Ronald Corp's name is probably more familiar as conductor rather
than composer, although a fair amount of his choral music, which
he often writes for children's choirs, has appeared on CD, and
last year Dutton released a disc of Corp's orchestral music
- see review.
This release by Naxos features Corp as composer of possibly the world's first eco-string quartet! Subtitled 'The Bustard', the First Quartet is dedicated to the Great Bustard Group, a project formed in 1998 to aid the reintroduction into the UK of the great bustard.
In his liner-notes, Corp says that his original notion was to write a "theme for bustards everywhere", but the idea took off, as indeed does the bustard in the quartet's first movement. In the end, each section became loosely a musical depiction of the bird or its habitat - from the evocation of Salisbury Plain in the second movement to the galliard-like gait of the bird in the finale.
The result is not especially profound, but the music is immediately attractive in its unmistakably English grandeur, particularly the twilit open countryside of the second movement. The great bustard is not the most elegant bird in the air - it is probably the heaviest flighted bird in the world - not the largest, as Corp states in his notes - the condor and great albatross both have much bigger wingspans. There is a fitting element of light comedy to the music of the Scherzo third movement, which, like the first, portrays the bird in flight. The first movement itself certainly has the apposite soaring theme, but there is also a sense in the music that the bustard is having to work hard to keep its great weight airborne. The last movement depicts the mannered gait of the bird with a three-minute long repetitive galliard theme which moves into a more energetic section, before the work is brought to a satisfying end with ideas from the first movement.
The First Quartet was premiered in 2008 by the Maggini Quartet, and the positive effect it had on audiences encouraged Corp to write a sister work, the Second Quartet, which opens with a motif that seems to be borrowed from the First. There are, in fact, numerous points of similarity between this work and The Bustard; Corp writes that the Second Quartet "shares the overall sound world of Quartet no.1 and that was intentional - there seemed so much more to say." If anything, the Second Quartet is more adventurous than the First, with slightly darker writing and more elaboration of ideas - though only actually three minutes longer, it feels bigger and bolder, the last two movements especially. On the other hand, the music is still very straightforward, with relatively little or brief counterpoint or dissonance, for example. Corp dedicates the piece simply to "a baby boy called Sacha".
Country Matters is another work for string quartet, but this time with added tenor voice, for seven settings of poems by Steve Mainwaring, a boyhood friend of Corp's. This is a much earlier work - the premiere took place in 1972. Corp describes the poems as "variously poignant and riotously outrageous and [which] occasionally invoke [sic] the Somerset area around Wells in which Steve and I grew up." Those are a friend's words - in truth the poems are self-evidently the work of a twenty-year-old, and are twee at best, doggerel at their worst. But what Corp does with them is another matter altogether.
In many instances tenor Mark Wilde must recite the poems using sprechstimme. The first song, 'I Heard They Were Opening the Zoo', and the fourth, 'Don't Go Into the Kitchen, Mum' are very much in the style of Walton's Façade, but all the songs have sections that are spoken to varying degrees over Corp's atmospheric music, and to good effect. The sixth song, 'Come Into the Garden', an eco-lament of sorts, is entirely spoken, and very well done by Wilde. Corp's quartet writing is fittingly wistful, pensive and nicely understated, whereas his vocal lines are adroit and imaginative, effectively lifting the poems into a higher artistic plane.
Recording quality is excellent. As well as the usual information, the booklet - possibly marking a return to older, better ways for Naxos? - provides the full song texts. There’s no need to download from their website.