I was given this disc for appraisal by MusicWeb’s very own Patrick
Waller, whose sponsorship enabled this production to take place.
This happened over a very nice lunch, at which some colourful
descriptions of the recording circumstances were recounted. Considering
the freezing conditions at that time – of the recording, not the
lunch – it was apparently something of a miracle the whole thing
came together at all, and with a substantial quantity of material
recorded in a relatively short period my congratulations go to
all concerned for seeing the project through to completion. In
this way I would also like to declare any bias which readers may
feel they encounter in this review.
Rob Barnett has
this disc and supplied much of the background one might need
on the composer and her work. Everything with this release is
very well presented: the composer’s own notes on each piece
giving plenty of useful and relevant information. It is interesting
to see that the works are programmed in chronological order,
and so one has a sense of ongoing growth and development. The
three movements of the String Quartet are headed by literary
quotations which express some of the musical content, including
the rather plangent quality of which was no doubt coloured by
the death of the composer’s mother a year previously. Gently
expressive lines weave through each other in both the opening
Adagio and the central Fugue, but the final Moderato
(Rondo) has a more robust centre, expressing the positive
message in the quotation “Those who spread their sails in the
right way to the winds of the earth will always find themselves
borne by a current towards the open seas.” Tonal orientation
is not always easy to find in the sometimes quite intricate
patterns in this piece, a problem which occasionally seems to
fox the players as it may the listener at times. The journey
taken is however one which always ends on an entirely logical
resolution, one which ties each musical strand with the firmness
of an aglet.
While the String
Quartet is in no way ‘difficult’ music, the Clarinet
Quintet has a superficially more immediate appeal in some
of the more lyrical writing, for instance in the gentle central
Siciliano and the quirkily humorous Allegretto scherzando
finale. Judith Bailey’s own instrument is the clarinet,
and she clearly knows how to obtain the best from its width
of registers. The Towers of San Gimignano has a programmatic
content, being written as a response to a visit to Tuscany.
The solo piano chimes a powerful peal of bells, also expressive
of imposing medieval towers. The strong material in an implacably
imposing first movement is subjugated into the detail of the
Frescoes found in the second, but is never too far away.
A busy Piazza rounds the piece off in fine style, with
some local singing, and an echo of the bells heard in the opening.
This is an excellent piece, with some evidence of the influence
of Debussy in the response to all those images.
With the Egloshayle
Nightingale Trio we are given a suite in baroque form, based
on the Cornish folk-song The Sweet Nightingale. This
is appealing, quite light music, with more rhythmic bounce than
the String Quartet, although there is a gorgeous slow
Sarabande which has the sense of a slow funereal march.
Another work in lighter mood but with a softer, introspective
kernel is the Aquamarine Waltz, written for the composer’s
long-term friend Isabel Young’s 75th birthday. When
you’ve heard the piece and find yourself whistling the tune,
you realise how close it is to a sea shanty.
The two short Microminiature
pieces were in response to a commission for works of three
minutes’ duration intended for amateur musicians. There is something
about having to work within a compact framework which concentrates
the creative grey cells, and even though these performance go
a little over time it is clear that Bailey relished the challenge
of these miniatures. Both pieces have a slow central movement
flanked by two quicker movements, and represent a kind of ‘essence
of Bailey’, sealed into succulent little jampots of fine music.
The Visions of
Hildegard takes, as the title would lead one to expect,
a theme by the Abbess Hildegard von Bingen. The short interludes
which form a kind of set of variations on this theme are played
as a sequence of medieval pieces would be performed, each section
being a ‘breath’, and giving the sense of a single continuous,
meditative, and highly effective piece.
The final work on
this disc is the grandest in scale. Light was written
in memory of Isabel Young, and reflects on loss, and the search
for recovery of one’s self in the discovery and knowledge that
those we love remain with us in spirit. There is a clear sense
of anguish expressed in the music which, having become acquainted
with the composer’s idiom through the course of the programme,
has quite a shocking power despite its Mozartean restraint.
Longing, sadness, desolation – all of these things appear in
a score which is often quite sparse, the expression of the deepest
emotions coming through with the simplest economy of means.
As with the String Quartet, each movement is given a
quotation which concentrates the mind and clarifies the messages
in the music, concluding with “Replace the darkness within me
with a gentle light.”
I have to be honest
and say that the recording quality for this disc could have
been better. The String Quartet sounds rather thin and
flat as does the piano; and the balance between clarinet and
upper strings in the Quintet lead one to wonder where
the clarinet was placed – poor Jane Plessner sometimes sounds
as if she has been banished onto the sidelines, even while appreciating
the chamber rather than solo nature of her part. The lighter
textures of the Trio fare a little better, and as ever
with this kind of thing one’s ear does become tuned in to the
overall sound after a while. I don’t want to be too harsh, but
I am used to hearing more satisfying results – and I don’t mean
just from the big name labels. With cheaper playback equipment
you probably won’t notice so many problems, and it sounds fine
on the built-in speakers on my laptop. This said, and with one
or two mild moans over intonation here and there, this is a
well-performed programme of some highly intriguing music. I
have to admit to not having heard of Judith Bailey before receiving
this disc, and have to declare that this must be as good a way
as any to introduce oneself to her music.
see also Review
by Rob Barnett