James Francis BROWN (b. 1969)

Prospero’s Isle
Piano Quartet (2004) [17:03] (a)
Violin Sonata (2001, rev. 2003) [20:13] (b)
Prospero’s Isle (2006, rev. 2007) [14:32] (c)
String Trio (1996) [22:40] (d)
Tamás András (violin) (a); Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola) (a, d); Gemma Rosefield (cello) (a, c, d); Katya Apekisheva (piano) (a, b); Jack Liebeck (violin) (b, d); Nicola Eimer (piano) (c)
rec. 27-28 July 2008, Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Gwent, UK (a, b, c) and 17-18 November 2008, Henry Wood Hall, London (d). DDD
GUILD GMCD7354 [74:30]

Alan Mills, writing in the booklet, suggests that James Francis Brown’s work “will possibly remind some listeners of a certain type of mainstream English music in the 20th century – and composers such as Vaughan Williams, Ireland or even Finzi.” His essay also makes much of the fact that today’s composers are no longer afraid of writing tonal music. That said, and accepted, anyone expecting this composer’s music to sound like one of those evoked above is, I think, in for a surprise.

The earliest music on the disc is the String Trio from 1996. The composer evokes Beethoven in connection with this work, which features a short Beethoven quotation. Beethoven certainly comes to mind when one hears the strongly rhythmic opening theme played over constant, rushing semiquavers. Much of this first movement continues in this vigorous vein, though the second theme is calm and returns at the close. The second movement is a set of six variations, opening in sunny mood before clouds gather. The final variation returns to the mood of the opening. It is the shortest of the six, perhaps just too short to be as adequate a summing up as the composer probably intended. The work is nonetheless expertly written for the medium, with no dryness of texture, and the listener is eager to return to it.

The three-movement Violin Sonata begins with a dramatic and highly chromatic opening gesture from both instruments, leading to a series of contrasted episodes. The music, often beguilingly melodious, sometimes comes to a halt which one could take as the end of the movement, but then sets off again on another tack. The Presto requires virtuoso playing from both instrumentalists, and its central section, with repeated quavers in the violin part is strikingly lovely. The finale is one long song, restlessly moving towards what is, undoubtedly, a kind of resolution, the very end of the work being undeniably effective. The composer’s notes, however, tell us that the work was originally three separate pieces that became “increasingly related to each other” during composition. Striking, brilliantly written and often very beautiful though the music is, I think it shows.

The Piano Quartet opens with huge energy amid much hammering and sawing, expressions I use descriptively and with no pejorative intent. The second subject is in total contrast, and made me think of Tippett. Then there is a certain “busyness” to much of the music that might put the listener in mind of Hindemith. The musical language is skilfully employed throughout, often highly chromatic, yet moments of repose – and, in this case, the whole work – coming to rest on a simple major chord do not seem incongruous. The composer analyses the work, which is in a single movement, as a sonata form structure with an extended coda. One can hear the two “subjects” plainly enough, but there is much less sense of a development section, and very little feeling of arrival for the recapitulation, which in any event the composer says is “substantially reorganised and re-interpreted.” The musical ideas are striking and often beautiful, but I don’t always feel I know where I am in the piece, nor where the music is taking me. Nor do I think the rather splashy coda quite comes off, but all credit to Brown for not being afraid of writing a decisive close.

Of Prospero’s Isle, for cello and piano, the composer writes “…it was not exclusively the magical aspects of the play that attracted me, for The Tempest is also a study of power and mastery over people, events, even the very elements of nature. It is tempting as a composer to see parallels with the organisation and control over the elusive substance of music.” I confess to being somewhat allergic to this kind of stuff, as I also am to “Perhaps the characters of Prospero and Miranda are alluded to…” Either they are or they aren’t, and he should know. Having got that off my chest, let me turn to the music, which is no less impressive than that of the other three pieces. This work is the most tonal of the four, especially so at the outset where the composer profits from the rich sound of parallel sixths when played by a cello. The music is highly melodic, even in the more dramatic passages, and in spite of what the composer writes, is full of magical and beautiful sounds, mostly guaranteed to “give delight and hurt not”. At around the eight minute mark there is a forceful passage leading to an ardent melody for the cello accompanied by downward spread arpeggio chords on the piano; in such passages I tend to wish Brown would put less in, especially in the piano part which threatens to overwhelm the cello.

The booklet contains detailed information about each of the young players, and rightly so, as the performances are of remarkable virtuosity and conviction. They are clearly captivated by the music. Listeners will be too, for is spite of any slight reservations I might have, this collection of chamber pieces shows a composer of the utmost integrity, totally in command of the medium, with a voice of his own and an aural imagination to match. The disc is beautifully recorded and I recommend it warmly to any collector interested in the bewilderingly diverse world of contemporary music.

William Hedley

Four compelling and highly individual chamber works brilliantly performed by six outstanding young instrumentalists.