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Stephen MCNEFF (b.1951)
Orchestral Music
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 Orchestras 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. Its McNeffs 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 listeners mind a diaphanously lacy, singing endearment. It is in some measure a sort of companion to Prokofievs Classical Symphony.
 
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 Beethovens Fifth. It has elements of collage with Beethovenian slivers and shrapnel inbuilt in collegiate synergy with McNeffs often slowly evolving cantilena. While not as densely intricate I was reminded at times of Valentin Silvestrovs 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 Worldes Joie), Geoffrey Bush (A Summer Serenade) and a little with Brittens 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 a download 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 Causleys words in a musical context was with Michael Heads 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 poem here.
 
The complementary notes are by Andrew Burn and supply us with useful information to enrich the experience.
 
These world premire recordings of McNeffs bejewelled music are conducted by Dominic Wheeler - a staunch advocate of McNeffs music. The sound is superbly put across by the Dutton engineers. 

Rob Barnett