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John METCALF (b. 1946)
Mapping Wales (2000, rev. 2001)a [18:31]
Plain Chants (2001)b [13:45]
Cello Symphony (2004)c [35:25]
Catrin Finch (harp)a; Raphael Wallfisch (cello)c; Cardiff Ardwyn Singersb; Bulgarian Chamber Orchestra Orpheusa; English Symphony Orchestrac; Raicho Christova, Helena Braithwaiteb, William Boughton
rec. Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, 6 October 2004 (Mapping Wales); St. Augustine’s, Penarth, 7 November 2004 (Plain Chants) and (live) Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, 9 September 2004 (Cello Symphony)
NIMBUS NI 5746 [67:41]
Experience Classicsonline

The most striking characteristic shared by these three fairly recent works is the prominence of melody. Moreover, as in much of Metcalf’s recent output, there is a great emphasis on clarity and simplicity, although the latter may often be quite deceptive. The music is built on so-called "white-note" harmony, thus eschewing chromatic tones. This may be heard in some earlier works such as Paradise Haunts ... for violin and piano or orchestra and in the orchestral song-cycle In Time of Daffodils as well as in the three works here, all composed between 2000 and 2004.

The earliest is Mapping Wales for harp and strings, originally scored for harp and string quartet. The music is based on a slightly earlier piano piece Endless Song (1999) and the work as a whole may again be experienced as a theme and variations, or – as suggested by Geraint Lewis in his informed insert notes – as ‘variations in search of a theme". The scoring for harp and strings certainly calls RVW’s Five Variants on "Dives and Lazarus" in manner rather than in actual musical style. The variations are lyrical, meditative and lively, thus providing welcome contrast. A delightful work be any reckoning that should appeal to harpists willing to enlarge their repertoire as a change from the ubiquitous, though beautiful Danses sacrée et profane of Debussy or the Introduction et Allegro of Ravel.

Plain Chants for mixed chorus was composed for the Ardwyn Singers and Helena Braithwaite. Each of the three sections of the sequence sets just a short fragment of the sacred texts: Benedictus, Ave Maria and Hosanna. Each section, too, unfolds as a concise arch-form while the music at times expands to eight-part writing. As might be expected, the writing is generously melodic and eminently singable, with enough variety for contrast’s sake. The opening Benedictus sometimes reminds one of the late William Mathias in his outdoor mood, whereas the work as a whole obviously belongs to the best British choral tradition.

The Cello Symphony is by far the most substantial and ambitious work here. It is scored for a fairly large orchestra including organ - or so it sounds to me - and wordless male voices. The score is prefaced with a quotation from Sassoon’s poem Everyone Sang: "The song was wordless – the singing will never be done", perfectly suggesting the overall mood of the work. The first movement opens in the depths of the orchestra and the impact is not that different from the opening of Gorecki’s Third Symphony, although Metcalf’s work does not possess the cumulative repetitiveness of the Polish composer’s piece. The soloist enters almost immediately and sets out "on a long journey" (Geraint Lewis) with his ‘endless song’. The music unfolds arch-like, moving to impassioned climaxes before dying away with a shortened varied restatement of the opening. A short bridge for solo cello and orchestral cellos playing pizzicato leads into the second song-like movement. The third follows without break. It opens in a hymn-like manner in which the male voices again join. A massive statement of the chorale gives way to the soloist resuming his journey by revisiting material from the first movement before moving into a warmly lyrical section. This slowly builds to the grand peroration complete with voices before dying away calmly. I have often noted that most cello concertos are the receptacle of their composers’ most personal and intimate concerns, although there are several exceptions to this: Milhaud’s Cello Concertos or Honegger’s Cello Concertino, for example. John Metcalf’s impressive, deeply moving and quite beautiful Cello Symphony is no exception. The three movements play without a break.

Excellent performances, although that of the Cello Symphony, recorded live, does contain a few minor blemishes, particularly in the dangerously exposed trumpet part, that would have been absent, had the work been recorded in a studio. On the other hand, one clearly feels the excitement of the first performance of a great piece of music of which all concerned may be proud. This disc passed rather unnoticed, although it was advertised. I cannot remember having read any review of it, which I find utterly unaccountable, for this is a very fine release with attractive, communicative and often beautiful music. Too good to be ignored.

Hubert Culot


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