Stephen MCNEFF (b.1951)
Sinfonia (2007) [15:33]
Heiligenstadt (2005) [13:34]
Weathers (2007) [16:26]
Secret Destinations (2005) [18:48]
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Dominic Wheeler
rec. Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, 24-25 July 2012
World premiere recordings
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7301 [64:48]
The name and music of Stephen McNeff was new to me. He was born in
Belfast and grew up in South Wales. A product of the Royal Academy
of Music, he won his spurs with his music for theatre – a line he
pursued both in the UK and in Canada. He was the Bournemouth Symphony
Orchestra’s Composer in the House from 2005-2008. During this time
he wrote some 25 works for the orchestra and its progeny ensembles.
These four works derive from the clearly blessed period.
The Sinfonia is all fine pointillistic lyricism. It’s
McNeff’s meaty response to a request for a concert-opener. What he
delivered was a fifteen minute symphony in three movements. This sits
lightly on the listener’s mind – a diaphanously lacy, singing endearment.
It is in some measure a sort of companion to Prokofiev’s Classical
Heiligenstadt is made of sterner stuff and traces
its origins to a request from Marin Alsop – who, this year, will become
the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms – for a work
to precede Beethoven’s Fifth. It has elements of collage with Beethovenian
slivers and shrapnel inbuilt in collegiate synergy with McNeff’s often
slowly evolving cantilena. While not as densely intricate I was reminded
at times of Valentin Silvestrov’s Fifth Symphony.
Weathers is slightly longer than Sinfonia.
It is scored for choir and orchestra and is in five segments – one
for each of five Hardy poems. Its often jangling freshness, exuberant
hail-rattled and gloriously large-scale writing for massed voices
suggests links with William Mathias (This Worlde’s Joie),
Geoffrey Bush (A Summer Serenade) and a little with Britten’s
Spring Symphony. At Day Close in November comes
as a caressing emollient after the rush and rasp of She Hears
the Storm. The final poem Domicilium operates as a valedictory
sigh rather than as a great exclamation. The words are to be had as
from the Dutton site.
The final triptychal work is Secret Destinations -
a tombeau for the Cornish poet Charles Causley (1917-2003). The last
time I encountered Causley’s words in a musical context was with Michael
Head’s Cornish song-cycle, As I went down Zig-Zag. This McNeff
work is not a setting of the words but an evocation of the poet written
by a friend. Rushing the Stone Horizon is unruly with vitality
and hoarse with grandeur. It is riven with jazzy upheavals which also
carry over into the middle movement, Sfumato. Eden Rock
is the finale – it closes as in an unhurriedly unfolding phantasmal
dream with Causley touchingly reunited in death with his parents in
their ripe twenties picnicking beside the river. You can read the
The complementary notes are by Andrew Burn and supply us with useful
information to enrich the experience.
These world première recordings of McNeff’s bejewelled music are conducted
by Dominic Wheeler - a staunch advocate of McNeff’s music. The sound
is superbly put across by the Dutton engineers.