Andrew DOWNES (b.1950)
Symphony No 1 for organ, brass, percussion and strings, Op.27 (1982) [36.33]
Symphony No 2 for chamber orchestra, Op.30 (1984) [19.46]
Concert Overture In the Cotswolds for symphony orchestra, Op.36 (1986) [6.30]
Symphony No 3 Spirits of the Earth for extended symphony orchestra, Op.45 (1992) [26.27]
Symphony No 4 for concert wind band, Op.59 (1996) [26.20]
Concert Overture Towards a New Age for symphony orchestra, Op.60 (1996) [6.36]
Aleš Bárta (organ)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Ondřej Vrabec
rec. March – May 2015, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague
Bonus DVD: ‘Music, Pleasure, Hope’ (documentary on the recording of
these works) ARTESMON AS744-2 [62.40 + 58.31; DVD: 18.08]
This exceptional release featuring the first four symphonies of Andrew Downes is the outcome of a very personal enterprise. Having received compensation for appalling medical negligence resulting in his being paralysed from the waist down, the composer was in a position to commission this important new recording project, choosing the venue and performers. He opted for the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Ondřej Vrabec, the orchestra’s first horn player. The sessions took place between March and May 2015 in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague, with the composer, who is now unable to travel, overseeing the sessions via internet streaming from his home in West Hagley.
Born in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1950, Downes won a choral scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge in 1969 where he gained an MA specialising in composition. The clarity and purity of the sound of the choir of which he was a member is replicated in some of his own choral settings and may also have been a catalyst for the strikingly pellucid quality of his scores for other forces. In 1974 he undertook postgraduate study in composition with Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music. Between 1990 and 2005 he was Head of the School of Composition and Creative Studies at Birmingham Conservatoire and was awarded a Professorship in 1992. In 2014 he was made Emeritus Professor at Birmingham City University for carrying out his work ‘with distinction’. Now a freelance composer he has built up a substantial catalogue of over one hundred pieces in a wide variety of genres.
Notable commissions include The Marshes of Glynn (1985), written for the Royal opening of the Adrian Boult Hall in Birmingham in 1986; Centenary Firedances (1988), for the City of Birmingham’s Centenary Festival of Fireworks and Music; song-cycles for mezzo-soprano Sarah Walker and tenor John Mitchinson and the Concerto for Guitar, Electric Bass Guitar and Strings (1997) for Simon Dinnigan and Fred T. Baker with strings from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The hypnotic slow movement of the concerto is one of Downes’ most hauntingly beautiful inventions and it is fortunate that this work has been recorded on the Classicprint label (CPVP013CD). Among his chamber and instrumental pieces, the sonata for eight horns (1994), sonata for eight pianists playing four pianos (1999), Five Dramatic Pieces for eight Wagner tubas (2002) and Symphony no.5 for flute orchestra (2002) all bear testimony to his ability to write idiomatically and convincingly for a range of rarely encountered instrumental combinations.
Central to his large-scale output is his symphony cycle, surely one of most heterogeneous group ever penned in terms of instrumentation yet united by Downes’ instantly recognisable musical personality. Premiered at the 1984 Cheltenham Festival, Symphony no.1 (1982) was written shortly after a cantata The Child is Singing (1981) to a text by Adrian Mitchell expressing concern about the terrors of nuclear war. The dark tone of this choral work permeates the symphony. It is a gripping and cogently argued first contribution to the form and some of its power may derive from the scoring which is for organ, brass, percussion and strings. Downes deliberately avoided writing for woodwind as he felt this orchestral section was too warm-sounding for the sonorities he required. Hence, the use of a virtuoso organ part together with a large brass section featuring eight trumpets. Though written wholly within the composer’s idiom, the score is more dissonant than is the norm in Downes’ music with unvarnished polytonal clashes. There are discernible traces of Janáček, Poulenc and Shostakovich. As Downes developed his highly individual soundworld, such formative enthusiasms and influences became more readily assimilated into his own style, yet they serve to charge his First Symphony with a raw energy and exploratory zeal which is exhilarating.
Under Vrabec’s authoritative direction, the Czech players respond to this impassioned score with enthusiasm and great interpretative imagination. The first movement’s string-based supplicatory secondary material has true intensity and the brass and organ contributions (organist Aleš Bárta deserves special mention here) are by turns effectively imperious and consoling, as required.
In my view this is the outstanding piece on this collection. There is real bite and drive in the more vigorous passages and a characteristic and authentic sense of hope in the quieter, more intimate episodes. Downes marshals his handpicked forces judiciously and with discretion so that the potentially vulgar combination of heavy brass and organ is invariably subjugated to the musical argument and never left posturing in empty display.
In complete contrast to the bold statement of its predecessor, the Symphony no.2 (1984) is an intimate piece for chamber orchestra with a key role for woodwind throughout. The composer’s essential Englishness is in evidence here both in the modality of its harmonies and in the predominantly pastoral tone set in the opening bars. Downes’ capacity to build long-term structures from protean motifs is revealed in the unfolding of the first movement as the theme of the opening bars logically gives rise to variants and embellishments upon it. A busy scherzo and slow finale lit by two dynamic peaks completes a satisfying work which is broader in scope than its 20-minute duration might suggest. In a superbly detailed and empathetic reading from Vrabec and the CzPO, the piece retains its gentle, Arcadian atmosphere even in the most expansive climaxes.
Dedicated to the NSPCC, Symphony no.3 ‘Spirits of the Earth’ (1992) is scored for extended symphony orchestra with a very large percussion section including drum kit. Downes promoted world music during his time at the Birmingham Conservatoire and he clearly has a keen ear for the individual sounds of different non-Western cultures from around the globe and how they can be assimilated successfully with his own essentially English idiom. This may be heard in this Third Symphony and also a large 90-minute oratorio New Dawn (1999) which was written for the millennium and features native American poetry settings. The symphony utilises rhythms from pop music to jazz to big band styles, as well as plainsong and organum and Indian and American Indian styles. Percussion and rhythm features strongly in the work and there are a number of passages where various sections of the orchestra are playing in several independent tempi. Once again Downes proves he is able to create a major structure from a simple idea, in this case a chorale which irradiates the whole score. The Czech players rise to the symphony’s challenges magnificently, taking the various musical influences in their stride whilst always ensuring that Downes’ own voice is paramount. The third and fifth movements have very richly scored sections, unusually so for this composer who tends to favour restrained, chamber-like textures in even his large-scale pieces. These tutti sections are thrillingly performed and sound stunning in the new Czech recording.
Symphony no.4 (1996) was written for the Albuquerque Concert Band and is consequently scored for concert wind band. Entitled ‘Sky City’ the third movement includes a solo part for native American flute. For the recording sessions the CzPO’s first flute Jan Machat learned to play this instrument which the composer had bought from New Mexico and was flown over to Prague. One of Downes’ most polished and eclectic utterances, the symphony combines fluently western and non-western styles. The slow fourth movement is a poignant evocation of the composer’s feelings of desolation as he travelled though the New Mexican desert; its final pages deftly conjure a sense of emptiness with vertiginous piccolo vaulted over clarinet phrases and timpani taps. The following movement, ‘Rio Grande’ emulates the ebb and flow of the great river as it meanders through the desert and ends the piece on a typically upbeat note.
Rounding off each disc is a concert overture scored for standard symphony orchestra. The first, ‘In the Cotswolds’ was commissioned by Gloucester Youth orchestra for the opening concert of the Three Choirs Festival in 1986 and it subtly evokes the music of Holst and Vaughan Williams. Taking its dual inspiration from the world of engineering and the dawn of the new millennium, ‘Towards a New Age’ (1996) is bolder in its gestures as befits the optimism of its title. Its exciting coda with machine-like rhythms to the fore brings the whole programme to a rousing conclusion.
The third disc in the set is an all-region DVD containing the documentary ‘Music, Pleasure, Hope’. These three words seem to encapsulate Downes’ inspiring personal credo which finds greatest expression in his music. It is abundantly clear from the recordings that the entire project has been a labour of love for all concerned and this impression is merely confirmed by the short film. The painstaking approach of the performers and the engineers towards these pieces is hugely impressive. A couple of brief, informal interviews with Downes and his wife Cynthia, herself an all-round musician, publisher and the executive producer of these recordings, capture movingly the deeply personal and emotional nature of this undertaking.
It is excellent that the Symphonies 1-4 of this directly communicative creative artist have been set down in the recording studio by world-class musicians in first-rate performances. Downes has a natural melodic gift and his tunes, for that is assuredly and unabashedly what they are, instantly lodge themselves in the listener’s memory. He is also a superb craftsman of appreciable integrity with a rigorous approach to his art who knows instinctively how to achieve the maximum potential from his material. Perhaps the very facility and fluency of Downes’ musical language has served to obscure the impressive technique which is completely at the service of his distinctive ideas. In addition, he has not courted fame, remaining steadfastly outside the metropolitan musical scene. Consequently, his oeuvre has not yet achieved the wide recognition it deserves. Many of his pieces have been premiered and performed in and around his native Birmingham and he has remained loyal to and supportive of local musicians. However, the genuine appeal of his musical voice is international, as celebrated in the committed and life-affirming playing of the Czech Philharmonic on this splendid new release. Paul Conway
Previous review: Paul Godfrey