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Now Comes Beauty - Commissions from the English Music Festival
Matthew CURTIS (b. 1959)
A Festival Overture (2008, rev. 2009) [4:55]
David MATTHEWS (b. 1943)
White Nights (1980) [10:41]
Paul CARR (b. 1961)
Now Comes Beauty (2009) [3:40]
Paul LEWIS (b. 1943)
Norfolk Suite (Castle Rising; Wymondham Abbey; Ranworth Broad; Norwich Market) (2000s) [13:52]
John PICKARD (b. 1963)
Binyon Songs (Nature; Sowing Seed; Autumn Song; When all the World is hidden; The Burning of the Leaves) (2011) [15:52]
Richard BLACKFORD (b. 1954)
Spirited (2013) [6:00]
Paul CARR (b. 1961)
Suddenly It’s Evening (2013 rev. 2015) [7:45]
Philip LANE (b. 1950)
Aubade Joyeuse (1986) [8:38]
Christopher WRIGHT (b. 1954)
Legend (2013) [12:02]
David Owen NORRIS (b. 1953)
Piano Concerto (2008, rev 2015) [31:23]
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin: Matthews, Carr)
Roderick Williams (baritone: Pickard)
David Owen Norris (piano: Norris)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Gavin Sutherland; Owain Arwel Hughes (Blackford)
rec. Watford Colosseum, January 2014 & January 2016. In association with BBC Radio 3
EM RECORDS EMR CD037–38 [49:14 + 65:51]

The English Music Festival (EMF) celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2016. It has acquired a justified reputation for reviving interest in neglected works by a wide range of composers and also for restoring the reputations of a number of composers who have become forgotten figures. By no means does the EMF just concern itself with music of the past. From the outset the Festival has encouraged composers of today, including some who struggle to achieve a hearing on prominent stages. The Festival has commissioned many new pieces and has also presented the first performances of many others. That’s more than praiseworthy but the EMF’s founder, Em Marshall-Luck wanted to go much further than presenting concerts to those who could attend the annual Festival in Dorchester on Thames or, indeed, the concerts which the Festival has presented from time to time in other towns and cities. In order to make available to a much wider audience the music that is performed at the Festivals she established EM Records and, as you can see from the list of discs already released the label has issued a stream of valuable recordings. Now, in perhaps its boldest venture to date EM Records has released this two-disc set devoted to pieces either commissioned by or premiered at the Festival. It’s a fascinating, varied and rewarding compilation.

A Festival Overture by Matthew Curtis acts as a sparkling opener. Commissioned for the 2008 EMF it’s given here in a revised, fuller orchestration made by the composer in 2009. Curtis describes the piece as ‘a short, bright curtain-raiser’ and he’s right. I do not for one moment seek to belittle the piece by describing it as light music but I think that’s what it is and it’s an excellent example of the genre at its best. The music is attractive, tuneful and colourfully scored and the BBCCO plays it with panache.

David Matthews’ White Nights is made of sterner stuff. The composer explains that he was inspired to write it by the novella of the same name by Dostoevsky. In the piece the solo violin stands for the narrator of Dostoevsky’s story while a solo flute and clarinet respectively represent the other two characters; it’s a pity these two expert players aren’t credited. Later Matthews re-worked the piece into the first movement of his Violin Concerto. That’s a piece I’ve not heard though it’s been recorded (Dutton Epoch CDLX7261). White Nights lay unperformed until Rupert Marshall-Luck gave the first performance at the 2013 EMF. To what extent White Nights may differ from its revised incarnation in the concerto I’m unable to say. However, the original piece seems to me to be highly effective. Marshall-Luck is a highly accomplished soloist, not least in the two cadenza-like passages. Elsewhere he often plays with poetic eloquence. I’ve heard all but the most recent of David Matthews’ eight symphonies and so know him to be a fine and imaginative composer for orchestra; that talent is on display here as well. The fragile major-key ending – the major key presumably representing the narrator’s acceptance of the story’s outcome – is lovely.

Paul Carr’s Now Comes Beauty, the work which furnishes the album with its title began life as a song for voice and piano. It was then fashioned into a piece for unaccompanied choir. We hear it now in its third iteration, which is for string orchestra. I’m sorry to say I found the piece pretty anodyne, though Gavin Sutherland and the orchestra make as good a case as they can for it. Much more successful, I think, is Carr’s Suddenly It’s Evening. This is a nocturne for violin and small orchestra, premiered at the 2013 EMF by Rupert Marshall-Luck. The version he now plays is a 2015 revision, mainly affecting the solo part, it seems, and made specially for this recording. This piece has rather more character, I think, than is the case with Now Comes Beauty. That may be due in part to the playing of Marshall-Luck, ardent at times and elsewhere sensitive. He certainly expresses the ‘lyrical energy’ mentioned by the composer in his note. That said, I don’t think the soloist’s significant contribution is the whole story; the music also has something to say.

Returning to Disc 1, the Norfolk Suite by Paul Lewis is cast in four movements, each one inspired by a landmark in the county. I especially liked Wymondham Abbey. Though I’ve never seen this ruined abbey – nor, indeed, any of the other places depicted in this suite – Lewis’s music seemed to me to be very atmospheric and evocative not just of the ruin but also of the building’s past. Ranworth Broad is also a nicely-imagined musical landscape. The whole suite sounds to be very well written for the medium of a string orchestra.

The first disc closes with one of the most impressive works in the entire collection. John Pickard has selected five poems by Laurence Binyon who, as he rightly says, is rather an unfashionable poet these days. Four of the poems are concerned with nature while one of them - the fourth song – is a love poem. I’ve heard some of Pickard’s orchestral music, notably the magnificent Gaia Symphony for brass band (review) but I’ve not previously heard any examples of his writing for the voice. The vocal lines are most impressive – and Roderick Williams’ superb singing makes the most of them – while the scoring of the accompaniment is never less than fascinating. The only question I have is to wonder whether in live performance the singer might be overwhelmed by the orchestration at times: that’s not an issue on this recording, though. All five of these songs are very fine indeed and I will just single out the last two. The fourth song, ‘When all the World is hidden’, is a wonderfully lyrical love song. The level of melodic inspiration is very high indeed and the song is a fine example of the English song tradition – I was reminded of some of the excellent songs of Ian Venables. The concluding song, ‘The Burning of the Leaves’, is by far the most substantial – it accounts for over half the length of the cycle. It’s a setting of one of Binyon’s last poems. Pickard’s music is very powerful and genuinely enhances Binyon’s words. I was deeply impressed by this song. Marvellously sung by Roderick Williams and splendidly played by the orchestra under Gavin Sutherland, John Pickard’s song cycle counts as a major discovery for me and a highlight of this set.

The second disc kicks off with Richard Blackford’s Spirited. This was another 2013 EMF commission. Blackford says that he feels the title describes the Festival. The music itself accurately reflects the title. The main theme is ushered in by a solo horn. We have to wait a couple of minutes for its arrival but it’s worth the wait for it’s a generous melody. Thereafter Blackford makes play with this theme in an appealing piece.

After the second Paul Carr piece, discussed above, we hear Aubade Joyeuse by Philip Lane. The composer’s note is a bit vague about the link between this piece and the EMF. It was commissioned for the 1986 Three Choirs Festival and since he says it was written for a concert by the Desford Band I infer it was originally a brass band piece. Perhaps a subsequent version for orchestra was unveiled at the EMF? The work takes the form of an Introduction and Allegro. Once the Allegro gets cracking the music is exuberant and jolly. The scoring is colourful and I enjoyed this piece very much. There’s a certain degree of prominence for the brass, including the lower brass instruments, at times and this, plus the nature of the music itself reinforces my presumption of brass band origins.

Christopher Wright’s Legend depicts the Suffolk coastal hamlet of Shingle Street. The legend of the title refers to a rumour, widely circulated at the time, of an abortive German invasion in 1940. Originally for strings, Wright rescored the piece for full orchestra and it was in this guise, heard on this CD, that the work was heard at the EMF in 2013. The music is strong on atmosphere and it’s effectively scored. At times I thought the piece had about it something of the gaunt musical landscapes glimpsed in late Holst.

The final piece is the most substantial in the collection: the Piano Concerto by David Owen-Norris. I’d previously heard his oratorio Prayerbook and, to be honest, I was less than convinced by that piece (review). This concerto is a very different matter. Cast in three movements, it’s a big piece in every way. Resolutely tonal and containing some excellent thematic material, the concerto is an impressive composition. The first of its three movements contains a good deal of dramatic writing as well as several winning lyrical episodes. The piano part is challenging and includes several cadenza-like passages. It’s excitingly and effectively orchestrated too. The central slow movement starts with a very pleasing melody on the piano which forms the basis for much of what follows. The feel of this movement is essentially romantic. The finale follows attacca and contains a lot of effervescent, dancing music, which is nimble in the extreme. There are, however, some occasional; pauses for breath during passages of calmer music. The movement builds to a big, optimistic conclusion. I understand that at the premiere – at the 2008 EMF - the composer not only played the solo part but also conducted from the keyboard. Since the solo part is very busy and virtuosic and the orchestral score sounds quite demanding too it’s beyond me how he achieved such a feat. The score presented on this recording is the result of an extensive revision in 2015. I enjoyed and admired this entertaining concerto.

All of the pieces in this collection are receiving their recorded premieres. The composers could scarcely have wished for better advocacy since the playing of the BBC Concert Orchestra, mainly under Gavin Sutherland (except in the Blackford piece) is assured and committed. All the soloists are superb. Furthermore the recorded sound achieved by producer Neil Varley and engineer Dave Rowell is very good indeed. As is usual with this label the documentation is comprehensive: there’s a biography of each composer and the individual works are all introduced in very useful notes by their composers.

In a preface in the booklet Em Marshall-Luck, founder and onlie begetter of both the EMF and EM Records speaks of her sense of elation when first she heard these pieces for the first time at the EMF. This album is clearly a very personal project for her and I hope that the commercial risk-taking in making and issuing this collection will be rewarded by good sales. That’s no less than the collection deserves for there is a great deal of worthwhile and enjoyable music here – and it’s a delightfully varied collection. Another reason for hoping that this venture is a commercial success is that if that happens I hope it will give the EMF the confidence to commission more pieces such as these and then bring them to a wider public through more recordings such as these.

John Quinn

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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