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Nicholas SACKMAN (b. 1950)

Meld (1998) [16:18]
Diana BURRELL (b. 1948)

Gold (2001) [12:31]
Geoffrey POOLE (b. 1949)

Lucifer (2000/1) [27:22]
Philip Mead (piano); RNCM Brass Ensemble; James Gourlay
Recorded: Concert Hall of the RNCM, Manchester, November 2003
NMC D 099 [56:36]

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As Philip Mead writes in his introductory note, the works on this CD represent some of the results of a six year project to investigate the possibilities of combining various types of brass groups with solo piano. True, there are several works for piano and wind ensemble, such as Stravinsky’s, Jongen’s and Durey’s concertos for piano and wind ensemble, but there are actually no such works for piano and brass, not that I know of anyway. Unfortunately, we are not told who were the composers involved (I mean, other than those featured here) and if there is any chance of having some of the other works (if any) to be recorded in a near future. Anyway, judging from what is to be heard here, their respective approach to the project results in a pleasantly varied programme, definitely out of the beaten track.

Nicholas Sackman is a most distinguished composer whose music is presently shamefully underrepresented in the current catalogue; and reading that Metier are to release a new disc of some of his chamber music is good news indeed. Meld, completed in 1998, "attempts to establish a network of harmonic, rhythmic and timbral relationships between the piano and an expanded orchestral bass ensemble" (the composer’s words). Within the ensemble, four players (marimba, vibraphone, harp and timpani) feature prominently as "shadows" of the piano, which considerably enhances the variety of dialogue between the piano and the brass ensemble. The result is a compact, tightly argued piano concerto, full of energy, contrasts and imagination that clearly deserves more than the occasional hearing.

A professional viola player for many years, Diana Burrell is now regarded as a composer of no mean achievement. An earlier disc (ASV CD DCA 977) has already given a good idea of her compositional achievements; but several major works still await commercial recording. Gold is scored for piano (and three gongs) and a small brass ensemble consisting of three trumpets, horn, two trombones and tuba. As a result, textures are generally lighter and brighter, with telling interplay between "high" brass (trumpets) and "low" brass (horn, trombones and tuba). Sometimes, too, the brass join for some more massive episodes. The coherence of the music is ensured by variations on a series of chords and by being centred around C. This is another brilliant and totally convincing piece that repays repeated hearings, and clearly a most welcome addition to Burrell’s present discography. But I am still looking forward to hearing more of her music soon.

Geoffrey Poole’s Lucifer, subtitled a Concerto for Piano and 21 Loud Instruments, is in four movements and, by far, the weightiest piece here. (Incidentally, the other loud instruments here are a saxophone quartet.) The first movement Lucifer was composed in 2000 and performed as such that year. The other movements were added some time later in 2001. the composer notes that the audience ("largely assembled for composer Philip Sparke") seemed to have been rather surprised by the power, vehemence and the many harmonic and rhythmic twists of the music. ("I swear that some were searching for their crucifixes", says the composer.) In fact, the music of the entire work often opposes some jazzy or popular accents to more stringent writing with a refreshing lack of inhibition. This is to be heard quite clearly in the final movement New Babylon, actually some sort of urban Toccata in which such jazzy episodes brutally clash with more violent, energetic episodes. On the whole, Poole’s music may be somewhat more eclectic than that of Sackman and Burrell; but it is – in this piece anyway – colourful and full of energy.

Philip Mead, who initiated this very worthwhile and interesting project, plays superbly throughout, and the RNCM Brass Ensemble joins in most heartily. Excellent recording and production, up to NMC’s best standards. Well worth trying, and quite rewarding.

Hubert Culot

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