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Stephen GARDNER (b.1958)
Never... Never... Never... (2003) [19:36]
Lament (2009) [21:48]
Hallelujah (2003) [16:55]
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Gerhard Markson; Gavin Maloney
rec. National Concert Hall, Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin, 2004, 2008, 2009.
RTE LYRIC FM CD141 [58:19] 

Belfast-born Stephen Gardner studied music at the Universities of Ulster and Wales from 1984 to 1990. His catalogue so far is sizeable and substantial. More about the composer and his music may be gathered from his own website, as well as from that of the Irish Contemporary Music Centre. He has composed in many genres so far and this new instalment in RTÉ's invaluable series of composer portraits provides an opportunity to hear three fairly recent and substantial orchestral works. 

Never... Never... Never..., completed in 2003 is a portrait of Ian Paisley triggered - curiously enough - by the triptych Three Screaming Popes by Francis Bacon. The composer “wondered what Bacon's take on 'Big Ian' Paisley would be”. He concluded that the piece is “a musical interpretation of an imaginary painting”. The piece falls roughly into two sections played without a break. The work opens with an almost static section of somewhat menacing power that slowly gathers intensity when other instruments introduce more animated material. The music unfolds by way of a layering process. Layers of different density pile upon each other sustaining a slow, constantly ominous pace. The music nevertheless pauses to allow for the accumulated tension to ease away a bit. The brass introduce a section which is clearly less static, more aggressive, almost warlike by comparison with the first one. Again the various episodes eventually create an irrepressible tension released by a formidable duet played by the snare drums, an effect not unlike a similar episode in Carl Nielsen's Fifth Symphony. This rushes the music toward its emphatic conclusion: a siren call from the trumpet over a slowly fading pedal note. 

Lament for string orchestra was composed in memory of the composer's niece Sharonah. Although rather more concentrated than Never... Never... Never... this deeply moving and strongly expressive elegy is obviously from the same pen. Here too the music unfolds slowly throughout in dense carpets of sound moving stepwise up and down marked by long-held notes , thus creating a rather dense counterpoint. The music, however, is much too intense to be regarded as Minimalist in any way. The tension is hardly relieved at all and there is no denying the grief as well as the sense of loss that has triggered such gripping and often beautiful music. 

Stephen Gardner is obviously an artist showing much concern for what is or has been going on around him at any time. The large-scale Hallelujah was written “in response to the invasion of Iraq in 2003”. So, again, this is highly dynamic, often tense and loud music, the whole displaying - as it does in the other pieces recorded here - a real flair for telling orchestral and instrumental gestures. The problem with works such as this one is to succeed in keeping the music going without getting lost in by-ways. Gardner's orchestral mastery is such that he succeeds most of the time conveying as he does a number of contrasted moods. These proceed from the ominous opening down in the depths to various episodes in which the music opens up, most remarkably with a beautiful 'song' for cor anglais over a muted counterpoint in the strings. Then other instruments join in: menacing low brass always threatening to drown the other instruments, some eerie percussion and panicking woodwind, all suggesting the impending conflict. After some fairly animated episodes the music eventually fades back into silence. Hallelujah is yet another impressive achievement and a powerful statement although I for one find it a tad too long for its own good. 

What comes clearly through here is that Stephen Gardner is a most distinguished composer who has things to say and who knows how to say them best. In this he is undoubtedly aided by a remarkable orchestral flair. Some, however, might find his music a bit single-minded in its relentless intensity, as displayed in these three works but taken each at one time these superbly crafted works cannot fail to impress through their unquestionable sincerity and honesty. 

These superb performances and recordings are simply first rank and serve the music in the best possible way. RTÉ's Composers of Ireland series of which this is already Volume 7 goes from strength to strength and I am looking forward to hearing more of it. 

Hubert Culot
 
And another review ...

This is more in the nature of a personal note to supplement Hubert’s more substantial review.
 
In Never... Never... Never... a sense of catastrophe hangs in the air. The episodes Gardner tracks through are impressive. There’s a humming continuum of sound with bells, deep bass notes and an abrasive angularity through which as marching song cuts through. This recedes and is supplanted by a mysterious wonderland of quiet music still buzzing though not with such high tension more a restful glimmer à la Hovhaness. The work closes with a return to the first section but now more clamorous and belligerent. A side drum beats out in fury but the rushing and shouting subsides into a high piping iterative cell sound on which the work expires.
 
Lament is nicely planned as a centrepiece of the disc. Its rising murmur of sound proceeds at an evolutionary pace which develops into a writhing bed of layered intensity. This fades down a steady gradient into music that is deeply baritonal and almost luscious. Penderecki meets Pärt’s Cantus.  

Hallelujah is a response to the invasion of Iraq. Again we encounter that quiet tension. Here there is a feeling of forces on the move, of gears and transmissions grinding remorselessly. Some relief is offered by woodwind and celesta interjections before that anxious Pendereckian buzzing returns. At 6:28 there are eldritch flute sounds and braying brass. There’s a cruelty raspingly explicit in this writing. Ultimately the music finds a quietude that is overcast and far from comforting.
 
Gardner can be tough going but that is to be expected when he is drawn to such demanding subjects.
 
The disc is well documented and the recordings are good at dealing with writing that is both spectacular and confiding.
 
Rob Barnett 


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