Edward GREGSON (b. 1945)
Dream Song (2010) [20:47]
Horn Concerto (1971, orchestral version 2013) [17:21]a
Aztec Dances (2013) [17:34]b
Concerto for Orchestra (1983, rev. 1989 and 2001) [18:47]
Wissam Boustany (flute)b; Richard Watkins (horn)a
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Bramwell Tovey
rec. MediaCity UK, Salford, 17-18 December 2013
CHANDOS CHAN10822 [74:55]
Edward Gregson's music has already been fairly well served as far as recordings are concerned. His works for brass or for wind band as well as a goodly slice of his orchestral output are now generously represented. This release is actually the fourth issued by Chandos entirely devoted to his orchestral music. The earlier issues are CHAN10478, CHAN10105 and CHAN10627.
The earliest work here, the Horn Concerto of 1971, was composed to a commission by the British Federation of Brass Bands. The composer chose then to write it for Ifor James who was then well-known both as a virtuoso horn player and a musician much involved in the world of brass bands (see Doyen reviews here and here). The work thus gained popularity among horn players who repeated teased Gregson to make an orchestral version, which he eventually did in 2013. He scored it for what he describes as “a late Haydn-sized orchestra with the addition of wind doublings and a percussionist for further colour”. However, the composer remained faithful to the original music text. The music of this early work already displays a remarkable instrumental flair and unfolds with consummate ease. Some 'influences' may certainly be spotted here and there but the music is already very much Gregson's own as heard in many of his later works. The Horn Concerto is a splendid work full of energy in the outer movements and of virile lyricism in the slow movement. It is thus to be hoped that horn players will now be quick to seize upon it in its orchestral guise.
The Concerto for Orchestra has already been recorded by ClassicO as part of their British Symphonic Collection. That very disc grouped Gregson's works with Hoddinott's and McCabe's own Concertos for Orchestra (ClassicO CLASSCD 384). Later, this recording as well as most other releases in that were re-issued in a 10 CD-set (Membran 233316). So I may best refer anyone to either of these earlier reviews for details concerning Gregson's Concerto for Orchestra. Suffice to say that it went through several revisions before reaching its final form. It started as Greenwich Dances and was commissioned in 1983 to create a showpiece for the graduate students of the National Centre for Orchestral Studies. Six years later it was revised as Contrasts for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Finally it underwent a further – and probably last – revision in 2001 for its first recording: that by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Douglas Bostock and released as part of ClassicO's British Symphonic Collection. Incidentally the title “Contrasts” had been retained then but seems to have been dropped now. One inevitably thinks of the many concertos for orchestra composed during the twentieth century by the likes of Hindemith, Kodaly, Bartók and Petrassi. It is a clearly symphonic structure albeit allowing for some display episodes either for solo instrument or groups of instruments. Although the earlier title of the work (“Contrasts”) perfectly conveys the impression left by the piece as a whole, the music is nevertheless strictly controlled and worked-out. Gregson's Concerto for Orchestra is one of his finest achievements so far.
Dream Song was one of the six orchestral works commissioned by the BBC to be performed by the BBC Philharmonic as companion pieces to a Mahler symphony. Gregson's work was scheduled to sit alongside a performance of Mahler's Symphony No.6. Gregson thus used some material from the Mahler and, as Paul Hindmarsh rightly remarks in his excellent insert notes, “the essence of Mahler pervades the whole work like a dream … Gregson's considerable achievement is to suggest and evoke Mahler's world, but to remain entirely himself in the way the material is manipulated and structured”. Indeed Dream Song is another strongly symphonic and tightly argued structure of substance. It packs a wealth of invention and of deeply felt expression into its twenty minute span. Dream Song is yet another wonderful work in Gregson's symphonic output and one that perfectly stands by itself. It does not need the proximity of Mahler's Sixth to make its point as pure music. I suppose that anyone with a close knowledge of Mahler's symphony may derive enhanced enjoyment but I have been hooked by Dream Song although I must confess a very partial knowledge of Mahler's Sixth.
In much the same way as the Concerto for Orchestra, Aztec Dances, too, went through various revisions before reaching its final form as recorded here. It started as a substantial work for recorder and piano first performed in 2010. A version for flute and piano made at the request of the present soloist followed in 2011 and the final version for flute and fourteen-piece chamber ensemble was completed in 2013. The music was triggered by a visit to an exhibition at the British Museum, entitled Moctezuma – Aztec Ruler. Gregson was especially drawn to the part of the exhibition that explored the role of music and dance in Aztec life. Aztec Dances, subtitled Concerto for Flute and Ensemble, falls into four contrasted movements in which the composer subtly suggests an unusual sound-world without any attempt at mimicking “Aztec music”, whatever this may be since one knows precious little about it. This is yet another highly enjoyable work in Gregson's orchestral output and it clearly deserves to be much better known.
Bramwell Tovey conducts wonderfully committed readings of these superbly crafted and often quite beautiful works. The soloists are excellent and the BBC Philharmonic in top form is recorded in typically warm Chandos sound. I have already mentioned Paul Hindmarsh's excellent insert notes. These I have shamelessly plundered. They are yet another asset to this most welcome release.

Hubert Culot

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