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Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
In Damascus
Piano Quintet (2009) [21:14]
Out of Time for String Quartet (2001) [17:58]
In Damascus for Tenor and String Quartet (2016) [34:04]
Sacconi Quartet
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Charles Owen (piano)
rec. 2016, All Saints Church, East Finchley, London. DDD
English texts included

I like Jonathan Dove’s music a lot and recently I’ve had some welcome exposure to it. First came Kitty Whatley’s marvellous disc of his songs for mezzo (review). Unfortunately, I was unable to attend what I’ve been told was a very fine recital that she gave in July at the Three Choirs Festival when she included a number of the Dove songs. However, the previous evening I was able to enjoy an excellent performance of his choral/orchestral work, There Was a Child, also at the Festival (review). Most of the music by Jonathan Dove that I’ve heard has been choral or orchestral plus one or two of his operas. I was glad therefore to get the chance to have a serious listen to some of his chamber music.

The earliest work here is Out of Time. Julian Grant tells us in his very useful notes that this is the composer’s only work to date for ‘pure’ string quartet. It’s cast in six short movements, the last three of which play continuously. Mrs Elizabeth Allsebrook commissioned in in memory of her late husband and Grant comments that the piece “is not a musical portrait, but an evocation of someone with life-enhancing energy and an elegy for his departure.” The opening movement is highly propulsive and so when an expansive melodic idea first emerges (1:21) we value the melody all the more. The chordal energy of much of this brief movement put me a little in mind of John Adams’ Shaker Loops. The second movement has the feel of a nocturne and it’s a welcome contrast after the driving music of the preceding movement. The third movement sounds rather like a hoe-down. Its successor is a jig-like creation that evolves into a folk-like episode in which the cello introduces the theme. After a vigorous fifth movement, the concluding section is tranquil and gently elegiac. Out of Time is a most interesting piece which the Sacconi Quartet plays very well indeed.

They’re joined by pianist Charles Owen for the Piano Quintet, a work cast in three movements. After an arresting opening the first movement is characterised by driving, high-energy music much of which features treble-dominated textures. Twice the music becomes more legato in nature but otherwise Dove’s writing is vigorous and highly charged. The central movement, marked Very spacious, is the crux of the Quintet: At just over 9 minutes in this performance it accounts for nearly half the duration of the whole work. As Julian Grant says, you can hear an echo of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth at the start. Essentially there are two elements to the musical argument: one is long, legato lines for the strings; the other consists of bell-like episodes for the piano. Eventually the percussive piano and the legato strings come together, gently at first. After another bell episode, the ensemble coalesces for what Grant terms “a solemn processional”. After this the intensity relaxes somewhat and the movement achieves a tranquil close. The finale is full of energy and the clever use of accents and emphases continually spring little surprises. Not for the first time in fast music by Dove I hear something of a kinship – which may simply be my imagination – with John Adams; the kinship, if such it is, concerns rhythmic dexterity and inventiveness. This last movement is extrovert in nature and full of exuberance. The present performance of the Quintet seems to me to be an excellent, incisive one.

In Damascus is very different from the other two works on the disc and not just because it introduces a human voice. The piece was commissioned by the present artists who suggested a Syrian theme. As we read in the booklet, Dove had visited Syria some two decades ago, was made welcome and loved the country. In recent years he’s been appalled, as surely we all have been, at the tragedy that has unfolded there during the country’s civil – or proxy – war. Searching for texts that could reflect his feelings about the Syrian tragedy Dove came across A Black Cloud in a Leaden White Sky, a piece of prose by the Syrian writer, Ali Safar. The piece is contained in an anthology, Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline (Saqi Books, 2014). Dove read, and has set, the words in an English translation by Anne-Marie McManus. He describes Safar’s writing as “an eloquent, thoughtful, contained yet vivid account of life in a war-torn country, all the more moving for its restraint.” Dove, it seems to me, has echoed Safar’s restraint in his music. It’s true that there are a few loud, gritty passages for the strings and one or two anguished or angry outbursts for the tenor. For the most part, however, the music is fairly quiet – but suffers no lack of tension thereby – and the singer sings softly, sadly and sometimes tenderly. The plangent, expressive tones of Mark Padmore, who often uses head voice, are ideally suited to this assignment.

Eleven short movements, the sixth of which is instrumental, constitute In Damascus. I’m not going to attempt to describe them in detail – it’s far better to let the listener make his or her own discovery. What I will say, however, is that there’s a bare spareness in the writing that I’ve not previously encountered in this composer’s music. In my experience, he never resorts to over-padded textures in any case but here he seems to have consciously pared his music back to the bone. The words seem to dictate the pace of the music and Dove seems determined to let as little as possible intrude between the listener and what Ali Safar is saying. I was especially moved by the seventh movement, ‘Soon, we will be free’ where the simplicity of the music and the words really tug at the heartstrings. The chilling message that Safar’s words carry here is that soon the Syrian civilians will be dead and “the happy world won’t have to listen to our clamour anymore….Soon, mankind, you will have your quiet once more, and we promise we won’t disturb you again.” The words are devoid of self-pity and Dove’s music reinforces that. We’ve all heard comment about a tragic event fading from the public attention once the TV cameras and the media have moved on; Safar’s words similarly that message and do so starkly. From this point onwards In Damascus becomes ever sadder until we reach the final section, ‘My country, please wait a little longer’. There’s a desolate beauty about this final setting. Is there, perhaps, the faintest of hope that one day the agony of the ordinary Syrian people will come to an end and it will be possible to start the process of rebuilding? Safar and Dove provide the merest hint that this may not be an entirely forlorn hope.

What is so moving about In Damascus is that it focuses on the sufferings of ordinary people. Not once are the rights and wrongs of the Syrian conflict discussed; instead we are reminded that millions of innocent civilians and a once-beautiful country have been caught up in this terrible war. The frightening thing is that if and when the Syrian war does eventually come to an end there’ll be another dreadful conflict somewhere else in the world. In Damascus is a response to a particular set of awful circumstances but its message surely has a wider application. It is a profoundly unsettling and very moving commentary on human tragedy.

The present performance is magnificent. Mark Padmore’s singing is eloquent in the extreme and he sings with great technical and emotional control. The Sacconi Quartet are no less admirable, no less eloquent.

The recorded sound for all three works is very good indeed. All the elements in the different ensembles required for each work are expertly balanced and the sound is pleasingly natural. The booklet is excellent.

I’m not sure that either the |Piano Quintet or Out of Time has been previously recorded; I suspect not. I’m certain that this is the first recording of In Damascus. This disc is an important addition to the discography of Jonathan Dove.

John Quinn



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