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Robert MORAN (b. 1937)
Da Enstünde ein Engel (2006) [8.52]
Cortège (2005) [7.11]
Elegy for a Young King (1999) [8.39]
(1995) [9.28]
Obrigado (1995) [4.02]
Stirling: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs (2007) [15.42]
Kboco (2006) [10.01]
Processional (2005) [2.36]
Grassauer Bläserensemble/Alexander Herrmann (Cortège); Chrismos Vocal Ensemble, Grassauer Bläserensemble/Alexander Herrmann (Engel)
rec. Ingolstadt Dom, Bavaria, 17 March 2007
Robert Ridgell (organ) (Elegy, Processional) rec. Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York, May 2008
Latvian Radio Choir/Otto Hotarek, Fritz Neumeyer, Tomas Brantner (Mantra)
rec. location not given, 1997
Iowa Percussion
rec. Clapp Recital Hall, University of Iowa, December 2006 (Kboco), 2007 (Obrigado) and April 2008 (Stirling)
INNOVA 714 [66.00]



Experience Classicsonline

For readers as unfamiliar with the name Robert Moran as I was, he was born in Denver and studied with Milhaud, Berio and others. Whilst teaching composition at the San Francisco Conservatory, he composed Thirty-nine Minutes for Thirty-nine Autos:

“… his first city-work for the entire area of San Francisco, incorporating 100,000 performers, 2 radio stations, 1 tv station, 30 skyscrapers, 6 airplanes, dance ensembles in the streets, etc. Because of the success of this work, his second city-work, Hallelujah, was commissioned and premiered using 75,000 performers in the city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, April 1971. The entire musical forces of this city were incorporated into the sound-texture, based upon various tunes of the Moravian settlers of that location.”

He has held composer-in-residence posts in West Berlin and elsewhere. His musical style incorporates elements of that of the American minimalists, but his extensive catalogue of works suggests that he spreads his net quite widely. The above quote is taken from his website, where more information is available, though it badly needs updating.

Wanting to hear the works in chronological order of composition, I began with Mantra. It was a dispiriting start, but I persevered, and I encourage readers to persevere with this review! The booklet notes, some of which seem to have been written by the composer, tell us only that: “Mantra (1995) is composed for three choruses, at great distances from each other, no text. This live recording comes from the 1997 Latvian Radio Chorus concert …” The work itself is dramatic, with much repetition of syllables and vowels, the music continuous and with the choirs often outlining quite recognisably tonal chords. It is all uniformly loud, but the texture becomes less busy with more held notes in the second half of the work. There is a brutal fade-out at the end, presumably to delete the applause. The work put me in mind of the music of Meredith Monk. It might well have given pleasure, but the recording is grotesquely bad to the point that the music’s merit is impossible to assess. There is no sense of the spatial separation mentioned in the notes, and there are a few coughs startlingly close. An unprepared listener, presented with the final minutes of this recording, might not even be sure it was unaccompanied choral music. The choir, one of the finest in the world, seems to sing with conviction, but it’s impossible to tell, really. I tried three times in all, to no avail I’m afraid.

What a relief, then, to turn to Obrigado, and a recording which allows the listener actually to hear what happens in the music. And what happens in this short work for four percussion players and piano is both interesting and pleasant, if undemanding. Constant quaver movement is employed, mainly on mallet instruments, with some triplet movement brought in shortly before the end. It is essentially tonal music and the work ends abruptly, and rather unconvincingly, with a (possibly humorous) perfect cadence. It was written to celebrate twenty-five years’ residence of the Kennedy Centre in New York by the National Symphony Orchestra. “Obrigado” means “thank you” in Portuguese.

Elegy for a Young King is a piece for organ “with the possible addition of ‘variable’ instruments.” The king in question is the eccentric Ludwig II of Bavaria, familiar to music-lovers as a patron of Wagner, and who died, possibly murdered, in 1886 at the age of forty. As its title suggests, the work is reflective. The notes tell us that the score “is a basic harmonic structure allowing the soloist (and others) to semi-improvise. The duration is open.” Not having seen a score I don’t know how much of what we hear is Moran and how much is the organist, Robert Ridgell. It opens with a series of simple chords as if it might be the parish church organist improvising as the congregation shuffles back after Communion. The music rises slightly in intensity in the second half, with some thickening of the texture and even a few irregular, shorter note-values brought in, but the mood is only briefly disturbed and four valedictory bell strokes signal the end of the work. This is an effective and affecting piece.

No less successful is Processional, another organ piece, written for the wedding of Robert Ridgell, who plays it on this recording. It begins with a brilliant flourish suggesting a Widor Toccata clone, but this is soon transformed into a noble march, rather baroque in character, full of double-dotted rhythms which, in spite of the organ’s tendency to thick texture and heavy bass, contrives to be both serious and joyful. To my surprise it turned out to be one of those pieces which stay naggingly in the mind all day; even when I thought I’d succeeded in turning to something else, there it was again. I should think the organist was both delighted and moved by this short work.

With Cortège a further piece is added to the jigsaw picture of this composer. Hugely sonorous chords from the brass ensemble open the work in a sound-world resembling that of Hindemith. It is dissonant though basically diatonic and again, rather thick in texture. The title evokes some kind of slow-moving procession, but though the music is certainly slow there is little in the way of pulse and therefore not much notion of movement at all. It is fortunate that the tempo is so slow, as I don’t think I have ever heard a recording in such a resonant acoustic, though it has been well managed and the work itself was clearly conceived with that kind of acoustic in mind. It is both satisfying and brilliantly written for brass.

At the same concert was given the world premiere of the slow-moving diatonic Da enstünde ein Engel. For four-part choir, brass and organ, on a short and impenetrably philosophical text by Meister Eckhart, this is convincing and again stays in the mind long after it is over.

Kboco is also for percussion ensemble, and like Obrigado the continuous quaver ostinato is first interrupted by the addition of triplets. This is virtuoso percussion writing, and the performance and recording cannot be faulted. However, in spite of two gentler passages and a well-managed and dramatic finish, the material is not strong enough to support a piece of this length. One is not surprised to read that it was originally intended to be an accompaniment to dance. “Kboco” is the name of a Brazilian graffiti artist the composer particularly admires.

The most recent work on the disc is also the longest and, arguably, the most successful. Stirling: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs was commissioned by neighbours who were friends of the composer and whose dog was called Stirling. For eighteen percussion players, it is a rain piece. To quote the insert notes: “The sound of the rain is not a ‘background color’ but an integral sound-event from start to finish.” The rain does indeed fall throughout, uncannily so at certain moments, such as the opening, where, I imagine, we are listening to Amazonian rain sticks. Other instruments include the didgeridoo, thunder-sheets – frighteningly realistic – and “one wine glass (partially filled with whatever)”. The piece is beguiling, superbly contrived and controlled. I found it totally convincing.

There is a wide range of style and content in the works on this disc. Mantra was disappointing, so the rest was an unexpected pleasure. There is nothing to frighten the horses here, but it is very out of the ordinary. Will appeal to those with jaded palates or adventurous tastes.

William Hedley



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