alternatively Phoenix


Lou HARRISON (1917-2003) Suite for Symphonic Strings (1961) [27:57]
Chinary UNG (b. 1942) Inner Voices (1986) [20:23]
Colin MCPHEE (1900-1964) Tabuh-Tabuhan (1935-36) [19:58]
Peter Basquin (piano); Christopher Oldfather (piano)
American Composers Orchestra/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. Manhattan Center, New York, May 1994. DDD
originally issued in 1995 as Decca-Argo 444 560
PHOENIX PHCD171 [68:18]


Experience Classicsonline

Here are three substantial works in which Pacific ethnic voices mediate Californian/West Coast mysticism.

Harrison's Suite is in seven movements. The Estampie - a title beloved of Martinů and Hovhaness - features coursing string writing underpinned with percussion; here distanced by the engineers for best spatial satisfaction. It strongly recalls the equivalent ‘sword-wind’ movements in the Hovhaness Symphonies such as St Vartan. Then follows a seraphic arcing Chorale 'Et in arcadia ego' which has a honeyed yet not cloying trail. Again this offers deeply affecting writing. The stately Ductia - In honor of Eros, again has the Oriental contours and percussion punctuation of the Estampie. Lament forgoes the percussion and, whisper quiet, conducts a sheeny Bergian pilgrimage through contentment and anxiety. Here the redolences are of Schuman and Harris. The Round in Honor of Hermes will again appeal to Hovhaness admirers but Harrison strikes high into the stratosphere with a burred intrepidity which we would not hear from Hovhaness. The Little Fugue - Viola's Reward seems rather cool by comparison: Reger-lite. The Nocturne rounds out this ambitious suite with a sleep, while coolly recalling the Lament and Barber's Adagio. Harrison ends audaciously with a calming downbeat. Deeply impressive!

Inner Voices, in a single continuous movement, is by the Cambodian composer Chinary Ung. He studied with Chou Wen-Chung and George Crumb. While there are moments of all-purpose modernism with the usual palette of received wisdoms, there is also a lot that is distinctive. Try the gleaming episode with its hint of orientalism at 2:03 onwards and the profoundly romantic music at 7:49 with those groaning string transitions so typical of Roy Harris in his FolkSong Symphony. A phantasmal tapestry of a piece - full of invention, promise and fulfilment.

Colin McPhee wrote more than Tabuh-Tabuhan but it is the piece by which he is known. It's a Toccata in three movements for two pianos and orchestra. It is heavily influenced by Gamelan suggested by the two pianos and by the chattering percussion. He stayed in Bali with this new wife Jane Belo in the 1930s and it was on a brief holiday away from the island that he came to write the piece. It was written at the suggestion of Carlos Chavez and premiered in Mexico City conducted by Chavez in Summer 1936. The music reminded me of the archive 78 recordings that Britten and McPhee made of the Gamelan Anklung. It's an invigorating work that from our perspective cannot help but remind us of Philip Glass and the player-piano etudes of Conln Nancarrow. The central Nocturne provides repose and remission from the incessancy and clangour of the first. In its winding reflections it is a precursor to the works of Hovhaness and Cowell. The Finale recalls Ravel, Copland as well as Hovhaness - try the OgreOgress DVD-audio disc of the Janabar piano concerto - and more recent figures such as Nyman. This work should appeal strongly to you if you enjoy minimalism, want a fresh fix and are happy to delve back to its roots. The work ends in the decaying shiver of the tam-tam.

If McPhee interests you remember that you can probably still track down a complete MusicMasters Classics CD of his music (01612–67159-2) played by the Brooklyn Phil directed by the same conductor. The disc offers the chance to encounter McPhee’s Symphony No. 2, Concerto for Piano with Wind Octette, Nocturne for Chamber Orchestra and Balinese Ceremonial Music. Did I mention that McPhee was born in Montreal? And if you would like to pursue the Britten connection then look out the BBCSO/Leonard Slatkin disc of The Prince of the Pagodas suite and Tabuh-Tabuhan (Chandos CHAN10111).

Rob Barnett


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