Buxton ORR (1924-1997)
Chamber Music for Strings
String Quartet No. 1 (Refrains IV) (1997) [23.01]
Duo for Baroque Violin and String Bass (1994) [8.20]
String Trio (1996) [14.45]
String Quartet No. 2 (1995) [21.39]
Beethoven String Trio of London; Andrew Roberts (violin) Maya Homburger (baroque violin); Barry Guy (double bass)
rec. 21-22 August 2001, St. Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Berkshire; 27 March 2000, Orford Church, Suffolk
MusicWeb 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 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 pieces.
  Gary Higginson
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.