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SEED AND HERB: GARD(E)NER'S MUSIC
John GARDNER (b. 1917)
Coming Through The Rye [20: 47]
Thomas ADÈS (b. 1971)
Devon Viole(n)ts [10: 52]
Sally BEAMISH (b. 1945)
Knotgrass Elegy 2 [15: 05]
Arthur BUTTERWORTH (b. 1923)
Not The Banks Of Green Willow [9:36]
Mark-Anthony TURNAGE (b. 1960)
Seed and Herb [8:12]
The SubRosa Consort directed by Edward Smusch. Recorded at the Royal Academy of Music, London 25th - 30th November 2007. Full programme notes and texts in English, French and German are included.
SUBROSA CD47785 [ 64:53]
Experience Classicsonline

What would you give Britain's oldest living composer for his 90th birthday? John Gardner's 90th was in March last year, and with one exception this celebratory selection of newly written works was devised by friends, former students and admirers who wanted to do something special for him. Except for Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, John Gardner is too little known by a long chalk and while he might be heading for his century, he's still as creative as ever :  the inclusion of one of his own recent works here bears eloquent witness to that.

Many other Gardner celebrations happened through 2007 of course, not least the Naxos recording of his First Symphony, First Piano Concert and the overture Midsummer Ale, reviewed for us by Dominy Clements, himself one of the composer's former pupils. But this SubRosa disc is unique, because its 50-odd contributors all chose to remain anonymous, including the director  'Edward Smusch.' That's a splendidly English thing to do, to my mind, especially for  a birthday, because everyone helping has their blushes spared gracefully and there's no means whatever of spotting those who couldn't (or wouldn't) join in. The music and the musicians are first rate.

John Gardner is a man noted for  his humour, so the disc's subtitle must have caused him to twinkle. SEED AND HERB - GARDEN(E)R'S MUSIC (the play on words was suggested as a 'sort of theme' to the other composers contributing) is essentially light-hearted, but some of it is fittingly serious; like the real  Gardner's Music which the disc echoes faithfully.

Tackling the serious side head on, let's turn first to Thomas Adès's Devon Viole(n)ts. Much of John Gardner's childhood was spent in Ilfracombe, North Devon and this short and intense tone poem describes the locality as it used to be and still is now. A Morris team dances for May Day, but Carver Doone fells them with a cudgel ; cream teas are served round the harbour, but modern day 'wreckers' vie for booty on the beaches -  most recently as washed up parcels of cocaine, according to the local news. This blistering work for string orchestra and singers is Adès's Devon version of Asyla - his piece about safe havens and madhouses - but  here smack-head surfers roast Tarka the Otter and complain about the oddly furry 'fish.'

Less shocking but still disturbing in its own way, Sally Beamish's second Knotgrass Elegy follows on from the first one written in 2001. Then, using the image of the unprepossessing weed as a metaphor for the damage humans wreak on the environment, Beamish wrote soulfully about planetary change. Once found in abundance among cereal crops, the knotgrass was wiped out by indiscriminate insecticide use in the 1960s and its passing went  unmourned until its role in the food chain was realised:  as well as being a nuisance to farmers, the weed  was the food for the knotgrass beetle, whose larvae were eaten by the chicks of game birds. Many partridges starved and died, once the knotgrass was killed by organo-phosphates.

Sally Beamish turns her spotlight on global warming in Knotgrass Elegy 2. Though this is a shorter work than the original, she has a chorus of children once again - some of The Sub Rosa's Consort's own, I suspect - who with an added soprano soloist chant a further list of plant and animal species made extinct in recent years. Using broadly similar  forces to the original - two vocal soloists, an adult chorus, children's chorus, concert orchestra, and a sub-contrabass flute rather than a saxophone, this is a shorter work and more a cantata than oratorio. There's some very effective writing for all the participants  though, and while some text sounds fairly clunky to my ear - 'Sargasso eels, nibble polar bears' heels'  for example -  the complicated choral work representing rising sea levels, the shrinking land mass and warmer seasonal temperatures is undoubtedly impressive. The extended orchestral portrayal of plant and animal migration northwards to higher ground  is  striking too, with a  vigorous upward-rushing fugue for the orchestra and the deep flute soloist as a finale. This is  music to stand the test of time; even when performed at increased altitude as it might be in the not too distant  future.

The remaining music is pure fun, just as any birthday offering should be. Tired, as he says in the disc's booklet, of being asked if he's George Butterworth's relative for most of his  life,  MusicWeb's own Arthur Butterworth has written his definitive response. Not The Banks Of Green Willow is a splendidly comic masterpiece for  'brassed off ' quintet full of the wit for which Arthur is famous. Turnage's Seed and Herb is whimsical too and is in four typically compact movements. What he does with them exactly is best left for the listener to discover but they're called Basil, Mustard, Poppy and Sperm Count. They're  very well worth  a listen though: think YourRockaby and Percy Grainger for a clue.

Quite properly, the disc's most interesting work is by John Gardner himself. Scored for large orchestra, eight solo voices, organ, percussion and highland bagpipe, Coming Through The Rye has everything we expect from this subtle and inventive mind. The familiar jazzy rhythms are there of course, Scotch Snaps included, not to mention the distinctive harmonic progressions, but the most remarkable aspect of  this twenty minute joy ride is the clever use of interwoven texts by both  Rabbie Burns and  D.F. Alderson. Listen out for  'Gin a body, meet a body, Comin'.....' and you'll  hear instead: 'Montezuma met a puma, coming through the rye. Montezuma baked the puma into apple-pie.'  The two poems run together in Gardner's personalised take on medieval hocketing with some very unexpected (and even slightly risqué) textual results. Now that's real inspiration for you : 'Proper Job' as they say in North Devon. Happy 91st, John Gardner.

 

Bill Kenny

MusicWeb's page on John Gardner is here.



 


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