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Craig ARMSTRONG (b. 1959)
Immer (Violin Concerto No.1) (2007) [18:14]
One Minute, 15 Pieces for orchestra (2005) [18:34]
Memory Takes My Hand (2006) [34:29]
Clio Gould (violin); Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Apollo Voices/Stephen Betteridge
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Garry Walker
rec. 17–19 December 2007 and 25 February 2008, Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5190322 [71:38] 
Experience Classicsonline

I often receive CDs of music by composers who are new names to me. Some contain the most exciting music, which hits me immediately, and about which I enthuse. Occasionally I receive something which seems to be below par, shall we say, music which doesn’t display anything to which I can respond. Then there’s the rare CD which contains music which I have to work at in order to find the purpose of it. This CD falls into that latter category.
I immediately felt the urgency of Armstrong’s music, written in rich, late-romantic, hues – big tunes, luscious orchestrations and a delicate balance within the textures - but I failed to find the way forwards; the impulse behind the notes. However, after listening to this music four or five times I can now see Armstrong’s purpose, the raison d’être - if you like - for its existence, its being.
For a composer as young as Armstrong it’s good to find that he is writing in a language to which the listening public can respond. His work sounds like a more relaxed, less dense, Ligeti – no micropolyphony here – and he can really use the orchestra to full effect.
Immer, his first Violin Concerto, is a good example of what I mean. It’s a long lament, the violin soaring above the orchestral sonority, which is based on “slowly changing clouds of sound” according to the composer. He has created a dream–like atmosphere which engages the ear, and the senses, with the most beguiling sounds and a wonder-filled sense of logic in the construction of the music. Of course, there’s no sense of the conflict which is the usual life blood of the concerto form, instead Armstrong leads us along a path where, instead of our being aware of the bravura of the soloist in flashes of display, we can see and enjoy the surrounding scenery as much as the singing of the soloist. Clio Gould is a marvellous violinist, and here she plays with such purity of tone and elegance of line that you cannot fail to go with the flow of the music.
If  I am less satisfied with One Minute it’s simply because with 15 very short pieces, most of which are quite static, there’s no real substance for the mind to relate to. But yet, having written that, what this music does do is keep you wondering what is going to happen next. It was created to accompany a series of short films and this, surely, fed into the musical thought.
Memory Takes My Hand is a very large song-cycle with words by Peter Arnott, celebrating the composer’s home town of Glasgow. Starting with an imposing Waltonian brass fanfare I was expecting some kind of paean of praise to the Scottish city but what followed was a collection of solos, choruses and orchestral movements of varying dynamic. The first sung movement, World, begins with the most beautiful writing for flute and piano, before the chorus enters in music of great seriousness, to be joined by a stratospheric soprano line. This is fine stuff indeed. The atmosphere, so well built, continues through the next few movements – Armstrong is very good on atmosphere – and one is reminded of passages in Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, so intense is the language. However, atmosphere isn’t enough to carry a work of over half an hour’s playing time, and by the 7th movement I’d lost interest, especially as I was starting to be reminded of other composers – John Adams in particular – and in the final three movements the spectre of Philip Glass raised its head, not to mention Barrington Pheloung. There is much to admire and enjoy in this work but it’s just a touch too long and the composer is unable to keep his inspiration throughout the whole piece, and this is a shame for Armstrong is obviously a very capable composer who has ideas and who knows how to use them.
The Violin Concerto alone proves that Armstrong can sustain his music in long arches. This disk will appeal strongly to anyone interested in contemporary composition, despite my reservations about Memory Takes My Hand. Here is a strong voice with much to say. I look forward to hearing him say more in the future.
Bob Briggs

see also review by Rob Barnett



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