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CD: Crotchet

Daniel TOSI (b.1953)
Horizons Chimériques - Suite pour vielle à roué et orchestre (2008) [65:09]
Dominique Regef (vielle)
La Camerata de France/Daniel Tosi
rec. live, 12 October 2008, palais du rois de Majorque de Perpignan.
SOLSTICE SOCD255 [65:09]
Experience Classicsonline

Another new name to me, Daniel Tosi is both composer and conductor of some considerable reputation, having already obtained the Prix de Rome and the Georges Enesco and Claude Arrieu prizes awarded by the SACEM. He has directed the Perpignan Mediterranean Conservatoire since 1989.

I have kept the French nomenclature in the heading, but should note that a vielle à roué is nothing more or less than what we know as a hurdy-gurdy. This is a remarkable medieval instrument with a circular ‘bow’ which drives its resonating strings, some of which can be played with keys to obtain different notes. The use of ancient instruments to create new sonorities in contemporary music has been going on for ages, and a healthy collaboration between the departments of early music and composition in conservatoires is often actively encouraged in a comparable spirit of research and experimentation.

Daniel Tosi was asked to write this piece on behalf of the hurdy-gurdy player who performs it here, Dominique Regef. The composer notes that “the score was conceived to enable the hurdy-gurdy player, [orchestral] strings and percussion to develop their trajectory in limitless landscapes.” The title refers to the work of a poet, Jean de La Ville de Mirmont. The piece is divided into nine sections, half of which deal with the composer’s individual memory - ‘roms’, and “the sounds of the planet, accentuated, demonised and excessively melodicised” - ‘rucks’.

The result is a high degree of contrast and unity within quite a substantial piece. Without the notes I might have interpreted these ‘roms’ and ‘rucks’ in entirely the wrong, opposite way. The opening ‘rom’ brings us in through diffuse, spacey noises of light abrasion over the strings of the hurdy-gurdy, creating peeps and overtone honks which strain to be unleashed. The strings of the orchestra undulate and throw in little shafts of sound - something which might be descriptive of cosmic chaos as much as nascent memory. The first ‘ruck’ is Michael Nymanesque march - great fun, but with an air of cheesy banality which would conjure more for me the repetitive desires and run-of-the-mill thoughts of the human brain when allowed to its own devices rather than “the sounds of the planet.” Never mind - the oompah basses are refreshingly tonal and the hurdy-gurdy is allowed to soar over the top like an electric guitar at times. Following these ‘rucks’ and we get the development of this kind of ‘excessive melodicisation’, the second making the hurdy-gurdy sound like a kind of Chinese folk instrument, with plunky percussion heightening the effect. The third makes it sound more like Scottish bagpipes, skirling through a Purcell/Nyman funeral procession. This converts into a bizarre waltz, with the hurdy-gurdy playing a rhythmic musette on the drone strings before briefly taking over the solo melody. Other variations develop a variety of rhythmic accompaniments in the strings, allowing the soloist to develop improvisational lines. I’m not such a fan of some of the laboured chugging which goes on in ruck 5 for instance, and I fear the novelty begins to wear a bit thin by the second half or last third of the piece - depending on your tolerance for this kind of thing, especially after having a credibility shock from the sheer awfulness of the ‘happy-tune’ theme in ruck 7.

I might be doing the piece a disservice by chopping it up like this, but it is almost like dealing with two separate works. The ‘rom’ sections explore more experimental aspects of both the solo instrument and the orchestra. The less natural scraping sounds in the hurdy-gurdy often form a background of rough texture, the strings are sometimes freed from tonality and rhythmic stability though not always, percussion emphasises beat or adds colour. Moods can vary from the almost frenetic in rom 4, which finishes with an impressive but all too short hurdy-gurdy cadenza, fugal sounding strings in a number of ‘roms’ which always give considerable energy to the music, and a cinematic feel of mystery or threat all over the place.

The live recording of this piece is good enough, but not without clearly audible effects of some kind of compression or limiting during the biggest tuttis. The performance also appears to be very strong, although there is also a sense of strings being pushed to the limits in terms of some of the more exposed moments of tricky rhythm and intonation. I love the distinctive, pungent tones of the hurdy-gurdy and admire the way in which Tosi has incorporated the old and the new, giving both equal status. I also like the way the hurdy-gurdy is allowed to transform its sound to a certain extent, suggesting other instruments as previously mentioned. I do however have a strong feeling that, at over an hour, this piece is too long for its own good. I would have dearly loved to have more extended solos from the hurdy-gurdy and some more refinement in the composition - where the yearning intonation of the solo instrument might have been set against less busily cataclysmic or blockbuster orchestral writing. The chopped sectional ‘suite’ nature of the music doesn’t help in terms of its staying power, and the sheer banality of some of the music is more expressive of a kind of incessant madness rather than the ‘stroll’ through different influences which the composer describes in his notes. Call me boringly conventional, but three movements of the best ideas, better integrated and more strikingly developed, would have made for a more effective concerto in my opinion, rather than spinning it out into an over-filled plateful like the ones you greedily make for yourself at the salad buffet in Pizza Hut or La Place. Nearly 3 minutes of applause at the end shows a nice enthusiastic response to the live experience, but isn’t fruitful listening. This is a fascinating set of sounds and an intriguing new work for an unusual combination, but to me lacks the magic its intention suggests it might have achieved.

Dominy Clements 



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