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
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
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
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.