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Anthony RITCHIE (b. 1960) Remember Parihaka, Op. 61 (1994) [8:10]
Flute Concerto, Op. 56 (1993) [19:24]
Double Concerto for bass clarinet and cello, Op. 93 (1999) [19:45] Coming to it, for narrator and orchestra with poems by Sam Hunt, Op. 91 (1999) [17:50]
Alexa Still (flute), Katherine Hebley (cello), Andrew Uren (bass clarinet), Sam Hunt (narrator)
Auckland Chamber Orchestra/Peter Scholes
rec. no details supplied ATOLL ACD129 [65:14]
Anthony Ritchie's Symphony No.4 Stations has been one of my discoveries of the year (review) and is certain to feature in my disc of the year selections. Good then that Atoll are taking the opportunity to make more widely available a disc that is now some six years old which fills gaps in one's knowledge of the range and variety of Ritchie's works for orchestra.
None of the music here has the scale or emotional impact of the aforementioned Symphony but then it is not meant to. Ritchie is a prolific composer as evidenced by the opus numbers; the Fourth Symphony was Op.171 with the four works presented here ranging from the Op.56 Flute Concerto to the Op.93 Double Concerto written just five years later. Opening the disc, and giving it its title is Remember Parihaka. Parihaka was the site of organised passive resistance by the indigenous Maoris against European state-sponsored settlers looking to grab land for themselves. The brief liner-note outlines the programmatic nature of the work; ".... from peaceful sunrise, through to the approach by government troops. There is a Maori theme on flutes, contrasted with a British-style fiddle accompanied by drums." I must admit I was somewhat underwhelmed by the piece. As ever with Ritchie it is well-scored and attractive but as specifically programmatic music it sets itself an emotional goal, a sense of scale/implicit outrage that to my ear it does not achieve. Not for the only time listening to this disc did I hear a parallel with Malcolm Arnold - not in melodic or musical content but spirit and intent. Here the parallel is with the British composer's Peterloo Overture. Arnold does manage to achieve a compressed narrative scale but even there he needs to employ all his cinematic and glowingly melodic resources to do so. The slight foreboding of the opening is both beautiful and effective; as is the rhythmic flute-led music that initiates the 'conflict' section. As absolute music I like it; as the depiction of colonial destruction I find it too light-hearted. The final section returns to the grieving music of the opening.
Atoll seem to have a preference for too-brief liner-notes which offer tantalising insights into the work with no real detail. This is certainly the case with the flute concerto performed here by dedicatee Alexa Still. Ritchie, in the brief liner, calls it "generally happy and direct". It is his most widely-performed larger-scale piece. Certainly I find this to be the most completely successful work on the current disc. Again, I hear a kindred spirit in Malcolm Arnold with playful rhythms tossed around the orchestra and the soloist as agile as one might expect but with sinewy muscularity as well. Ritchie's skill as an orchestrator is on display. This is a cunningly scored work with plenty of 'space' left around the soloist so that the solo lines register clearly and well. Alexa Still is the soloist on the disc and plays with exactly the kind of coquettish brilliance that I imagine Ritchie had in mind. The second movement has a Mediterranean languor that is very effective indeed - a latter-day Faune idly dreaming in the heat of the day. The contrast with the slippery ostinati rhythms of the finale is a delight. Again, Ritchie keeps the orchestra under tight control so it bubbles along in a joyfully buoyant romp. The repertoire is not exactly over-endowed with effective and appealing twentieth century flute concertos. Certainly this deserves to be more widely known. I would imagine it becoming instantly popular with players and audiences alike.
I am less convinced by the double concerto for Bass Clarinet and Cello. The work was commissioned by the performers who play here: cellist Katherine Hebley and bass clarinettist Andrew Uren who perform together as KAHU. The challenge is to find a way to make two solo instruments whose natural performing range is essentially middle to low register effectively against an orchestra. Ritchie's solution is to write for the bass clarinet in the upper end of its register. Uren makes as good a job of this as I can imagine but it is hard not to think that it sounds like a rather uncomfortable clarinet. Also, cellist Hebley, as recorded, has a less wholly alluring tone than many. Ritchie's liner draws attention to the work's two main sources of inspiration; the birth of his daughter and the death of a friend. The former is referenced by the use of a theme based on his daughter's initial and the integration of the famous Brahms lullaby. The latter feels a little contrived - the product of more perspiration than inspiration so that when the Brahms theme is revealed on a music-box like glockenspiel at the movement's close it is more of the answer to a puzzle rather than a satisfying musical resolution. Somewhat unusually for a concerted piece the third movement of four is a duet for the two soloists alone, called "In memoriam, for Angela". By some distance I found this the most compelling music in this work. The sparseness of the texture and the absence of any competing instruments allow the soloists to be more intimate and Ritchie writes an artlessly effective two part invention. Not that I'm wholly convinced when the clarinet is playing in alt - just because an instrument can play certain notes does not mean that it should.
The disc is completed by another work of relatively unusual form. This is a sequence of poem settings for speaker and orchestra called "Coming to it". My frustration at the inadequacy of the Atoll note - or lack thereof - is compounded here by the absence of the poem's texts. They are written by New Zealand poet Sam Hunt who recites them in this performance. The liner implies that they were written for this work but it might be that they were pre-existing and selected for the piece. There are ten - un-named - sections which flow together to give a kind of stream-of-consciousness feel to these insights into the poet's life. They are deliberately mundane in the sense that the subjects are everyday things and encounters. Ritchie is always a tonally-centric composer but here is in his most direct and populist style right down to the addition of a gently bluesy guitar. Hunt intones his poems with that slightly portentous under-inflected monotone that poets seem to prefer when giving readings of their works. For all the authenticity his presence brings I cannot help feeling that a sympathetic actor would impart far greater light and shade and indeed humanity to the reading and bring the work to life. There is warmth and wit in both the words and music which Hunt's deadpan delivery diminishes. I enjoyed the poems and I like the way Ritchie sometimes illustrates and sometimes accompanies - again his scoring is subtly skilful and apt. There are relatively few works in the repertoire for speaker and ensemble and fewer still - if any - that have any hold on regular performance but this is worthy of consideration if such a work is sought.
Both the playing of the Auckland Chamber Orchestra under conductor Peter Scholes and Atoll's engineering is good but not first rank. The sound I find a little dry and a fraction close which exposes the occasional scruffiness in the playing. As a disc to flesh-out our knowledge of Ritchie's impressive catalogue this is to be warmly welcomed. If Atoll are seeking to promote composers such as Ritchie they need to invest in liner-notes of greater breadth. Since they are written by the composer it is not as if information is lacking.
The flute concerto is the only absolute winner here - but a considerable one. The other three works are all enjoyable in different and more modest ways but do not nag away at the memory in the way that I have found much of Ritchie's other music does. I would not recommend this as the disc to introduce a listener to Ritchie's work simply because I have found the other compilations of works to be more impressive culminating in the remarkable Symphony No.4.