Hindmarsh in his excellent notes tells us that Gregson described Blazon ‘as a miniature concerto for orchestra’ which grew out of an earlier piece, Celebration, for symphonic winds, harp and piano. The orchestra is divided into concertante groups who each have their own music. Gregson called one of his earlier works ‘Dances and Arias’, a title which could apply to much of his music, and certainly encapsulates this contrasted musical landscape, the reflective atmospheric song-like instrumental interludes, perfectly judged to reflect the general energy and brilliance. It allows the BBC Philharmonic wind players to show their strengths, which they do in uninhibited style. It underlines Gregson’s characteristic strengths – the dance, the fanfare and the song-like line – which constitute some of his most memorable invention.

BBC Radio Three habituées will remember the broadcast of this programme from the Royal Northern College of Music last February. I was at the concert and it was notable at the time how immediate and exhilarating Gregson’s music was in the hall. Now tidied up in the studio over the following two days, with the soloists in perfect balance, here is music of today, music of substance and wide communication which one hopes will put the composer on the regular concert scene. The violin soloist had a notable personal success with the audience in the hall, though I must say I had not seen him before. Professor of violin at the Paris Conservatoire for nearly 25 years, Charlier was the soloist on Chandos’s earlier recordings of the concertos by Dutilleux, Roberto Gerhard and Gerard Schurmann. The concertos both identify closely with their soloists, and the soloists with them. Both are on a substantial scale, running around half an hour. Both exhibit a strongly personal voice.

Gregson’s fascination with the dance becomes more and more intriguing, and it seemed to have reached a climax with his choral work The Dance, Forever the Dance, a notable success in 1999. The Violin Concerto comes from this same background and has a programme suggested by three quotations that appear above the three movements. For the first he quarries a quotation from The Dance taken from Oscar Wilde: ‘But she – she heard the violin, And left my side, and entered in: Love passed into the house of lust.’ With such a tag we may expect both dances and arias, and we are not disappointed. The violin soon arises from the romantic atmospheric opening, which is quickly left behind in the violin’s relentless figuration. Gregson’s high lying lyrical line has momentary reminiscences of earlier twentieth century concertos, by Walton, Samuel Barber and Prokofiev’s Second. Wilde, in his poem ‘The Harlot’s House’, shows the woman preoccupied by a distant waltz, and Gregson’s music reaches a climax with an insistent dance macabre, reinforced by the ensuing cadenza for violin and timpani. This runs on into the second movement, still a dark and threatening atmosphere, which at first strikes an autumnal note, this time with a quotation from Verlaine in French, this is the English: ‘The drawn-out sobs of the violins of autumn wound my heart with a monotonous languor’. Here Gregson’s brooding strings presage one of the work’s high points as he continues to explore the world of the first movement leading to a huge and threatening climax before relaxing into the textures heard at the opening of the first movement. Here the music achieves a passing hard-won serenity as at the close of the movement the solo violin sings deliciously over running harp figurations. The finale sets out with what seems to be an Irish reel, albeit a Gregsonian version of one, the superscription this time coming from Yeats (‘And the merry love the fiddle And the merry love to dance.’) but this is still a troubled world we are passing through. At one point the muscular string music from Blazon appears, but although Paul Hindmarsh’s notes tell us we have finally achieved general rejoicing, this is still very much music of today evoking the world as it is, there is to be no serenity.

The earlier Clarinet Concerto has a similar dramatic, quasi narrative thread running through it, though without quotations giving us any non-musical clues; the solo clarinet’s odyssey, ultimately successful, is left to us to divine. This is a clarinet concerto on a notably large scale, and in its wide-spanning argument, symphonic in intensity and scope. It was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic for Michael Collins and first heard in 1994, and it impressed then for its scale, for its approach centred on the soloist and for its typical rhythmic closing section, capped, as the composer tells us, by ‘the melody for which the whole concerto has been waiting’. Clarinettist Michael Collins has really identified with the music and he gives a remarkably personal and personable account of the music.

The filler, Stepping Out, is a vigorous string orchestra essay in minimalism which suggest John Adams. Indeed, the booklet quotes the throwaway remark, presumably made by the composer: ‘John Adams meets Shostakovich, with a bit of Gregson thrown in’. In fact the second part, a tempestuous fugue, is pure Gregson in its drive, excitement and no-nonsense cut off.

If you have not come across Gregson before do try this approachable and eloquent music. The BBC Philharmonic production team of Mike George and Stephen Rinker have done a great job for Gregson and Chandos.

Lewis Foreman

see also Concerto for Orchestra


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