Gavin Bryars’ music tends not to deal in opacity. It can loop,
gaining reserves of emotional response through repetition –
the most obvious example is Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me
Yet – and it can allude, but it doesn’t obfuscate.
But Bryars has cast his net widely over the years and we should
welcome evidence of his versatility. This latest disc includes
two works for solo piano and his Piano Concerto, titled The
Solway Canal. After Handel’s Vesper was written in
1995, originally for the harpsichord, but is heard here in a
sanctioned version for piano. The calm start leads to more dynamic
writing which casts off the air of relatively static post-minimalist
writing. It embodies, to a degree, the kind of freedoms to be
found in a fantasia, a feeling that is, for me, intensified
at 8:40 when a sudden trill and simple figure announces the
emergence of more explicitly baroque-leaning affiliations.
The title of his next solo piano piece, Ramble on Cortona,
sets up Graingeresque expectations, but these aren’t wholly
met. This is the composer’s only work originally conceived for
solo piano, and bases its themes on Laude, a recent vocal
work of his. These in turn derive from thirteenth century Italian
music in manuscripts found in Cortona. Slow and meditative,
it’s flecked with ghostly ascending treble steps. But one senses
too the impress of Spanish textures as the music slowly speeds
up in its journey. It casts something of a spell, as it’s quietly
The Concerto (The Solway Canal) was also written in 2010.
It sets poems by the Scot Edwin Morgan whose death last year
was either the catalyst for the setting, or a coincidence –
we’re not told which. This isn’t, and one would not expect it
to be given it’s Bryars, in any sense a traditional cut-and-thrust
Piano Concerto. Here the solo voice is interwoven into the music’s
textures. One might think that the Busoni Piano Concerto – which
has a chorus too – is a spur, but if so it’s only in the vaguest
of terms and I would prefer to think of that work only as a
precedent. The work is wistful, often romantic and without flourish,
and again deeply intimate in reach.
The Ramble and Concerto are both dedicated to the highly able
soloist in this recording, Ralph van Raat, who shows every sign
of becoming a Bryars muse of the first order.
see also review by John