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Jeffrey RYAN (b. 1962)
The linearity of light (2003) [11.24]
Equilateral (2007)* [23:54]
Symphony No 1 Fugitive colours (2006) [33:55]
*Gryphon Trio
Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/Bramwell Tovey
rec. Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 2-4 February and 4-6 October 2008 and 3 June 2010

Experience Classicsonline

Two of the three works here are concerned with light and colour. The four movements of the symphony Fugitive colours also have titles which are visually inspired: Intarsia (a knitting weave), Nocturne: Magenta, Light: Fast and Viridian. The association of music with light and colour has long been recognised as a legitimate phenomenon, although it has never been possible to produce a convincing link: Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov both itemised schedules of associations between different keys and different colours, but failed to agree on what these associations were. In any event this is not tonal music even in the sense understood by Scriabin, and the descriptive titles therefore would appear to be more a guide to images than anything more specifically identified with the term “synaesthesia”. As such comparison of Jeffrey Ryan’s first symphony would appear to be with Bliss’s Colour Symphony, where the names of colours are employed for their archetypal connotations, or with the lengthy series of works entitled by the names of various colours produced by Michael Torke.
That is not to say that Ryan’s music is not sometimes very tonal indeed. In the passage connecting the third movement to the fourth movement in the symphony Fugitive colours he employs a brazenly diatonic scale rising up through the orchestra from the depths to the heights. This is a technique much associated with the romantic composers, and is usually employed either to lead to a massive climax - as in the return of the opening theme in the Science section of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra - or to provide dramatic contrast by means of a sudden anticlimax - as in the passage of the same composer’s Alpine Symphony just before the thunderstorm. Ryan does neither here. The rising scale continues ever upwards and then just moves on into the next movement; the movements of the symphony are continuous. No climax, no anticlimax. This unfortunately becomes part of the problem with this symphony. It is all very efficient, it is all very fine, it is superbly orchestrated, it sounds fun to play (if difficult), and it is extremely well performed and recorded; but it doesn’t seem to have any real purpose. When the composer says at the end of his booklet notes that “the music fades into nothingness” one does not feel that any journey has been accomplished. The shorter piece The linearity of light is cut from very much the same mould, but has a more precise sense of purpose.
The triple concerto Equilateral suffers from different problems. The combination of the medium of the piano trio with the symphony orchestra is always a difficult one, as Beethoven demonstrated two centuries ago. Here Ryan uses the piano trio sometimes in partnership and sometimes in opposition to the larger body of sound in two compact fast outer movements which frame a much longer slow movement entitled Points of contact. Here the three players are each featured independently in what is effectively a very prolonged series of solo unaccompanied cadenzas. The composer says that he derives his inspiration from texts by Rimbaud and from the Mourner’s Kaddish which are paraphrased orchestrally, but since we are not given the words of these texts it is impossible to judge how far he has succeeded. All that remains is a series of what sounds like improvised passages by the soloists, in which the persistent microtonal slides by the violin give the constantly nagging feeling that the whole movement is drifting out of tune; the piano cadenza which follows comes as a reassurance.
Ryan was composer in residence and then composer laureate with the Vancouver orchestra during the period 2002 to 2009, and this disc records three works which were the result of that relationship. Such appointments mirror the system of artistic patronage which existed pre-eminently in the eighteenth century, where Haydn and many of his contemporaries had long-term relationships with particular bodies of musicians. They fulfil a valuable role today in allowing composers to develop their style in collaboration with sympathetic and talented players; but as in the case of Haydn’s contemporaries the resulting productions can produce an element of note-spinning, creation of new works just to satisfy the demands of the relationship. One fears that some element of this feeling arises here.
On the other hand, both the playing and the recording are superlative and all that one could possibly wish. One gets the feeling that the players under the ever-sympathetic Tovey respond to this music and appreciate the skill that has gone into its creation, even if the final spark is ultimately lacking. One must congratulate Naxos on their indefatigable exploration of classical music across the globe which has now expanded northward from an impressive American series to embrace Canada; and one hopes that future issues will prove more revelatory.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

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