Julian ANDERSON (b. 1967)
Fantasias (2009) [24:28]
The Crazed Moon (1997) [13:54]
The Discovery of Heaven (2012) [20:50]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (moon, fantasias), Ryan Wigglesworth (Heaven)
Rec. live, 19 March 2011 (moon); 3 December 2011 (fantasias); 24 March 2012, Royal Festival Hall, London (Heaven)
LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA LPO-0074 [59:12]
I asked to review this disc, even though the contents lie outside my normal comfort zones, partly for that reason. I’d also been impressed by some of the pieces on a previous disc devoted to the music of Julian Anderson (review).
The three performances recorded here stem from Anderson’s appointment, since 2010, as the LPO’s Composer in Residence although only one of the three works, The Discovery of Heaven, is a direct result of that appointment. That piece was commissioned by the orchestra and the performance preserved on this disc is its première. Fantasias was a Cleveland Orchestra commission and this is its first recording. The Crazed Moon has already appeared on another all-Anderson CD, which I have not heard, conducted by Oliver Knussen (review).
Fantasias is cast in five fairly short movements - the longest is the last which plays for just over seven minutes. The first is for brass alone; the writing is very arresting and complex: is the music celebratory? The composer describes it in his notes as ‘fast, athletic and polyrhythmic’. The second movement, which introduces the rest of the orchestra, seems to me to pick up from the abrupt ending of its predecessor. Anderson says that the music ‘is deliberately unstable: every few bars it changes direction abruptly.’ I must confess I couldn’t always detect these changes in direction; perhaps that’s because the orchestral textures are so often very busy. The third movement struck me as being slightly at odds with the composer’s description. There are a great many darting, flickering, fanfare-like motifs on woodwind and some brass; these are heard atop slow-moving lines for strings. Anderson refers to the fanfares as being ‘strangely distant’. Maybe he’s meaning the impression this material should give but I have to say that the motifs seem very ‘present’ to me. The performance radiates assurance but I just wonder if the playing is too loud - or is too closely recorded. The music, at least as I hear it, doesn’t seem to sit with the marking Dolcissimo notturno, nor with Anderson’s description of it as ‘a meditative nocturne in several layers’. The fourth movement, which is much the shortest, is fast, busy and, perhaps, aggressive. In the final movement we are told that ideas from the previous movements are recalled but I think one would need a pretty deep knowledge of the score and/or a very keen ear to pick up the references to previous ideas.
That, it seems to me, is the trouble with Fantasias. It’s a very bright, colourful score but it’s almost profligate in that it consists of so very many notes. I find, reverting for a moment to the above comment about the fifth movement, that when the work has ended you can’t remember any details - just the overall impression - and that’s precisely because it contains so much detail. It’s a teeming score and one that displays virtuoso confidence in writing for the orchestra, but is it a good piece? I simply don’t know.
The Crazed Moon derives its title from some lines by W. B. Yeats and was prompted also by a lunar eclipse that occurred in 1996. Another inspiration, albeit a very sad one, was the sudden death at the age of just 24 of a friend and fellow composer. The music, which is cast in a single movement, is conceived on a large scale; it’s imposing and slow-moving. Once again, Anderson’s writing is full of colour, albeit the colours are more darkly hued than those of Fantasias. He writes with confidence and imagination for a large orchestra.
The Discovery of Heaven has two starting points. One is the ancient Japanese gagaku music - though Anderson is quick to say that he has made no attempt to imitate gagaku. The other is a novel of the same name by a Dutch author, Harry Mulisch (1927-2010). Anderson describes the novel as ‘a wild, almost out of control epic of a book’ and I mean no disrespect at all in saying that in some ways his piece seems to mirror that description. The music often has wildness to it; it can seem to be verging on the uncontrolled - though I’m sure everything is tightly controlled; and, although it lasts for about a quarter of the length of, say, some Mahler symphonies, its scale does seem epic in some ways. It’s in three sections, the last two of which play without a break. The score, which Anderson says is not programmatic, contains many intriguing sonorities. One which has stayed with me is a passage in the second section (track 8 from 4:32) in which the dominant idea is a jaunty unison duet between piccolo and bass clarinet. The scoring is colourful and imaginative throughout and at that level it’s a fascinating, sometimes gripping listen. However, I was left with a nagging doubt: if the music is not programmatic then where is it leading? Is what we’re hearing in fact illustrative music which is just in - and of - the moment? The composer handles the orchestra with great assurance and imagination, especially in the last two sections, but I had feelings similar to those aroused byFantasias: is the music just too full of incident and detail for its own good? I was very interested to find, but only after I’d typed up this review, that the performance itself was reviewed for Seen and Heard by Christopher Gunning, himself a composer, and that his reactions - on a single hearing - were not too dissimilar to mine.
However, though I have reservations about these works - reservations of comprehension on my part - I have reflected that one hundred years ago the symphonies of Mahler must have seemed strange and over-endowed with detail - and also requiring considerable rehearsal time to master their myriad difficulties. Nowadays, we are entirely comfortable with those scores. Perhaps in 2114 we shall feel the same about scores such as these three by Anderson. Some people are already at ease with them: if you want a corrective to my stance I refer you to the review of this disc by Richard Whitehouse in the January 2014 issue of International Record Review.
These are three complex and demanding score but they are delivered with great assurance and expertise by the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski and Ryan Wigglesworth. The LPO deserve praise not just for the conviction of their performances here but also for their enterprise in issuing on their own label not just this disc but also several previous ones of contemporary music.
Admirers of Julian Anderson’s music will find it well served here.