International’s Buxton Orr page
I had almost thought that the music of my one-time teacher at
the Guildhall School of Music, Buxton
Orr had sunk without a trace. True, Marco
Polo bravely brought out the Three Piano Trios in 1996 of
which the composer was rightly proud (York Piano Trio on 8.223842).
Some lighter, but no less interesting, pieces appeared on ASV
a disc called Scottish Light Music (White Line CD WHL 2123 review
nla) including Orr’s Celtic Suite (also on NYOS)
and his Fanfare and Processional. The John
Gay Suite was also brought out at this time. In 2003 Doyen
treated us to a collection of his wind band music. That seems
to be that, apart from some bits of film music. Well at least
we now have a really significant and rounded resumé of his music
for string combinations in superb performances and clear recordings.
The disc opens with Orr’s String Quartet No. 1 subtitled
Refrains IV. There are six such pieces with this title,
the last being for orchestra (1992). Quite simply, as the composer
explains, in each of the Refrains there is a recurrent
idea that is used to “bind together” a total structure. This
structure is normally one based around contrasting tempi and
using serial techniques with the row sounded right at the start.
In this case the row involves a series of overlapping major
and minor thirds announced as a sort of fanfare at the start.
Unusually, this is marked in the score, ‘Arditamente’ - this
is a pun as the first performers were the Arditti Quartet. This
is then calmly sustained in a Poco Tranquillo for the
last thirty or so bars.
One of Orr’s most brilliant technical successes was his ability
to write well-integrated and consistently interesting fast music.
After the brief introduction we are launched into an Allegro
Lirico, which sustains itself for about one hundred bars
before we collapse into a most affecting and sensitive Adagio.
I have not found Orr’s slow movements all that effective but
this most certainty is. There is then a Solenne which
lead into a Molto Vivace marked La Croma subito
piu mosso - again a lengthy fast section. There is a beautiful
Liberamente, which acts as a kind of cadenza - as the
score indicates - and uses some lovely harmonics in the upper
strings. Another Allegro creeps in and persists for
over a hundred bars before the calm and restful ending. The
thirds, always prominent, now make for a euphonious coda.
In the last years of his life Buxton and his wife Jean moved
to the lovely Welsh borderland of Herefordshire. I visited them
there and that is where he composed one of his last works, the
String Trio. It’s interesting how he continued to be
fascinated by notes and shapes and the whole ‘serial technique
thing’ right to the end. Exciting, faster music bookends a deeply
felt Andante Resoluto - not so resolute in this performance,
I feel. I remember the first performance in the lovely, quiet
village of Clun, just in Shropshire; the most unlikely of places.
Buxton was delighted especially by this slow movement. The opening
Adagio soon moves into an Allegro and the
finale is a taut and spicy Allegro Vivace.
I knew Buxton best in the mid-1970s when he was running what
were basically improvisation classes at the Guildhall. These
were mostly for post-graduate students such as myself. His interest
in improvisation was not simply because it was ‘the thing’ at
the time but because he was conducting the ‘London Jazz Composers’
Orchestra’ between 1970 and 1980. In other words he was dealing
with performers regularly and touring with people whose raison
d’être, as it were, was being creative on the spur of the
moment. One of the founder members was Barry Guy (b.1947) also
a Buxton pupil. It’s wonderful that Toccata has enlisted
Barry to be the bass player in the Duo for Baroque Violin
and String Bass along with Maya Homburger. Such an unlikely
string combination comes off really well and this despite the
fact that improvisation forms a distinctive element of the outer
movements of this brief work. The “twelve note row and its hexachord
derivatives” are used completely freely in the third movement
but the two players have structured it with fast and slow tempi
which makes it in fact feel un-improvised. The middle movement,
again to quote the composer “is intended to reflect the style
of a Baroque slow movement”. I feel that I have to take that
comment on trust, but in any case it’s a fascinating work.
Buxton Orr was a student and friend of Benjamin Frankel whose
opera Marching Song Orr completed after Frankel’s early
death in 1973; it was broadcast by the BBC in 1983 with Groves
conducting. Frankel’s stepson Dmitri Kennaway, himself a composer,
has written the programme notes for this CD and useful and helpful
they are too. He quotes the composer’s notes for the first performance
on the last work recorded here the String Quartet No. 2.
“… the opening phrase turned out to be not only a twelve-note
row but also one with hexachord properties”. I like that `’turned
out to be”. It reminds of a letter he sent to me in March 1995.
In response to a query about inspiration he wrote “increasingly
I am finding that my melodic ideas are actually tone-rows -
rather by accident”. From this row comes the entire opening
movement and from it the theme that constitutes the last movement
and its nine contrasting but brief variations. I can quite see
why Hans Keller felt uneasy about the piece, which originally
ended after what is effectively the third movement, a scherzo
yet the finale (the longest of the four movements) seems so
inevitable and considerable. That said, it’s the lonely second
movement, that steals the thunder and is the emotional highlight
of the entire CD. Marked Adagio, it sings and moves
lyrically across its tone rows and searching lines in a way
that is a considerable surprise and pleasure to me. The sound-world
reminds me of the Piano Trio No. 3 of 1990. It’s mellow and
with a touch of wistful yearning.
All of the performances are passionate, committed and of the
highest quality as is the recording which does not get between
the performers and the listeners. The music needs to be ‘Listened
to’ and, more than once. It is not fashionable, it does not
always come out to meet you half way but it is approachable
and emotional and has its own strong rewards.
The reason why the disc has taken over a decade to emerge, and
I do recall it being mentioned many years ago, is that the company
which originally recorded it lost interest and abandoned the
project. Well done Toccata for picking up these most valuable
Not fashionable, does not come out to meet you half way but
is approachable and emotional and has its own strong rewards.
Well done Toccata.