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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Anthony RITCHIE (b.1960)
Symphony No.4 'Stations', Op.171 [42:20]
Jenny Wollerman (soprano)
Christchurch Symphony Orchestra/Tom Woods
rec. based on live performance at Wigram Airforce Museum, Christchurch, NZ, February 2014. DDD.
Texts included
ATOLL ACD314 [42:20]

None of the music on the Atoll label that has come my way so far has had particular reference to its New Zealand provenance, so I’m pleased to see them furthering the music of a Kiwi composer.

As with so many contemporary works, I have had to let this music grow on me.  Nick Barnard reviewed this recording some time ago, having had the advantage of reviewing other works by Anthony Ritchie, whereas I was a neophyte.  I haven’t delayed quite as much as might appear: I received the CD in a later batch.  Appropriately enough, I finally put my thoughts together on the final day of the dramatic 2015 first Test Match between England and New Zealand.

First impressions that this was a powerful symphony, but one which I could not quite get a handle on, grew into a feeling that this is music to which I shall be returning.  In many respects it’s comparable with Britten’s War Requiem, though not on the same level.  After some very intense sections, often as sorrowful as Górecki’s symphony of that name, the work ends with celebratory music leading to stillness and quiet.  Without going quite as far as Nick Barnard, who made this a Recording of the Month, I shall also be investigating some of Ritchie’s other music, on Atoll and other labels.

Whereas Britten commemorated the pity of war through the text of the Latin Requiem and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Ritchie commemorates the sufferings of the inhabitants of Christchurch, New Zealand, after the earthquake of 2010/2011, using Lew Summers’ modernistic Stations of the Cross sculpted for the ruined cathedral and the poetry of Bernadette Hall, based on those Stations and entitled The Way of the Cross.  Almost half of the sections of the work are purely orchestral, though linked to the poems, and the remainder are sung, albeit with slightly shortened versions of the texts or only one line of the poem in some cases.

Nick Barnard has included such a detailed analysis of the music and performance that it would be quite superfluous of me to add anything, so I have streamlined this review and cut out many of my notes.  Let me simply say that there are, of course, no benchmarks for this first recording, but I can’t imagine anything better.  Like Nick Barnard I found it hard to discern some of the words – with Jenny Wollerman the old dispute between music and poetry comes down on the side of the music – but we both appreciated the beauty of her singing and the words are all in the booklet.  I’ve already referred to Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and Wollerman’s voice reminded me not a little of Dawn Upshaw in most reviewers’ preferred recording of that work.

The Atoll recording is ‘based on’ a live performance but we are not told the exact details.  There is no applause or perceptible audience noise, so I assume that it was made either at the final rehearsal or very soon after the performance.  Whatever the case, the recording is very good: there is a wide dynamic range but not such that it’s hard to set a comfortable volume level.  One small matter where I would take issue with Nick Barnard is that whereas he would prefer applause rather than have the music float off into a void I thought the floating off, like the end of Holst’s Planets, appropriate.

The booklet refers to Ritchie’s cross-references to the music of Palestrina and Bach; I did notice them, for example the extended reference to Bach in Station 12, but I can’t say that I found them particularly illuminating.

42 minutes is, on the face of it, very poor value but it’s difficult to imagine what else might have been included.  For once I set aside my tight-fisted North of England origins and advise forgetting about value for money: the value lies in the quality of the music and the performance, and both are very much worth your attention.  If you’re not sure, sample the music from Qobuz – subscribers can stream the whole work: don’t make an instant judgment based on one hearing – but you won’t find the booklet there.  For that you need the CD, which can be obtained at an attractive price by clicking the MusicWeb-International purchase button. 

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Nick Barnard



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