Gavin BRYARS (b.1943)
Epilogue from Wonderlawn (1994) [7:49]
Eight Irish Madrigals (2004) [26:49]
The Church Closest to the Sea (2007) [15:18]
Susan Hamilton (soprano); Nicholas Mulroy (tenor); Rick Standley (double-bass); Mr McFall’s Chamber
rec. 12-13 January 2009, St Mary’s Parsdih Church, Haddington. DDD
DELPHIAN DCD 34058 [50:02]
One thing you can depend on with Gavin Bryars is that there is nothing that you can depend on in his music. After thirty years, or so, of listening, with great pleasure, to his music, he can always surprise and delight me. His new Piano Concerto, The Solway Canal, premiered as recently as February this year, in Utrecht, was full of the most unexpected things – not least, the appearance of a male voice chorus - surely only the third such scoring, after the Piano Concertos of Busoni and Alan Bush. That he can wrong foot us is evident from the first work recorded here – Epilogue from Wonderlawn. Wonderlawn was a full evening dance piece, of which this is the final section in a new(ish) instrumentation - which was slightly variable anyway. Superficially, it appears to be a Bach prelude slowed down and played over a rich string background, what it really is, is a dreamscape of a piece, hypnotic and trancelike. The very essence of much of Bryars’s best work.
The Irish Madrigals set words of Petrarch in translations by J M Synge - he of The Playboy of the Western World fame. But are they madrigals? A madrigal, we are told, is a type of secular vocal music composition. Throughout most of its history it was polyphonic and unaccompanied by instruments, with the number of voices varying from two to eight, but most frequently three to six. However, the voice parts could be performed by instruments should there be insufficient singers. Bryars has created a suite of pieces for two voices, with a quintet of two violas and cellos and bass. But are they madrigals? Certainly not, in the accepted sense of the word, they are more like miniature operatic scenas (let’s not forget that Bryars has written three operas) or duets. Whatever they really are, they are full of good things, not least a rich, vibrant and dynamic lyricism, which floats high over an opulent string texture; despite the darker string voices employed, the music is always colourful and the scoring clear. This is not an easy listen but as one learns the various twists and turns of the music there is much to enjoy and admire.
The Church Closest to the Sea, written for piano quintet, bass and percussion is a meditation on the 750 year old St Monan’s Church, which stands on the rocks by the Firth of Forth, on Scotland’s east coast. Here the bass (Bryars’s own instrument) has a semi soloistic role, pizzicato throughout, as the other instruments weave their spellbinding way round, through, over and under one another. For me, this is Bryars at his very best.
Over the years, Bryars’s music has become richer and more romantic in outlook, whilst retaining a foothold in the experimental arena. This new disk is a very good example of where Bryars stands now, always moving forwards, never happy in standing still. He is one of the few composers for whom a “style” – that is an easily recognisable and stable voice of his own – is something found then never moved away from except to enrich the sound and musical experience. Always seeking new sonorities and means of expression, Bryars is one of the most interesting and exciting composers at work today. This disk isn’t an easy listen, but it is a very worthwhile one and the time spent with it can only enrich your life.

Bob Briggs
Bryars at his very best … see Full Review