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David ELLIS (b.1933)
Vale Royal Suite [11:33]
Diversions, Op.39 (1974) [10:37]
Concert Music, Op.24 (1959, premiere 1972) [19:06]
Trilogy, Op.34: Celebration [7:26]
September Threnody, Op.91 (2011) [10:11]
Solus, Op.37 (1973) [9:40]
Manchester Sinfonia/Richard Howarth; Northern Chamber Orchestra/Nicholas Ward; Royal Northern College of Music Symphony Orchestra/Edward Downes; Manchester Camerata/Frank Cliff
rec. Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, Manchester, 2 June 1973 (Solus); BBC Studio 7, Manchester, 29 June 1981 (Celebration); St. Thomas’ Church, Stockport, 10 January 2009 (Vale Royal Suite); 20 May 2013 (Diversions & September Threnody); 1 August 2013 (Concert Music). ADD/DDD
Reviewed as download (mp3 and lossless, pdf booklet included).
DIVINE ART DDA25119 [68:33]

I originally intended to include some brief words about this recording in Download News as a pendant to John France’s review. However I couldn’t let it go at that, if only for the sake of congratulating Divine Art yet again on rescuing a composer whose music is so undeserving of neglect.

Why is David Ellis’s music less well-known than that of his contemporaries at the Manchester Royal College of Music, which he left laden with prizes: Harrison Birtwistle, John Ogdon, Peter Maxwell Davies, Elgar Howarth and Alexander Goehr?  As far as I can judge from this recording, solely because he didn’t fit the orthodoxy of the late 1950s and 1960s.  Apart from this typically enterprising release from Divine Art, I can locate only one other recording even partly including his music: three of his piano pieces feature on Prima Facie PFCD013.  He’s not to be confused with John Ellis, whose music Divine Art have also recorded.

David Ellis’s music actually contains tunes, but that doesn’t mean that it sounds facile.  The recording breaks us in gently with Vale Royal Suite, a times-of-day composition – as is Solus – composed for a Cheshire amateur string orchestra.  The following Diversions, despite its easy-going title, is made of stronger stuff, as befits its commission, which was to mark Warrington’s connections with the nearby M6 motorway.

Concert Music is the earliest work here.  Although it didn’t conform to the avant garde fashion of the time, it’s no pushover: the notes in the booklet speak of ‘neo-romantic tensions’ and it’s the tensions that predominate for much of the time.  John France mentions Tippett, Leighton and Lennox Berkeley, but there’s also some of the same kind of thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears that I experience in Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen.

September Threnody, written soon after the death of his wife, is the toughest nut to crack but also the most profound and most rewarding.  It opens with a very brief exultation, as if recalling their happiness together, but grief bursts in soon after, alternating with wistfulness.  The music doesn’t seek to batter the listener into depression and my overall response was very positive.

Though performed by a variety of orchestras on a number of different occasions over a period of forty years, playing and recording do full justice to Ellis’s music.  This album deserves to receive the widest possible publicity in advancing the cause of this neglected composer.  Now, perhaps, we can have more, including the other two pieces of the trilogy from which Celebration is taken.

The information in the booklet is short but to the point.  There’s more about the composer at his website.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: John France

Brian significantly underestimates the composer’s existing discography. As well as the new disc and the piano works that Mr Wilson mentions, there is another entire disc devoted to him on the ASC label (ASC CS CD6), which was reviewed by MusicWeb International back in 2000. Entitled An Image of Truth, it includes the second string quartet, Divertimento Elegiaco for recorder, cello and harpsichord, piano sonata entitled Three-Note Variables, and a number of other vocal and chamber pieces. An orchestration of the same Divertimento Elegiaco, for recorder, strings, harp and marimba, is available on Dutton CDLX 7154 (British Recorder Concertos). Until the new disc came along the only other orchestral pieces available were the Two Fantasias and Suite Francaise for strings, on an ASC anthology disc called Into the Light (ASC CD86).

Highlights of the other chamber and solo instrumental music available on CD include the early string trio and the first string quartet on a very fine disc shared with his fellow Merseysider the late John McCabe (Old City, New Image, Campion Cameo 2027); the second (again) and third string quartets, which feature in two excellent anthologies of modern quartets by mostly Northern composers (Fast Forward into the Millennium, ASC CS CD11 and 4x4 North-West, Campion Cameo 2046); a number of pieces with recorder, including a set of Elegiac Variations for recorder, viola and cello (Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Olympia OCD 710); a sonata for unaccompanied double bass (The British Double Bass, Meridian CDE84550); and the first piano sonata, another early piece, performed by McCabe (Contemporary British Piano Music vol.2, ASC CS CD3). As Mr Wilson says, more information is available on the composer’s website.

Rob Sykes



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