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Geoffrey BURGON (b. 1941)
Viola Concerto Ghosts of the Dance (2008) [20:32]
Merciless Beauty for mezzo and small orchestra (1996-97) [20:08]
Cello Concerto (2007) [22:01]
Sarah Connolly (mezzo); Philip Dukes (viola); Josephine Knight (cello)
City of London Sinfonia/Rumon Gamba
rec. Blackheath Halls, London, 29-30 September (concertos), 22 December 2009 (Merciless Beauty). DDD
premiere recording of concertos
CHANDOS CHAN10592 [62:43]

Experience Classicsonline
You might well know the name of British composer Geoffrey Burgon. He wrote the music for the classic BBC adaptation of John Le Carré’s subtle and very English spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That book is at the antipodes from the James Bond novels and Burgon’s choral score is as different from John Barry’s Bond film scores as the divide between the two authors’ writing styles. There are many other TV scores including The Chronicles of Narnia and the 1970s Brideshead Revisited (review review). Several including some concert music have been reviewed for this site: TV music; Forsyte Saga; and Cider with Rosie.

Burgon’s concert works (Requiem (Decca); Choral Music) are not encountered quite so often but those who followed the ASV label – said to be making a come-back - will know of CDDCA1059 which runs to 66:08 and offers composer-directed recordings of his Merciless Beauty; A Vision; The Calm and Voices from The Calm. The artists were James Bowman (counter-tenor), Neil Jenkins (tenor), Kenneth Sillito (violin), Mark David (trumpet), Hugh Webb (harp) and the City of London Sinfonia (as here) and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

Now along comes this luxuriously recorded and unapologetically ambitious Chandos disc presenting two recent Burgon concertos. With them, from a decade before the concertos, comes an alternatively-voiced Merciless Beauty. This time it comes with Sarah Connolly’s sable-toned mezzo rather than James Bowman’s counter-tenor from the ASV disc.

That Burgon’s career has jazz woven into and around it is also evident in the two concertos if not in Merciless Beauty. The sting, sway and tizz of drum-kit and alto sax is part of the fabric of the Viola Concerto which was written for and dedicated to Philip Dukes. It’s in three movements of which the first has a cool jazz bass and percussion underpinning over which the viola takes its accustomed course as the melancholy but not undynamic country singer. That pensive aspect is to the fore in the central movement before the drum-kit establishes a redolence with the dance marathons of 1930s USA: dance till you drop - last couple still dancing wins. Lots of transparently presented, clever and biting percussion amid the orchestral canvas partner the classic ochre-toned English pastoral element.

The anthologised song-cycle with orchestra is a standard format within English music. Merciless Beauty stands beside such masterworks as Geoffrey Bush’s Summer Serenade (Chandos CHAN8864) and Carey Blyton’s Lachrymae (Upbeat URCD179). And that’s without looking to Britten. Of the seven songs four are by Kit White. The first is The Western Wind which finds Connolly sturdy and steady of tone even when called on to soar. In The Letter to Anne Pregnant the rise and fall of the solo line resonates with the vocal writing in Holst’s Choral Symphony without being anywhere nears a luxuriantly frondy. Blake’s Rose has been set before – by Britten and most affectingly of all by Geoffrey Bush in Summer Serenade. Burgon’s has a concentrated incantatory quality. Tune for an Ice Cream Van is irresistible with its masterly progress swift and full of mercurial enchantment. It’s an enchanting song and its sudden delays and rushes sometimes recall the more clever moments in Sondheim. We return to incantation for Merciless Beauty – a Chaucer poem also set by RVW. Iron City Lover is short and quick-flowing. Its affecting simplicity is equivalent to that of another roundelay: the song in RVW’s Wenlock Edge cycle, Oh When I was in Love With You. The masterly Campionesque for Anna is a sensuous love song coasting transcendentally close to tears.

The Cello Concerto was written for the cellist Alexander Kok (b. 1923 and the brother of Felix Kok, for years Leader of the CBSO) but he had retired from playing by the time the work was complete. Josephine Knight is now its first champion. It takes its inspiration from black and white Film Noir – the same source that inspired John Adams’ recently premiered orchestral work Film Noir. A Nyman-style chugging pulse, deep down and suave, interacts subtly with the cello as it pads and sings. The genre includes Rozsa’s Brute Force and this work has some of that ruthless power and neon disillusion. The finale is extremely compelling with a strong theme atmospherically presented. Again the psychological locale is established by the acid-spit insistence of the drum-kit and by the romantic tendrils thrown out at 5:51. This is thoughtful writing: plangent, faintly minatory and gleaming in the reflected sun of Kodaly and Rozsa. Interesting that the two concertos each reference aspects the nostalgic popular culture of the USA.

For me all three works coast around the boundaries of night, sleep and dream. They have been most beautifully and lovingly recorded so that every skein and line can be heard. This is a tribute to Burgon, to the CLS principals and to the Chandos team.

I see, from Anthony Burton’s substantial liner-note, that Burgon has also written a full-scale opera based on Dickens’ Hard Times. That’s something we should hear as also his concertos for piano and for percussion.

Rob Barnett


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