Gavin BRYARS (b. 1943)
Three Canadian Songs (1998-2002)* [19:28]
Violin Concerto (2000)** [20:40]
The Porazzi Fragment (1999) [13:25]
By The Vaar (1987)*** [19:36]
Holly Cole (voice)*; Gwen Hoebig (violin)**; Gavin Bryars (double-bass solo)***
CBC Radio Orchestra/Owen Underhill


If you like your music sweet, low and melancholy, then Gavin Bryars’ Canadian-flavoured CD I Have Heard it Said that a Spirit Enters will fit the bill entirely.

The Three Canadian Songs, the first of which provides the title for the disc, were written for jazz vocalist Holly Cole. Her pleasantly dry and hazy tones deliver prose and poetry texts on nature both human and that of the ‘Planet Earth’, with threads of temptation, ecology and spiritual existence running through the cycle as a whole. Slow melodic lines, gradually shifting harmonies and subtly transforming instrumentation lend this cycle a feel of other worldliness which moves from jazz influence to something akin to Richard Strauss’ ‘Metamorphosen’ in The Apple, a reference which also appears more literally later on in the programme.

The Violin Concerto, subtitled “The Bulls of Bashan” is scored for violin solo and strings. The subtitle comes from an extract in a book on orchestration from 1914 by Cecil Forsyth, who humorously bemoans the distraction caused by an orchestra of strings reaching for their mutes. Bryars uses mutes for effects which involve some muted and other un-muted players, staggering their use as he says like a cross-fade in a recording. References to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons form elements in the piece, but the whole is not conceived as a virtuoso showpiece for original soloist Paul Manley. It is however something of an understated showpiece for the Primavera Chamber Orchestra, who would play this eloquently expressive but challenging kind of work without a conductor. Violinist Gwen Hoebig plays the extreme lyrical heights of register in the solo part over its warmly expressive accompaniment with elegant ease. The commission for the concerto links it to The Porazzi Fragment, also written for the Primavera Chamber Orchestra and marked as for 21 solo strings. The ‘fragment’ in this case is a 13 bar theme by Wagner, something he was toying with from about 1858-9 and again in 1882, reputed to be the music he was playing on the night he died. This music by Wagner appears towards the end of the piece, Bryars referencing the similar gesture used by Strauss in ‘Metamorphosen’, where Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony theme also emerges late in the work. The sonorities shared by both works are almost inevitable, though Bryars’ work doesn’t quite share the emotive turmoil of Strauss’ post-war anguish and intensity. What Bryars does create is a mood and feeling of abscheid, a kind of eternal and timeless drifting into the afterlife which, given the nature of the source material and its story, is to be expected.

By the Vaar was written as ‘an extended adagio’ for jazz bassist Charlie Haden, with an orchestra of strings, bass clarinet and percussion. Gavin Bryars himself takes the solo part here, referring to his own somewhat complex relationship with jazz music and performing in the booklet notes. With the solo part plucked throughout there is a kind of contradictory feel between what should be a kind of concerto of double-bass, and what ends up sounding like an over-long bass solo - carrying on endlessly, as if “he’s the one with the car” and therefore has to be indulged. This may have something to do with Bryars’ playing, which is adequate for the most part, but which lacks sustain in the sound and is frequently somewhat vague when it comes to intonation. He is playing on someone else’s instrument as the CD credits indicate, but I remain only half convinced. The recording is rather strange sounding as well, as if the solo part had been dubbed on after the orchestra had been recorded, or with the bass in its own rather boomy little acoustic cabin.

At nearly 75 minutes of nicely crafted music played by the excellent CBC Radio Orchestra this is a worthwhile disc. The constant slow’n low feel to almost all of the music is not designed to be particularly uplifting if you are looking for something to cheer you up on a rainy afternoon when the cat’s just died, but with Gavin Bryars’ solid feel for effective and atmospheric orchestration and ear for refined harmonic nuance and elusively attractive melodic shape, you know you’re in for a quality listen.

Dominy Clements

Slow’n low.… see Full Review