Luke WHITLOCK (b.1978)
Suite Antique (2011-12) [15:39]
Flowing Waters (2014) [11:15]
Three Pieces for Wind Trio (2012 rev. 2014) [16:53]
Evening Prayer (2014) [5:32]
Flute Sonata (2007, rev. 2013) [17:31]
The Faust and Mephisto Waltz (2002, rev. 2014) [5:24]
Duncan Honeybourne (piano); Anna Stokes (flute); James Meldrum (clarinet); Vicky Crowell (bassoon); Wai-Yin Lee (piano, Flute sonata)
rec. 2014/15, Acapela Studio, Cardiff; Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Dora Stoutzker Hall
DIVINE ART DDA25121 [72.14]
I first encountered the music of Luke Whitlock at a concert in Cardiff during May 2014 which I reviewed for the Seen and Heard section of this site. This concert included the first performance of Flowing waters, the piece which gives its title to this disc. Indeed the front cover simply gives the title without any reference to either composer or performers, which perhaps gives the misleading impression that this is a disc of purely mood or ‘new age’ music. It is much more than that.

In my review of the live performance I referred to a description by the composer of Flowing waters as “an exploration of the audio spaciousness created in musical minimalism”, but commented further that “in fact what we had here was what the Luke Whitlock afterwards described to me as ‘post-minimalism’, where the repetitions of figuration were subjected to a considerable degree of rubato which served to obviate the sense of monotony which can sometimes afflict minimalist works written for solo instruments and small ensembles. In fact the effect of the rubato was to bring the music more into the realm of Chopin, helped by the composer’s willingness to provide melodic material that was considerably more interesting than the harmony-based patterning that one finds for example in Philip Glass. Even so some of the transitions from one section to another, where the figurations speeded up or slowed down, were rather abrupt and could perhaps have been more smoothly managed; but the overall results, a depiction of the River Teign in the composer’s native Devon, were far removed from the naïve pictorialism of Smetana’s Vltava – and were indeed very beautiful indeed.” In this studio recording made some months later the transitions seem less obvious than they did before, but the results remain just as beautiful. The sound in the superb Dora Stoutzker Hall is marvellous.

That same concert also featured two other works by Whitlock which are also included here. Again I repeat my comments from my earlier review: “The ‘humorous and satirical’ Faust and Mephisto Waltz, derived from music originally written for a silent film, had a not inappropriate Lisztian style; and the coruscating fistfuls of notes were confidently handled by Duncan Honeybourne, even when the resonant acoustic tended to lend a suspicion of clanginess to the lower registers in the piano tone (this was much less serious elsewhere). The Suite antique was essentially light-hearted music, with the eighteenth century pastiches continually undermined and interrupted by more modern passages without ever completely abandoning the formal dance patterns. The gawky Gavotte, with its persistent changes of rhythm, brought chuckles from an appreciative audience. The music did not say anything very serious; but then, of course, it clearly was never intended to, no more so than Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.” In this recording the problems with the acoustic no longer apply but the basic attractiveness of the music and the playing remain unchanged.

This CD also includes a new work not featured in the concert last year, in the shape of the Evening Prayer described by the composer as “a musical landscape including the sound of distant tolling bells” and acting as a reflection on spiritual retreats both Christian and Buddhist. It is very much in the same mould as Flowing waters, inhabiting the same reflective world and again very beautiful. Duncan Honeybourne, as throughout, is peerless in his handling of the music.

I missed the concert given in Cardiff which included Whitlock’s Wind Trio, which consists of three programmatic movements entitled As shadows fall, Morning escapades and The midnight journey, which the composer states “can be performed together or separately”. There is also evidently an element of personal recollection here. The performers are perhaps a little too close to the microphones, but the three players are assured and confident and show clear sympathy with the music. The Flute Sonata is a much earlier piece, written while the composer was still a student but revised some years later. It is basically light-hearted, approachable without being profound, and shows, as the composer acknowledges, the influence of Prokofiev and Poulenc. The main theme of the finale is much too reminiscent of If I were a rich man from Fiddler on the Roof for comfort; the composer might well wish to reflect the sentiments of the song — wouldn’t all composers? — but I am surprised that he didn’t take the opportunity during his revision to make the persistent reminders less obvious. Both soloists clearly enjoy themselves, however, and the sound is less closely observed than in the wind trio pieces.

In a booklet note full of autobiographical detail, the composer concludes by saying that “this recording is in many ways a mark of my friends’ and family’s achievement, as much as it is mine.” He is unduly modest here. It was a real pleasure to make acquaintance with his music again and I would earnestly recommend listeners to hear music which is so immediately communicative as well as displaying the development of Whitlock’s style. Flowing waters and Evening prayer, if they are indicative of the manner in which his writing is moving, make one eager to hear more.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: John France

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