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Gavin BRYARS (b. 1943)
Double Bass Concerto (Farewell to St. Petersburg) (2002) [28:17]
Memento (2008) [2:51]
Silva Caledonia (2006) [5:42]
Toivo TULEV (b. 1958)
O Oriens (2005) [11:47]
The Summons (2008) [6:28]
Ian in the Broch (2008) [9:19]
Daniel Nix (double bass); Baiber Berke (mezzo: Tulev), Mareks Lobe (baritone: Ian in the Broch); Estonian National Male Choir, Pärnu Town Orchestra/Kaspars Putnins
rec. February 2008, Methodist Church, Talinn, Tulev, November 2007.
Experience Classicsonline

There is something in Gavin Bryars’ music which brings out the nostalgic in me. This isn’t only to do with his often slow and atmospheric moods. I came across his work by chance, finding my LP copy of the 1986 ECM album ‘Three Viennese Dancers’ priced down from £7.29 to £3.99 (Sale! Sale!) in a Bristol record shop about 23 years ago, in the last days of my life in the UK before moving to Europe. The slow chimes and elegiac horn and strings suited my sentimental mental wanderings perfectly, and now, finding I’ve spent half my entire life over here, it seems Farewell to St. Petersburg might have come to haunt me in some other new and yet to be discovered phase.

ECM did well for Bryars, but he has also been doing great things recently with his own label, GB Records. The Double Bass Concerto is a richly sonorous score which clothes and supports the lonely voice of the solo instrument in a warm safety net of rumbling drums, low winds and strings, and on occasion a chorus of bass voices. About a third of the way in the bass solo rises, being given a set of fine melodic phrases over a gentle ostinato accompaniment. Signature bells and ringing percussion provide sparkle and mystery over the relatively low textures, but uncomplicated progressions and major/minor relationships means that the ear can follow what is going on, even though the depths are lower than those we are more used to hearing. As Bryars comments in his own booklet notes, the piece is not intended as a virtuoso showpiece, but knowing myself the precarious nature of real bass instruments when asked to perform as soloists, I can only say Daniel Nix plays superbly well, with virtually no hint of intonation-strain. The double-bass does vanish into the volume of the fuller orchestral/choral passages, but when audible the expressive solo lines are admirable. This natural sound perspective is welcome, and I am glad the soloist wasn’t spotlit beyond comfort. The closing moments are very beautiful indeed, and this is a powerful piece which deserves a repertoire place in the sparsely enough populated double bass canon of concerti.

The remaining choral pieces on this disc are sung with the stunningly rich voices of the Estonian National Male Choir. All of these works make something of a dour first impression, slow and darkly mournful, but closer listening reveals plenty of intriguing harmonic shifts and a surprisingly wide vocal range. Fans of very low East European voices will find much to enjoy here, with a low G# being reached in The Summons. The texts by Scottish poet Edwin Morgan are printed in the booklet along with all the other sung texts on the disc, and Bryars’ music fits their mood hand in glove: “The darkness deepens, and the woods are long...”

There is no information about the composer himself in the booklet, but the Estonian Toivo Tulev has been a student of Gregorian chant and a member of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, so he knows how to write for this medium. Tukev writes of O Oriens that the text comes from a cycle of Magnificat antiphons from the period of Advent. The hidden meaning of the words is intriguing, and is also used by the composer to create an enigmatic work full of portentous symbolic-sounding resonance. Towards the end of the work this dark atmosphere momentarily unfolds into more visionary harmonies, but in the end it doesn’t seem as if baby Jesus will be receiving a joyous welcome from this particular quarter.

The final piece in the programme brings back the double bass, playing along with low strings, the male choir, and a solo baritone voice. Ian in the Broch is a poem by another Scottish poet George Bruce. Romantic, almost sentimental melodic expression characterises this piece, and with the intention to programme it alongside the similarly scored ‘Gesang der geister über den Wassen’ by Schubert, this is not entirely unexpected or inappropriate.

This is not a disc which will relieve any inclination towards depressive introspection, but is certainly full enough with rich treasures to warrant a recommendation. It brought to my mind a quote from Byron: “Farewell! if ever fondest prayer / For other’s weal availed on high, Mine will not all be lost in air / But waft thy name beyond the sky.” Farewell indeed. If it brings out that kind of mood in your normally sanguine and buoyant reviewer, then you might glean a little of what to expect.

Dominy Clements 


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