Music for My Love: Celebrating the Life of a Special Woman - Volume One
Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Von ewiger Liebe, Op. 43, No. 1 (1864) (arr. Ragnar Söderlind 2015) [4:39]
Robin HOLLOWAY (b. 1943)
Music for Yodit (2015) [5:45]
Poul RUDERS (b. 1949)
Lullaby for Yodit (2015) [2:10]
Mihkel KEREM (b. 1981)
A Farewell for Yodit (2015) [6:59]
Andrew FORD (b. 1957)
Sleep (2012/2015) [2:04]
Steve ELCOCK (b. 1957)
Song for Yodit, Op. 23 (2014) [5:52]
Brett DEAN (b. 1961)
Angels’ Wings (Music for Yodit) (2014/2015) [2:23]
Jon LORD (1941–2012)
Zarabanda Solitaria (2009) (arr. Paul Mann 2016) [5:18]
John PICKARD (b. 1963)
…forbidding mourning... (2000/2015) [6:27]
Ragnar SODERLIND (b. 1945):
Å, den svalande vind…: Variations on a Norwegian Folktune, Op. 120 (2015) [15:15]
Maddalena CASULANA (c.1544–c.1590)
Il vostro dipartir (arr. Colin Matthews 2015) [5:57]
Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul Mann
rec. 15–17 and 19–21 June 2016, Pásti Synagogue, Debrecen, Hungary. DDD
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0333 [62.34]
The special woman was the partner of Toccata Classics’ supremo Martin Anderson, Yodit Tekle, who late in 2014 was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Following the diagnosis Martin asked his friend, the composer Steve Elcock, if he could write something to bring Yodit consolation in her illness. After her “Wow Wow!” reaction on hearing an electronic realisation of the piece, and still in hopes of her eventual recovery, he decided to ask some other composer friends to write companion pieces to Elcock’s Song for Yodit for a proposed concert in her honour on her birthday, December 29. Tragically Yodit died long before that, on April 24, 2015, and so the planned concert was reconceived as a memorial event. However, when the chosen venue proved to be unavailable for the date, the commissions – which had been steadily growing in number to the point where too many were already under way for all to be included in any such concert – became destined instead for a series of CDs, of which this is the first.
So, this is indeed a very special project that will arouse at first sympathy and then awed admiration, given that over 100 new works for string orchestra are already promised or delivered, and that the series may encompass as many as a dozen discs. In addition, proceeds from their sales will be spread across five deserving causes: Cancer Research UK, MacMillan Cancer Support, Winston’s Wish (the UK’s leading childhood bereavement charity), a trust fund for Alex, Martin’s and Yodit’s son, and finally Toccata Classics itself, to be ploughed back into further recordings in the series. It seems appropriate at this juncture, having got your attention, to point to
the web page for donations.
However, all that said and honoured, how does this initial CD in the series stack up in itself as a listening experience? In answer, be assured that it is neither a series of samey dirges nor something akin to those CDs of New Age aural wafting about that you find in health-food shops, nor the kind of comforting pap beloved of Classic fM. There is far too much variety here, in scale, texture, mood, pace and style, for any of those: no more chance of boredom than with Haydn’s Seven Last Words.
Out of the 11 works, no less than six are arrangements or reworkings: three by their composers, one by the conductor Paul Mann, and the last two of music from earlier centuries by two of the “composer friends”. These latter bookend the disc, with the opener, Ragnar Söderlind’s version of Brahms’ great song Von ewiger Liebe, established between him and Martin to act “as a sort of ‘motto piece’ for the entire undertaking”. As such, its mood is warmer and more consolatory than the original, due to the solo line being necessarily one element of a homogeneous string texture (the rapt pp at “Spricht das Mägdelein,” is beautifully achieved by Mann and his players) rather than the clear timbral distinction of voice plus accompaniment. After this, the opening of Robin Holloway’s Music for Yodit, for violins alone slowly rising piano in their lower register, forms a kind of reminiscence, softer but frigid, of the first bar of the Brahms; not, one suspects, a coincidence, but probably the first instance of the imaginative ordering of the pieces. This is one of the longer of the original works, in overall ABA form, with an Andante mesto opening section rising to and then falling back from an exultant ff chord for all the strings, followed by a central alla danza whose opening momentarily recalls that of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, and finally a return to the tempo primo, which sinks away dolcissimo to an ecstatically radiant conclusion.
From here on, a pattern emerges, at least for the first half of the disc’s playing time, of short pieces interspersing the more extended ones. Thus the Holloway is followed by “a simple ‘humming’ in C major”, as Poul Ruders describes Lullaby for Yodit in his brief note: a meditation on the alternating notes G and A whose “exquisitely tender” (the marking at the head of the score) mood continues virtually throughout until it is rudely stabbed by a forte dissonance on the lower strings in the very last bar. In turn, while more extensive overall, Mihkel Kerem’s A Farewell to Yodit also opens with an oscillation between two notes, this time only a semitone apart, a mere murmur in divided violas that gradually opens out into a sustained elegy on all the strings, each department apart from the double-basses divided throughout, within which a repeated figure of an octave leap followed by a five-note descent creates an effect (at least to these ears) somewhat reminiscent of Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. While the multi-subdivision of parts (and not only in this piece) does test the strings of the Kodály Philharmonic, Kerem’s Farewell makes me eager to investigate further the work of this composer, very much a Toccata discovery (TOCC0140: Violin Sonatas; TOCC0173: Orchestral and chamber music).
At this point (and only here), there might have been a tendency for somnolence to set in, so the bright ff pizzicato that begins Andrew Ford’s brief and paradoxically-entitled Sleep forms a sharp and necessary wake-up call after the long-drawn gentle close of the Kerem. This is the first of the three composer-reworkings on the CD, its origin a 2012 setting for three soprano voices of a poem by David McCooey. Despite repetitions of the pizzicato nudge, Sleep duly subsides to rest at its conclusion, ushering in the work that started the whole enterprise, Steve Elcock’s Song for Yodit. If there is one potentially popular hit here, this is it, falling alike within the comfort zone of Classic fM listeners and of (one suspects) the Kodály Philharmonic strings. The two closely-related themes upon which it is built are as immediately memorable as anything from George Lloyd, the second of them in particular ear-worming in through multiple repetitions and key-changes, over Finzi-esque pizzicato triplets on the cellos (no subdivisions here). Though the composer’s own website has several computer realisations of extracts or all of some of his works, one wonders and hopes very much that the indefatigable Toccata Classics will get around to an all-Elcock disc in due course.
The third and last short interlude on Music for My Love is also the second composer-arrangement, and the origin of Brett Dean’s Angel’s Wings was indeed an interlude, one of three piano pieces conceived to be played between the four movements of Brahms’ Op. 119. Its 2:23 of atmospherics reminded me a little of Ives’ Unanswered Question, with a background of long-held chords in the main body, never rising above pp apart from one sfz stab, punctuated by short spasms of “flighty, fragile” figuration from two solo violins and the front desks of both violin sections and the celli (taking the place of Ives’ four flutes). As an interlude between the two most tonal/tuneful of all the original works here, it is exactly right, given that next up is Paul Mann’s version for string orchestra of the string quartet movement Zarabanda Solitaria by his long-time friend and collaborator, Jon Lord. Its programme is as follows: “In an abandoned ballroom in a small town somewhere in the heart of Spain, a lone man, far advanced in years, but still proud of bearing, walks slowly onto the dusty dance floor. He stands for a while, gazing into his past. Then, with only a slight hesitation, he begins to dance. As he grows more sure, he dances in memory of long ago and far away, and of loves won and lost. The dance ends, and with a wistful smile and a stiff bow to the ghosts, he walks out into the night.”
In fact, the piece is not obviously Spanish-influenced as the programme might suggest, with nary a faux castanet to be heard, and Mann’s retention of the string quartet, contrasted with the main body for much of the work’s length, adds to the delicacy and complexity of the sound, with little feeling of dance but much of elegy as it proceeds to its delicate, fine-drawn conclusion.
The second half of the disc, in terms of duration, contains its two most substantial items. John Pickard describes his … forbidding mourning… (the third and last composer-reworking) as “a paraphrase on the second of [his] two Valedictions for cello and piano [TOCC0150]… an airy expansion of a single phrase from the older piece; a free polyphonic fantasia, cast in a simple ABA form.” Again, the multiple parts into which the Kodály Philharmonic strings are divided (in the work’s central section no less than 19), as well as the writing at extremes of pitch, test their ability to produce a homogeneous, unstrained sound, but under Paul Mann’s dedicated leadership they just about pull it off. As for the work itself, it’s the most consistently inventive and perhaps the most powerful of all of them, conjuring up in places the sense of an elemental Sibelian landscape, limitless, unpeopled and frighteningly indifferent. We have come a long way indeed from Brahmsian consolation.
By far the longest piece here is Söderlind’s Variations on a Norwegian Folktune. Emulating other major variation sets like Schmidt’s on a Hussar’s Song and on a Theme of Beethoven, the composer sets the scene with a quite substantial introduction before playing the whole folksong itself. Just the opening three notes of the theme are repeated, first on solo viola and then the top line of violins, against an increasingly agitated background (Söderlind also divides his forces throughout); he describes it as “a kind of encircling of the theme”. When the folksong finally does appear entire (somewhat Delian in its melancholy and sliding harmonies), it is easily graspable at one hearing, and in this work – like all the most satisfactory variation sets – the theme continues to be readily discernible however much it is manipulated. As the 15 variations unfold, so does an overarching musical drama that adds up to much more than the sum of its parts, climaxing in savage ffff sawing tremolandi by the whole orchestra across some dozen bars in the pivotal Variation XIII. It’s very easy to hear this as futile rage against the senseless loss of a young life, and the composer writes that the final two variations “represent the sorrow that follows a terrible disaster”. This seriously fine addition to string orchestra literature is alone worth the price of the disc.
Finally, Colin Matthews’ “free arrangement” of Maddalena Casulana’s madrigal Il vostro dipartir extends the disc’s compass back through the centuries. Matthews notes that the text (beginning “Your departure, lady, leaves my life insipid…) “seemed to be very fitting for Martin’s wonderful project”. Casulana was a new name to me: apparently she was the first European woman to have her music printed and published. Certainly this arrangement forms a fitting and timeless conclusion, ending the disc in a mood of sonorous resignation.
Along with the issues of thin tone and ensemble that so much divisi writing may engender, even more of a challenge is maintaining concentration and discipline when so much of the music is slow and often very quiet. That only rarely does any of this become overtly apparent is a tribute to the skill and dedication of Paul Mann, who clearly was able to coax these players into giving the very best they were capable of. One would love to hear this music played by a really top-flight full-sized string section, but nowhere in this CD did I have serious concerns that listeners’ enjoyment would be marred. It is the start of a very long journey, and I for one greatly anticipate further stages on the way.