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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 [9:07]c
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
NMC D120 [72:03]

Martin Butler’s piano quintet American Rounds clearly alludes to American folk-music, without actually quoting any. It does so in much the same way as Bluegrass Variations (1987) for solo violin available on Lorelt LNT104 reviewed here a few years ago. The first movements are rhythmically lively and full of freshness. The third alludes to hymn singing, whereas the final movement is a brilliant toccata-like Hoe Down with brief hints at an imaginary Irish jig. The somewhat later Sequenza Notturna, though for the same instrumental line-up, is a completely different work. On the whole, it is much more serious, and partly lives-up to its title, in that atmospheric nocturnal music alternates with more animated sections. There’s a striking episode in which an energetic recitative for the strings evokes “Moorish Spain” - to quote the apt words of John Fallas. This lovely, deeply-felt little gem is one of the highlights.
Siward’s River Song (2001, solo cello) and Suzanne’s River Song (1999, violin and piano) are related to Butler’s chamber opera A Better Place. Suzanne’s River Song is actually a transcription for violin and piano of music associated with the opera’s main character. Siward’s River Song is a free fantasy on a motif connected with Siward, the drowned Thames lighterman, whose ghostly presence pervades the opera (information drawn from John Fallas’ excellent notes). The cello work is rather more interesting and far-reaching than its companion, and contains some imaginative instrumental touches such as “the eerie sound of a rhythmic motto tapped out on the body of the instrument, representing the hollow creakings and resonances of old Thames timbers”. This does not mean that the piece is descriptive in any way. It is rather a sad, dark-hued lament.
We are not told when Nathaniel’s Mobile for piano was composed, nor did I find that information elsewhere. It is a short work contrasting animated and slower chordal sections. Funérailles for piano is much more substantial as well as being the longest single item here. It is similar to Nathaniel’s Mobile in its alternation of strongly hammered-out chiming chords that keep re-appearing throughout, albeit with variations, and of slower chordal episodes. The whole, however, is a rather more serious affair possessing remarkable expressive strength for all its apparent restraint. This is the other gem in this generous release.
The Two Scarlatti Sonatas were arranged for The Schubert Ensemble in 2004 or 2005, and make a nicely contrasted diptych. Well worth having, although I would have preferred some other work by Butler.
This generously filled selection of recent chamber works by Butler ends with a lovely, atmospheric miniature for viola and piano Walden Snow written when the composer was in the States.
Butler’s music is not unlike that of Judith Weir, in that it is readily accessible, while avoiding the all-too-easy traps of the so-called New Simplicity. It may sound easy on the surface, but it often has its tricky bits, particularly in the complex rhythmical patterns to be heard in almost every work here. Moreover, Butler never overworks his material, so that these perfectly balanced works never outstay their welcome. Finally, it is always player- and listener-friendly without compromise or condescension. The members of The Schubert Ensemble, be it individually or collectively, obviously relish every moment of the music and play with much commitment throughout. This is one of the loveliest discs that I have heard recently.
Hubert Culot


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