It’s a somewhat salutary experience for someone who
likes to think that they know quite a lot about music to be
presented with a disc as fine as this by a prolific composer
of whom I have never even heard the name let alone a note. If
the price of being able to hear it is to feel rather humbled
... I'm happy for the humbling!
The name of New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie was new to
me, as indeed I expect it will be to many in the Northern Hemisphere.
That being the case, this disc would seem to act as an excellent
calling-card for his orchestral music at least. I say ‘at
least’ because Ritchie is clearly a prolific composer
having passed the Op.150 barrier with the Third Symphony recorded
here and going strong. Apparently the two earlier symphonies
have also been committed to disc - Kiwi Pacific CD SLD-115 -
but I am not aware if that has been reviewed on this site. If
not, on the strength of this disc they richly deserve attention.
Importantly for a composer new to an audience this is a disc
which serves him very well - a dynamic and committed New Zealand
Symphony Orchestra play with all the energy and attack this
eventful music demands. They in turn are served by a recording
that conveys plenty of body and power as well as detail.
The disc opens - sensibly - with an instantly appealing overture
A Bugle will do. This work celebrates more than commemorates
the achievements of New Zealand’s most famous war hero,
Sir Charles Upham. By all accounts he was a naturally modest
man so when, some years before his death, it was suggested that
he would merit a state funeral his reply was that “a bugle
will do”. Ritchie cleverly writes music that fuses celebration
with elements of militaristic drum-taps within a web of cross-hatched
rhythms that one quickly realises is very much part of the Ritchie
signature style. This is wholly accessible music, flamboyant
and exciting, similar in spirit if not musical vocabulary to
Morton Gould when he wrote in a more serious vein. The structure
of the work is very simple with two fast passages flanking a
central panel of remembrance which has more of the sense of
a funeral cortège. As a musical work it stands comfortably
alone but for those who understand the significance of its dedicatee
its music will have especial resonance.
The disc’s main work comes next - Ritchie’s Third
Symphony. The composer has contributed the somewhat brief liner-note
to the disc from which I quote; “The symphony is a
portrayal of two sides of human personality represented by the
two movements of the work. The music depicts the struggle to
find a balance between the positive and negative elements in
life …. The first movement “Up” is very active,
busy and vibrant in character …. By contrast the second
movement “Down” is slow and mournful for much of
the movement. If Up is associated with the sun, then Down is
associated with Saturn.”
The resulting piece is a well-proportioned two movement work
with the driving percussive “Up” sustaining momentum
through nearly all of its thirteen minutes and the corresponding
near seventeen minute “Down” exploring a variety
of tempi within a realm of darker, more questioning music. My
initial - by definition superficial - impression is that the
second movement is where the heart and substance of the work
resides. Perhaps the first movement had to exist because of
the second and as such it feels a little less impressive. That
said, the first movement is remarkable for the sheer compositional
act of writing so much music of unwavering velocity. Yet for
all the energy and sense of purpose it contains I find it strangely
devoid of emotion - perhaps deliberately so. This does not seem
to be joyful or angry energy - just speed, dare one say, for
speed's sake. If there is a larger part for log-drums in the
symphonic repertoire I do not know it! It’s a movement
that impresses rather than moves. Certainly, that is an impression
reinforced by the much more engaging and emotionally complex
"Down". Here Ritchie explores a range of emotions via varying
tempi with occasional backward glances to the athletic energy
and thematic content of the companion movement. I should point
out that this work was named "Winner of ‘The Supreme Achievement
Award’ by The Listener magazine in New Zealand (2010)"
- likewise this disc as a whole is/was a shortlisted finalist
for Classical CD of the Year (in New Zealand one presumes).
After the rigours of the Symphony another occasional Overture
provides an excellent diversion before the closing work. The
simply titled French Overture is no more or less than
an attempt to write a baroque style French Overture - think
the Bach Orchestral suites or the Handel Water Music
Overture - but in the idiom of the late 20th Century. There
is no programme, the orchestration nods in the direction of
the baroque template with limited wind, trumpets and horns with
timpani the only percussion. For any chamber orchestra looking
for just such a curtain-raiser I think this is a bit of a winner.
I was surprised, looking back, to realise that it lasts a substantial
sixteen minutes - certainly it does not feel that long. It is
packed full of interest and bustling contrapuntal writing framed
either end with a suitably pomposo opening and closing
section replete with timpani roulades and swaggering horns.
Great fun to play too judging by the commitment of the orchestra.
Also, one hears the quality of the engineering with the generous
acoustic of the Wellington Town Hall giving a real burnish and
sparkle to the heraldic passages and a richness to the tutti
orchestra. This is a simple honest piece of absolute music -
no message, no heart-searching just pleasure taken in the act
of finely wrought composition.
Much as I enjoyed - in differing ways - the first three works,
it is the final work Revelations that I have found myself
thinking of unbidden. Ritchie explains its genesis thus: "What
happens to us after we die? This fundamental question has haunted
human imagination for thousands of years. Many recorded accounts
of ‘near-death’ experiences from all over the world
provide evidence that human consciousness remains active in
the time immediately following death. These independent accounts
describe similar events: the person (or ‘spirit’)
floating above their dead body, the appearance of a great light,
being told to go back, and so on.
In 1959, Gina Baxter-Leipolot underwent an emergency operation,
was in a coma for three days, and was not expected to recover.
During this time she had a ‘near-death’ experience
in which she was drifting above a Mediterranean coastline. She
heard music, such as the “velvet sound of violins, underbroken
by a sound like mandolins” and “a humming sound,
building up in force like thunder”. Gina remembered the
music after she recovered from the coma and twelve years later
she wrote the music down in a basic form, with the help of a
retired music examiner, John Chew. She called the music ‘Revelations’”.
Ritchie has taken that as really no more than a point of departure.
There seems to be a clear narrative in this work. It opens with
a great cry of mortal pain and the opening lurches its way through
a morass of suffering. In many ways it struck me as a modern-day
reconceptualising of Strauss's Death and Transfiguration.
After some four minutes of groping upwards the music enters
an extended fugato passage. I use the word fugato pointedly
- in the original sense of flight - this really does feel like
music casting off shackles and breaking free and thereby exulting
in the freedom that now supplants the burdens so recently experienced.
Again, the sense of gaining height is palpable until the clouds
are burst through. There are two flurries of fanfares before
Ritchie disarmingly incorporates the actual dream-music written
by Baxter-Leipolot scored for celesta and harp. After the dissonant
energy that precedes it the naivety of the melody - somewhere
between a Malcolm Arnold English Dance and a Godfather
theme - is an undoubted but highly effective musical shock.
Gradually more instruments take up this haltingly simple theme
before (again quoting Ritchie) “the piece is rounded
off by a blaze of light. To quote Gina: “Don’t be
afraid of death.”All of which is achieved in
less than eleven minutes of music. This is a highly impressive
work on every level and one that deserves far greater dissemination.
Thus far in this review I have very carefully avoided any dreaded
"sounds like ... reminds me of ...." analogies. This is for
the very simple reason that Ritchie is his own man. There are
times when musical gestures inhabit a similar territory - interestingly
Britten sprang to mind more than once - the Peter Grimes
Passacaglia and the Sinfonia da Requiem as well as
the desolate landscape of a Shostakovich Symphony but it is
important to stress that Ritchie possesses his own compelling
personality. Interestingly Ritchie took a Ph.D. based on the
study of Bartók (what aspect his website does not elaborate)
but that is a composer whose sound is singularly absent from
Ritchie's compositional voice. It is a voice both richly individual
and utterly absorbing. The icing on the cake are Ritchie's own
notes although oddly nowhere on either the disc or his own website
is there a date of birth - or indeed much biographical information
- so I hope that Wikipedia can be trusted in this instance!
A hugely enjoyable and rewarding disc of a composer well worth