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Gloria COATES (b. 1938)
Symphony No. 15 (2004-5) * 1 [22:20]
I. Iridescences [8:01]
II. Puzzle Canon [8:32]
III. What Are Stars? [5:46]
Cantata da Requiem, ‘WWII Poems for Peace’ (1972) 2 [15:57]
I.  Aria: Junge Witwe (Young Widow) [5:26]
II. Recitative: BBC Weather Report 1942 [00:29]
III. Aria: The Flying Bombers [2:09]
IV. Recitative: Brief der Lehrerin Elfriede Birndorfer (Notes from a teacher Elfriede Birndorfer) [1:19]
V. Aria: Rinne, Regen, Rinne (Run, Rain, Run) [2:30]
VI. Aria: All These Dyings [4:05]
Transitions (1984) * 3 [20:56]
I. Illumination [8:08]
II. Mystical Plosives [4:56]
III. Dream Sequence [7:51]
* World premiere recordings
1 Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Boder
2 Terri Dunn (soprano), Talisker Players, Toronto
3 Ars Nova Ensemble Nuremberg/Werner Heider
rec. ORF Radio Hall, Vienna, Austria, 16 June 2006 (symphony); Rumours of Peace Concert, Trinity St Paul’s Centre, Toronto, Canada, 9 November 2005 (cantata); Musica Viva Concert, Bavarian Radio, Munich, Germany, 23 June 1985 (Transitions)
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559371 [59:12]

 

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No sleepy lagoons here, this Coates writes music of uncompromising modernity. It’s certainly as contemporary as it gets, the symphony composed for Mozart’s 250th anniversary (2006), the other two works dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. One hesitates to use the word ‘accessible’ – sometimes misconstrued as a criticism – but Coates’s sound-world fuses intellectual rigour with moments of genuine power and emotion; the end result is music of considerable interest and appeal.

The symphony’s first movement ‘Iridescences’ certainly has a shimmer, a glow, achieved through the use of extended glissandi and pulsing, elemental percussion. There’s a mesmeric quality to the music which, strange as it may seem, doesn’t so much transfix as endlessly fascinate. And it isn’t amorphous either, displaying plenty of bone and sinew.

Given that this symphony is subtitled ‘Homage to Mozart’, it’s not surprising the second movement ‘Puzzle Canon’ contains what the liner-notes refer to as a ‘quasi quotation’ from the Ave Verum Corpus K.618. The same slides and subterranean drums permeate this section, although submarine might be more accurate; indeed, in his liner-notes Kyle Gunn characterises this music as ‘wavery’. That’s not to suggest it’s tremulous or uncertain; in fact it’s complex, edgy, always evolving. The material is worked to a powerful climax at 7:11 before giving way to a serene Mozartian theme – albeit filtered through Coates’s distorting lens. It’s really memorable stuff, the juxtaposition as startling as it is effective.

With that ‘puzzle’ out of the way ‘What Are Stars?’ takes its cue from an Emily Dickinson poem. Again there is a strong elemental drive, the timps providing a constantly questing bass line. Boder and his Vienna radio band play this score with obvious commitment and concentration, bringing out all those ‘wavery’ timbres and pulses. The original engineers – presumably with the Austrian broadcaster ORF – have done the score proud, providing a clear yet warm sound. There is weight aplenty and the strings have lots of body, which really helps to give this music its tingle factor.

Although she is American-born Coates has lived in Munich since 1969, so she’s been at the heart of contemporary European music and intellectual debate for some years now. Not surprising, then, that her Cantata da Requiem, which dates from the dying days of the Vietnam War, reflects this.

Subtitled ‘WWII Poems for Peace’ the Cantata is based on a series of wartime texts, beginning with a grieving widow, ‘The twilight slowly enveloped me and / Pressed icily against my breast’. It is music of unstinting angularity and grief, the emphasis on exposed, individual instrumental voices. The Canadian soprano Terri Dunn has some pretty taxing passages to sing, falling to quieter episodes sung almost sotto voce.

After the brief ‘BBC Weather Report 1942’ – echoes of Britten’s Sea Interludes, perhaps – comes the aria ‘The Flying Bombers’. This looks ahead to the sound blocks of the symphony – and backwards to the Polish avant-garde composer Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima – as it mimics the drone of bombers flying ‘God knows where’. And as a technique Coates’s use of glissandi can surely be traced back to another of Penderecki’s early works, Polymorphia (1961).

Elfriede’s sad little notations of war are much sparer in texture, gaunt even, which makes for the strongest possible contrast with what has gone before. The short poem ‘Run, rain, run’ – taken from a wartime German newspaper – may come a little too close to sentimentality for some but Coates infuses the score with enough martial menace to keep mawkishness at bay.

Those restless, unquiet timps link all these fragments, including Marianne Moore’s ‘All These Dyings’, written in 1942; although it is unremittingly bleak – ‘All the world is an orphans home’ – the text and the music do at least modulate into a key of hope, ending with an affirmative chorale for soloist and players.

The Cantata is very much a piece of its time, a potent mix of angry polemic and naive optimism. This ‘protest music’ obviously resonates most strongly with listeners of like mind, but cynics might dismiss it as hopelessly idealistic, even quaint. Whatever your response Dunn and the Toronto-based Talisker Players deliver the work’s simple message with uncommon energy and conviction.

Skipping ahead 12 years to Transitions we are back in terra cognita. The ‘signature’ instrumental slides and percussive pulses are there in ‘Illumination’, aided and abetted by a strange, repetitive figure on the piano. There is a strong sense of music in flux, elastic even, stretching and contracting. It’s all very effective and the Ars Nova Ensemble Nuremberg – the visceral percussion especially – are vividly captured in a warm, vibrant acoustic.

Intriguingly ‘Mystical Plosives’ makes use of the nine-note scale invented by the Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977), with whom Coates studied for a time. This appears in the grotesque little march towards the end of this eruptive movement, which Gunn aptly describes as a ‘noise fest’. Equally quirky is ‘Dream Sequence’, in which Coates creates the effect of a cosmic string being tuned, surrounded by ecstatic bursts of light and colour.

This collection won’t please everyone – too radical for some, too tame for others – but inquisitive listeners will revel in a sound-world that positively explodes with imagination and brilliance. And how extraordinary that Coates, the most prolific female symphonist in history, is rarely heard outside the new music circuit. All credit to Naxos for bringing her work to a wider audience – it’s long overdue.

Dan Morgan 

 

 




 


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