Jenny McLEOD(b.1941) The Emperor and the Nightingale, for narrator and orchestra
(1985) [27:56] Three Celebrations, for orchestra (1983/2010) [17:33] Rock Concerto, for piano and orchestra (1985) [21:54]
Helen Medlyn (narrator)
Eugene Albulescu (piano)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Uwe Grodd
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 28-30 July
NAXOS 8.572671 [67:35]
New Zealander Jenny McLeod studied in the 1960s under her country's most celebrated composer Douglas Lilburn. This was followed by periods with Messiaen and Stockhausen. All of which, it should be said, has virtually no bearing on McLeod's music as featured on this CD. This comes from the later writer of film and TV scores and music-theatre "spectaculars" for schools and amateurs. As the notes put it, these works are "the music of a composer who for a time refused to 'grow up', declaring that writing and performing music should be 'enjoyable'. Though poignant touches can be found, those in search of something deeper and darker must look elsewhere in her work."
The most memorable item by far is the headliner flamboyantly illustrated - but clearly not with a nightingale! - on the front cover. It is Peter-and-the-Wolf-like in many respects: colourful, straightforward, optimistic - ideal for the younger listeners it was written for, and adding a considerable dimension to Andersen's instructive and ultimately uplifting fairy tale. In fact, though McLeod's music cannot be said to be the equal of Prokofiev's, it is so beguilingly fitted to the story that this work deserves to stand alongside Peter and the Wolf as a genuine children's classic. The tale is entertainingly, and never in an affected way, told by the mild-accented New Zealander Helen Medlyn. She describes herself as a "jill of all trades" - a current website of hers even offers her services as a "registered independent marriage celebrant"! The full spoken text is thoughtfully included in the booklet.
The Three Celebrations were commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra to celebrate their 40th anniversary in 1986; so say the notes. The booklet also gives the date of composition as 1983, suggestive of a minor misprint somewhere. Either way, the NZSO must have been slightly disappointed, at least by the glitzy final movement, which sounds like something a TV soundtrack hack might have come up with in that decade. Fortunately McLeod permits the movements to be played independently, allowing the first one, 'Journey Through Mountain Parklands', light and breezily modest without being hollow, a chance to prosper separately.
The Rock Concerto is not as dubious as the title perhaps suggests. It started life as a Rock Sonata, but on soloist Eugene Albulescu's suggestion McLeod revised and re-scored it. The first of its three movements is entitled 'To Distant Friends', which is presumably a reference to the great composers of yore. What they would have made of this is hard to tell - certainly it does not stand up or in any sense measure against, say, Beethoven's or Liszt's concertos. Nevertheless, its treacly tunes, simple harmonies, jaunty rhythms and assorted clichés will please the many who are happy to relegate their music listening to a background distraction. Again, each movement may be performed independently. In smaller doses, happily, the Concerto becomes more palatable.
The NZSO have now made dozens of recordings for Naxos, including two important volumes of Lilburn's orchestral music (review, review), but only a couple previously under Grodd, who is nonetheless no newcomer to Naxos, having appeared on numerous occasions as both conductor and flautist, the latter on a CD of Van(hal's flute quartets (review) or very recently performing some of Haydn's trios (8.572667). Neither conductor nor orchestra are overly taxed by McLeod's unassuming scores, but their performances are entirely creditable. US-based Kiwi pianist of Romanian descent Eugene Albulescu, in his first recording for Naxos, has considerably more to do in the Concerto, but comes out on top; it is his taste, not his technique, that may be questioned!
Sound quality is very good, slightly marred by the misjudged pruning of the final milliseconds of the first movement of the Rock Concerto - reverberating instruments are instantaneously reduced to digital silence by a zealous editor. The booklet is slim but has plenty of detail.
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