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In the Shadow of War
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Schelomo, Hebrew Rhapsody (1916) [21:22]
FRANK BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Oration, Concerto Elegiaco (1930) [29:11]
Stephen HOUGH (b. 1961)
The Loneliest Wilderness (2005) [16:09]
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Hugo Wolff (Bloch/Bridge)
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Gabor Takacs-Nagy (piano) (Hough)
rec. January 2012, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, Germany (Bloch/Bridge); November 2009, Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland (Hough). DDD
BIS BIS-SACD-1992 [67:40]  

Stephen Hough is best known as a pianist, perhaps the finest British performer on the international scene. I have enjoyed his own compositions whenever I have encountered them, such as his quirky Suite Osmanthus and his two charming Valses Enigmatiques. His music is always communicative and finely wrought and this was the principal reason I asked to review this disc. 

It strikes me that Hough’s recent piece The Loneliest Wilderness - inspired by Herbert Read’s poem “My Company” - marks a considerable step forward in his compositional career; this is undeniably poignant, logically paced and lucidly scored, and it carries a real sense of emotional conviction. There may be some critics who will carp about whether the style of this music is bang up to date, but surely this is missing the point. The critical issue here is whether Hough has something to say and the means with which to say it. I believe that the answer to both these questions is a resounding “yes”.
The work evolves at a very leisurely pace, yet doesn’t seem a note too long. There is a strong feeling of space and this, in addition to the clear orchestration, means that every gesture really “tells”. A sizeable proportion of contemporary composers should learn from this example as so many new pieces still suffer from an excess of notes. Stylistically, this music is extremely individual - recognisably English, certainly, yet never drawing excessively from any one composer. It has a kind of late-Elgarian sensibility with maybe a hint of Richard Strauss in some of the lusher moments. Nevertheless, when all things are considered, the style is unquestionably Stephen Hough. Many listeners will buy this disc for the Bloch and Bridge pieces, but they will find this new work stands up very well in such illustrious company.
Bloch’s famous Schelomo is given a superb performance, with Isserlis on inspired form. This is music that can seem overblown in the wrong hands, but here everything goes marvellously, aided by outstandingly clear sonics. BIS are justly famed for the quality of their recorded sound and this Hybrid disc - which plays on both CD and SACD players - is outstanding even by their own high standards. The sumptuous orchestration of Bloch’s war-inspired masterpiece emerges here in impressive style; the delicately scored sections are as well captured by the microphones as the fuller textured passages. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin play marvellously under the direction of Hugo Wolff and this interpretation is to be preferred to Isserlis’s previous version (Virgin 561490-2).
Frank Bridge’s Oration is perhaps his greatest orchestral work; it is certainly his most personal statement and enshrines his despair at the futility of war. It is fascinating to compare this work with other British works of the same period. Bax’s Third Symphony closes with a slow Epilogue, as does the Bridge work, yet its mood could not be more dissimilar. With Bax, there is a sense of complete closure. The Bridge ends quietly, but this certainly does not mean that the emotional issues are resolved. Elgar’s Third Symphony (as realised by Anthony Payne) is roughly contemporary and is, rather surprisingly, closer to the Bridge in outlook than the Bax; it certainly shares some of the darker qualities of Oration. Britten’s later Sinfonia da Requiem has a strikingly similar ending to the Bridge work.
Isserlis clearly loves this wonderful piece. He has recorded it before, with Richard Hickox (EMI 505916-2), in tandem with the rather less inspired Britten Cello Symphony. There is not much to choose between both his versions; each is special in its own way. The deliberately grotesque march sections might have more incisiveness in the earlier version, but the extraordinarily tender Epilogue is more fully realised in this new performance.
If the Bloch and Hough works appeal, this is the version of the Bridge to go for. It is quite an experience.
This is an outstanding disc of glorious music, superbly played and recorded. The notes by Steven Isserlis are very perceptive and make some particularly interesting remarks about Oration.  

David Jennings