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Martin BUTLER (b. 1960)
American Rounds (1998) [13:20]
Siward’s River Song (2001)a [5:43]
Suzanne’s River Song (1999)b [4:46]
Nathaniel’s Mobile (1995)c [9:07]
Funérailles (2005)c [16:03]
Two Scarlatti Sonatas (arr. Butler, 2005)
Sequenza Notturna (2003) [11:37]
Walden Snow (2004)d [3:17]
The Schubert Ensemble (William Howard (piano)bcd; Simon Blendis (violin)b; Douglas Paterson (viola)d; Jane Salmon (cello)a; Peter Buckoke (double-bass))
rec. Champs Hill, Pulborough, West Sussex, June 2006. DDD
Notes in English
NMC D120 [72:03]


Born in Romsey in 1960, Martin Butler has proved to be one of our most accomplished yet accessible composers; yes, one can do both! Butler readily soaks up influences from across the musical spectrum and then moulds them into something essentially Butler-esque. He is a composer not afraid to write a good melody nor to show a sense of humour. He is currently Professor of Music at the University of Sussex near Brighton. How fitting that this recording should have been made in nearby Champs Hill, near Pulborough, West Sussex.


Many of Butler’s traits as a composer were shown to good effect on Lorelt’s CD LNT 104, Tin Pan Ballet, dedicated to his music way back in 1993. Like the title work on this CD, the Lorelt CD included one of several of Butler’s pieces to be inspired by the landscapes and, more particularly, the folk music of the United States: Bluegrass Variations (other works of this kind including Hootenanny and Down-Hollow Winds). American Rounds is a thirteen-minute piano quintet. The first two movements are derived from Three Little Folk Games, written in 1995. As often in Dvořák, for example, this music is more about invoking a mood rather than reworking real folk music the mood and although the melodic shape of folk music is suggested, no actual folk tunes are quoted.. Butler achieves an appealing ‘American sound’ in American Rounds and one is minded of John Adams in the second movement, a little of Aaron Copland in the third, while the fourth sounds like it could quite happily accompany a good, old-fashioned hoe-down.


American Rounds was commissioned by the Schubert Ensemble in 1998 and has received many performances around the world since then. It was the first of several pieces on this disc which have come about from the special relationship forged between ensemble and composer, the others being the Sequenza Notturna, Funérailles, and the two River Songs extracted from Butler’s chamber opera A Better Place. It is curious that the tempo markings for the four movements of American Rounds, clearly evident in the music and in Butler’s own notes on the piece, are curiously omitted by NMC in the track listings in the accompanying booklet, only listing them as I, II, III and IV.


Also written for the Schubert Ensemble were the Two Scarlatti Sonatas, the only other pieces on this CD for the full quintet complement. These provide a charmingly contrasted pair – the first lively and upbeat, the second hushed and mysterious. It turns out that these miniatures are a tribute to that master of artful transcription, Luciano Berio (1925-2003), as is the piano quartet Sequenza Notturna, written for the Schubert Ensemble in the month following the announcement of the great Italian composer’s death. A favourite technique of Berio’s was to base a piece upon a melodic fragment which was largely or wholly hidden or disguised throughout the duration of work, only to be revealed (sometimes!) at the very end. Butler uses this procedure in Sequenza Notturna, weaving a fragment of monody in and out of the melodic and textural structure of this evocative piece, only to reveal itself in the final climax. Both Martin Butler and the writer of the excellent booklet notes, John Fallas, suggest that the mood towards the end of the piece suggests Moorish Spain. I can see what they mean!


Butler’s artistic relationship with the Schubert Ensemble has also produced small-scale pieces for fragments of the group, including the two lovely pieces derived from Butler’s chamber opera A Better PlaceSiward’s River Song for solo cello and Suzanne’s River Song for violin and piano. The first of these is a fascinating soliloquy with the mood of a lament with music based on a musical motto connected with the drowned Thames lighterman Siward, whose spectral presence dominates the opera. A wonderful touch is the tapping on the body of the solo cello which evokes ‘the hollow creakings and resonances of old Thames timbers’, according to the composer. Schubert Ensemble cellist Jane Salmon gets deep inside this music and plays most beautifully. The companion piece, Suzanne’s River Song, with Simon Blendis as violinist, is more straightforward in construction, being a transcription for violin and piano of music from the opera associated with the main character and her relationship with the river. It shares a melodic motive with Siward’s song which unifies this lyrical diptych.


Butler also wrote some solo piano pieces for the Schubert Ensemble’s pianist William Howard. In the composer’s list of works Nathaniel’s Mobile is dated 1995, which pre-dates the beginning of the composer’s association with the Ensemble. This piece effectively contrasts sections of unpredictable stepwise motion with slow-moving chords. Funérailles is a much more significant piece. Superficially similar to Nathaniel’s Mobile, it contrasts chordal sections – here faster and more bell-like in a fashion that sometimes reminded me of Messiaen’s piano works - with slower sections which seem to thoroughly explore the musical possibilities of its material in a deeply satisfying way.


The final work on this disc is another of Butler’s works for a ‘fragment’ of the Schubert Ensemble – this time viola and piano. Walden Snow is another of Butler’s ‘American’ pieces. Described by the composer as a ‘peaceful prayer’, this is a brief, lyrical picture postcard of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts and is played most eloquently by Douglas Paterson.


The Schubert Ensemble has been active since 1983 and is based on the piano, violin, viola, cello, double bass combination of the Trout Quintet by the composer which gives the Ensemble its name. It boasts an impressive discography and this latest addition to its catalogue is a breath of fresh air. The playing and musicianship are faultless and the recording is superb to match, making this a highly recommendable disc for anyone remotely interested in 20th and 21st century chamber music.


Derek Warby


see also Review by Hubert Culot September RECORDING OF THE MONTH




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