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Robert SAXTON (b. 1953)
CD1 Music to Celebrate the Resurrection ++ (1988); I will awake the Dawn (1986) Violin Concerto + (1990); In the Beginning ++ (1987) Tasmin Little (violin) BBC Symphony Orchestra/Matthias Bamert + English Chamber Orchestra/Steuart Bedford ++ BBC Singers/John Poole

CD2 Caritas - a chamber opera in two acts (1991)
 Members of Opera North Children from Allerton Grange Middle School, Leeds, English Northern Philharmonic/Diego Masson Recorded live at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, November 1991.
NMC ANCORA D102 [72.08 + 78.14



 

Thank goodness for NMC. They are in the process of successfully rescuing from the vaults of now defunct companies, like Unicorn-Kanchana and Collins Classics, recordings of outstanding merit and importance, Many of these date from the early 1990s. They are of music little performed but important to an understanding of the composer’s development and of the music of its period.

I first heard Saxton's Violin Concerto one wet afternoon in 1995 when I entered a CD shop in Exeter. There it echoed around, mostly unnoticed - I snapped it up. On that original disc is 'In the Beginning' and 'I will awake the dawn'. It is particularly pleasing that NMC have added 'Music to Celebrate the Resurrection'. This was a BBC commission from 1988 for an Easter television programme. The second disc is of Saxton's two act opera ‘Caritas’ with libretto by no less than Arnold Wesker and based on his play. This opera, mounted by Opera North, was recorded live over a period of the three nights in Huddersfield in 1991. These included the premiere night. All of the notes and the full text are exactly as given in the original Collins CD. They are niftily reproduced. A more middle aged and thoughtful composer adorns the new cover as opposed to the boyish one on the originals.

Well, what do these pieces have in common? I see in each a Christian sympathy and vision. In Paul Griffiths' book of interviews entitled 'British Composers of the 1980s’ (Faber and Faber, 1985) Saxton comments: "I am very aware that my family are eastern-European Jews and part of my family was Lithuanian'. However he was brought up in England so perhaps his religious sympathies have re-orientated.

Each time I've heard 'Music to celebrate the Resurrection' I have been moved by this powerful ten minute sketch which begins with the Crucifixion and ends in E major. The trajectory is comparable with that of Jonathan Fulford's film with "Graham Sutherland's tapestry of the Risen Christ in Majesty, with resurrected Man standing between stigmatised feet". It is a powerful and life-enhancing musical statement.

What is remarkable about 'Caritas' is that Saxton, through Wesker's text, manages to sympathize with the church at all. Here, an affianced sixteen year old girl, against the will of her family, desires to become an anchoress in the church of Pulham St.Mary in Norfolk. The bishop, at one point, says that "he doesn't approve of them' meaning anchoresses. After three years, just at the time of the outbreak of the peasants revolt, Christine, the anchoress, is losing her will to live and "wants out". The family and her fiancée plead with the bishop but he maintains that he "has no power to sanction breaking of a vow". The girl looses her sanity and the results of her 'selfishness' are tragic for all associated with her.

What with the chanting male voices and the chamber orchestra's bi-tonal quartal harmonies, you could be forgiven for thinking, at the start of the work, that you had walked in by accident on a Britten Church Parable. Saxton does say, in the aforementioned interview, that he once had a lesson with Britten and that he "got under the spell of Britten" as a boy. Pleasingly however this 'monkish scene' is simply a starting point. At no point is it possible to strongly feel the older composer's presence. But what is the composer's presence - his voice. The problem I have with Saxton is that I mostly like and admire his music but I cannot find a distinctive voice. This is certainly true of the Violin Concerto. Despite the advocacy of the superb Tasmin Little and BBC Symphony orchestra at the end of the 24 minute, three movement work I always feel that it 'signifies nothing'. I have known the work as I have all of these pieces for a number of years so I am not writing this review after one or two hearings.

The choral work represents a similar problem to me. I listened again to the roughly contemporaneous Chamber Symphony 'The Circle of Light' written in 1986 but recorded by EMI in 1990 (nla). This is similarly full of coruscating and swirling textures. I am left with the feeling (which I don't get from 'Caritas' or 'Music to Celebrate the Resurrection') of, as Elizabeth Lutyens might have said, "just notes my dear boy, just notes". Lutyens, Saxton's one-time mentor, would probably have used stronger words more or less to the same effect!

The BBC Singers however are unbeatable in 'I will awake the dawn'. This is a setting of three psalms, which lead us from Darkness into Light - Lent to Easter if you like. 'In the Beginning' plots the same course but this time for orchestra alone. Yes we are back where we started. 'Music for the Resurrection' begins, to quote the composer, "at the crucifixion ... and later becomes a wide dance of joy" on the resurrection morning. The title 'In the Beginning' quotes the opening of the book of Genesis shared by the Jewish bible as well as the Christian. The composer says that the piece "might suggest the idea of growth and re-birth" also a Resurrection concept. The Psalms in 'I will awake the dawn' ending with 'Hallelujah' are Jewish songs, yes, but recited and sung everyday in Christian churches. 'Caritas' is the exception in that there is no resurrection life and light; only the darkness of the awful walls which surround Christine without end.

Saxton is much more direct and natural, more powerful and passionate, when he has a strong and spiritual aim in a work.

The performances are faultless. Of course I have never heard them done by anyone else but I cannot imagine how things might be improved. The recordings are excellent and the notes by the composer are clear; useful if possibly a little brief.

 

Gary Higginson



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