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Geoffrey BURGON (1941-2010)
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

I suppose that it’s not surprising that a man best known by ‘Joe public’ as the composer of television scores should be inspired by ‘film noir’ movies in the writing of a Cello Concerto. As I listened images were, in an almost childlike way, easily conjured up. That was before I read the revealing booklet notes by Anthony Burton. The first movement has the cellist in a film “being hunted and pursued through the dark forest on a rainy winter night” to quote the composer and Burton goes on to talk about the “running semi-quavers”. In the second movement Burgon says the strings and harp “provide a threatening forest”. Later the “hero” (the cellist) is joined by the “heroine”, a solo violin, and “the pursued is finally released and enters into a lush ‘Hollywood’ heaven”. I hope however that this does not put you off. Despite all said above this is not film music but a coherent symphonic score, magically orchestrated and logical. Josephine Knight who advised the composer on some of the cello writing plays with conviction and a wonderful tone and it’s hard to imagine a better rendition.
Geoffrey Burgon was a student at the ‘Guildhall School of Music’ first as a trumpeter but also as a composer under Peter Wishart who died too young. Sadly, Wishart is now a little known figure but he was a fine composer whom I remember myself being a benign and yet strong influence at the RCM in the 1970s. Wishart stressed compositional logic and integrity and allowed the pupil to discover his or her own voice without inhibition.
I first came across Geoffrey Burgon by chance in 1976 when I was Director of Music at a school in Gloucestershire which the BBC had chosen for the filming of sections of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ for which Burgon wrote an unforgettable score. The boys in my choir were asked to be a part of it and we were almost the first to meet the now famous ‘Nunc Dimittis’ with the boy soloist and, aptly, a solo trumpet. In the end a more ‘professional’ set of boys was used for the final soundtrack but the originality and beauty of that setting has left its mark. Burgon went on to write the score for ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ and, before that, the wonderful ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and no doubt much else. This does not however prove that he is only a film composer. This CD attempts to redress the balance in favour of his concert music which is so important to him.
Composers who enjoy writing concertos must have within them a sense of theatre and drama and a good visual awareness. The Viola Concerto subtitled ‘Ghosts of the Dance’ has just those traits. From the moment it starts you feel a strong sense of early jazz. The booklet notes tell us that the composer thought that the “caramel sound” of the viola “suggested an affinity with smooth American dance music of the 1930s and ’40s.” To make this even clearer Burgon adds pizzicato basses throughout, an alto saxophone and asks the trumpets to use the multifarious jazz mutes available. The movements consist of three dances; a picture is again painted of “a small-town dance hall in the depression” with a “marathon dance competition in which the winners are the last couple standing”. I was reminded of the dance scene in the 1970s film ‘Grease’ or even the ‘Dance at the Gym’ from ‘West Side Story - not only the scene but the music also, especially, the big-band sounds in the third movement. Sometimes there is even a touch of a Stravinskian Russian ballet about the sound-world. The middle movement the composer thinks of as a ‘Tango’. I don’t feel quite so positive about its form and mood as for the outer ones. The work was written for Philip Dukes and first played in the summer of 2009. What a fine player he is and what a mellow and ‘caramel’ sound he produces. He blends with whatever the orchestration throws at him.
Burgon has apparently made the writing of song-cycles quite a speciality although, I am ashamed to say, this is the first time I have come across one. Again this is obviously reflects an element of the dramatic and pictorial which obviously appeals to the composer’s psyche. So as a bridge between the concertos comes Merciless Beauty for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. Originally written for counter-tenor, Burgon was apparently very pleased to have the clear and delectable Sarah Connolly to contrast with James Bowman as the cycle’s first performer. The orchestration is quite magical at times and Burgon adds a soprano saxophone which is especially noticeable at times.
The cycle consists of seven settings of poems on the subject of Love in all its joys and disappointments. Four of the settings: numbers 2 (Letter to Anna - pregnant), 4 (Tune for an Ice Cream Van - featuring the sax), 6 (Iron City Love Song) and 7 (Campionesque for Anna –Thomas Campion being the Elizabethan who wrote poetry and music for himself to perform) are settings of poems by Kit Wright (born 1944). The remaining poems seem to me to be chosen rather at random. With so many poems to chose from the ones Burgon has picked do not seem to relate to the Wright poems except in a general sort of way.
The cycle opens with an unmemorable setting of the sixteenth century text ‘Western Wind’. Poem 3 is ‘Blake’s ‘Sick Rose’ and poem 5 is a rather weak setting of Chaucer’s ‘Merciless Beauty’ which gives the cycle its name. I can’t help but feel that the work would have had so much more focus if the composer had stuck with one poet. Kit Wright’s style and imagination perfectly match Burgon’s own language. Perhaps he could have kept the remaining songs for another occasion. The last section, the Campionesque text, is utterly beautiful in all aspects and made me fall quite silent for a good moment entranced as I was by the orchestration. The melodic line, although never especially demanding and often lying within a small range, is enchanting. Simply and eloquently conceived throughout these songs must be most gratifying to sing.
The City of London Sinfonia under Rumon Gamba, whose quick-learning and expertise in unfamiliar repertoire is a wonder in itself, are superb as is the recording which is up to Chandos’s usually impeccably high standard.

Gary Higginson

See also review from Rob Barnett



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