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Recordings of the Month


From Ocean’s Floor


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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Mark-Anthony TURNAGE (b.1960)
From the Wreckage [15:52]*
Speranza [39:48]
Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet) *
London Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. live, February 2013, Barbican, London
LSO LIVE LSO0744 SACD [55:40]

It says a lot about the LSO’s commitment to new music that they not only commissioned Mark-Anthony Turnage to write Speranza but that they also saw fit to record and commercially release its first performance. It’s a substantial four-movement work — a symphony, I wonder — which the booklet notes describe as "Turnage's most ambitious and symphonic composition for orchestra to date” and demonstrating “a cyclical rigour". It’s inspired by the verse of Paul Celan, who himself used German poetry as a way of understanding the Holocaust. Each movement has the title of “hope” in a different language — Arabic, German, Gaelic and Hebrew — an act which itself speaks of addressing conflicts in differently troubled corners of the world.
The opening shudder of the first movement gives way to a meandering theme on the strings that I found quite Mahlerian. Its introspective nature seems constantly to turn in on itself. This later gives way to a more turbulent central section and a mysterious ending. The second movement features a prominent part for Armenian duduk - showcasing the most obvious of the work's many folk tunes - which spins a wry, chromatic but attractive melody. This is meanwhile punctuated by strained chords and sinister sounding thuds on drums. It’s the closest thing the work has to a slow movement but is predominantly anguished and tortured at times. The third movement brings the Scherzo, a jumpy, rhythmically vigorous movement that has aspects of dance to it, as well as some brash dynamic contrasts. I liked the way fragments of theme seem to bounce - almost literally - around the different sections of the orchestra. The central section sounds fairly angry. There is a slightly crazy jazz feel to the final section but there is an overall sense of jagged energy to the rhythm. The finale then has a dark, mysterious opening with solo strings and percussion providing almost gamelan-like textures. A keening cor anglais then introduces a slow, thoughtful section that sounds as though it is meditating on the nature of something profound — the hope of the title, perhaps. Parts of this movement sound almost cinematic in scope, and I wondered if this was the heart of the work. An element of threat then breaks in around the 7-minute mark but subsides fairly quickly to return to the thoughtful atmosphere of the opening. The ending was rather static and, to me, a little anticlimactic, seeming to stop rather than end; maybe that was the point.
To me, Speranza showcases Turnage's feeling for an idea. This does not necessarily translate into something readily comprehensible as his structures and melodies can be challenging at times. However, it also shows his flair for orchestral colour and using widely varying textures to establish and work through his musical argument.
From the Wreckage, meanwhile, is as close as Turnage has come to a trumpet concerto. It is played here by the trumpeter for whom he wrote the work. It has a mysterious, edgy opening with frightened sounds emanating from strings and brass. The trumpet seems at first to be picking its way over a bomb site or a wasteland, its notes disjointed and disconnected, with no sense of a melody and little sense of connection of any kind. The music eventually works its way up to a more lively, if still fairly anguished section wherein trumpet engages more actively with the orchestra and formulates something approaching a dialogue for the first time in the work. A more jazzy atmosphere takes over around the halfway mark. This gives way to a section that is more edgy but also more confident than the previous material. The ending uses bells, gentle percussion and fuller, longer notes from the trumpet to suggest some sort of resolution, or should that be accommodation. The trumpet’s role is fairly subsidiary when compared to that of a regular concerto – in fact, it barely rises that far above the general orchestral texture – but Hardenberger plays with clarity and his integration within the orchestra’s texture comes across very well.
With nothing to compare it to, it’s difficult to comment on how well the orchestra play the music. Suffice to say that the playing is committed and thorough. It is also captured in very successful sound. Daniel Harding does his best with the rather tricky structural problems that each work presents and, while this disc is likely to have a rather specialist appeal, the manageable price should help encourage people to explore it.
Simon Thompson

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