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Charlotte BRAY (b. 1982)
At the Speed of Stillness for orchestra (2012) [11.34]
Aldeburgh World Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
Fire Burning in Snow - Three poems by Nicki Jackowska set for soprano and ensemble (2013) [10.45]
Lucy Schaufer (soprano) Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Oneiroi for solo piano (2013) [9.33]
Huw Watkins (piano)
Replay for Piano Quintet (2010) [10.29]
Huw Watkins (piano); Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Songs from Yellow Leaves for soprano and piano (2012) [11.33]
Claire Booth (soprano); Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano)
Caught in the Treetops (2010) [16.49]
Alexandra Wood (violin); Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Oliver Knussen
rec. 2001-14, The Maltings, Snape, Silas Church, Kentish Town, London
NMC D202 [71.03]

This, the first disc devoted to the music of Charlotte Bray and dedicated to one of her teachers Mark-Anthony Turnage, opens with her 2012 Proms commission At the Speed of Stillness. It's an energetic and magical score. I like the composer's analogy of following the towers of the Sizewell power station as you drive towards them - the concept of travelling at speed yet the object gets only a little nearer - two speeds going on at once. The technique of the large orchestra for which it was written is split into various ostinati going at a differing rapidities seems not only apt but an exciting way of using such an ensemble. The whole piece echoes a quoted poem also of contraries by Dora Maar "It was night in the summer/winter in the day". I really like this piece but still, after several hearings find the ending falls between two stools neither thoughtful with a sense of arrival nor positive.

Dedicated to another of her teachers, this time Oliver Knussen, Oneiroi is for solo piano. Knussen's music and that of Henze helped to inspire this piece. The title is Greek for 'dreams' and its multi-faceted dreamlike landscape is beautifully portrayed and superbly captured by Huw Watkins. The complex rhythms sound natural and fluent and the harmony is quite captivating. It reaches a climax point at a perfectly placed 7:30 and then drifts away as if dwindling into infinity.

As a result of being one of the winners of the 2010 Philharmonic Society's Composition Prize, Bray was commissioned to write a Piano Quintet which she entitled Replay. Now what can a young 21st century composer contribute to this much explored form - so many works in this format having been written. The answer is to be yourself and this she has done. So this piece is brief, in one movement divided into two, possibly three, sections. The first with its swirling counterpoint was inspired by "images of spherical geometry" to quote the composer's own comments printed in the booklet. The second she describes as "more earthy" opens with a "rumbling piano line". This reaches a wild climax like some jazz session gone wrong. The strings, which began the piece, fall silent, exposing the piano to end the piece rather wistfully.

It so happens that whilst acquainting myself with this disc and writing these comments I was present for a performance of Bray's chamber opera at the Presteigne festival entitled Entanglement in which there is some strikingly sympathetic writing for the leading female character Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in England. Bray writes beautifully for soprano and Lucy Schaufer is ideal for the moving cycle Fire Burning in Snow, settings of Nicki Jackowska. She is precise in tuning and very expressive with utterly clear diction. The work is dedicated to the memory of another fine English composer important to Bray, Jonathan Harvey who would I think have applauded the word setting. The poems concern loss and bereavement, the first from a female standpoint, the second from a male with a more aggressive feel of harmony and rhythm. The third is a sort of androgynous poem "I dream him lustily/my tide rears him throws him back". As in the opera only rarely does Charlotte Bray repeat a line and when she does it has real meaning. Her lines are not only expressive and sensitive for the voice but also beautifully shaped for the oboe in the first song.

Five songs constitute Songs from Yellow Leaves another recent song-cycle with, this time, piano. It consists in all of nine Haiku by Caroline Thomas. The first, 'Still Standing', is again about loss of a loved one. The second, 'Collusion', is the obverse being "full of bitterness and deceit". The third 'While the bell tolls' attempts some kind of reconciliation. The dissonant piano part of number 2 is transported into something akin to a syncopated ostinato - a suitable contrast. The fourth, 'Farewell', returns to loneliness, contemplating that it was "all an illusion". The vocal line is accompanied by a delicately sensitive piano. Finally 'Old Tales' demonstrates what the composer calls "the beauty of love" with an excitable accompaniment to a wild and wide ranging vocal setting. Sometimes however the fight with the lines defeats the diction of the otherwise ideal Claire Booth and her meticulous pianist.

The CD ends with the longest work, Caught in Treetops (I love Bray's titles) for violin and instrumental ensemble. Here it is conducted by one of Bray's mentors Oliver Knussen. Another influence is mentioned in the notes, the jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Bray writes 'I wanted to captured the same kind of relentless energy" as in his 'Autumn Nocturne' and this she achieves in the bubbly first movement. In fact she precedes it, unusually, with a virtuoso cadenza. The bipartite nature of the work is a result of the two poems which also inspired the piece 'A Match with the Moon' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lorca's 'The Moon sails out'. These are not printed in the booklet but Bray tells us that "both poems have a sense of mystery". The title comes from the Rossetti poem which includes the line, "caught in the treetops like a kite". Played without a break the second movement has a moonlit, calm atmosphere. Little disturbs its tranquillity enabling the work to end on an open fifth.

These performances must have thrilled the composer and the recording is ideal. NMC provide all of the sung texts and Bray's notes are not too detailed but mostly illuminating. Well worth exploring.

Gary Higginson


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