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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Cheryl FRANCES-HOAD (b. 1980)
Stolen Rhythm
Katharsis – Concerto for Cello and Ensemble (2013) [24:35]
The Forgiveness Machine for Piano Trio (2011) [12:21]
Quark Dances for Large Ensemble (2014) [12:30]
Homages for Piano (2009-15) [17:09]
A Refusal to Mourn for Oboe and String Orchestra (2000, rev. 2015) [12:39]
David Cohen (cello); Nicholas Daniel (oboe); Ivana Gavrić (piano)
Phoenix Piano Trio (Jonathan Stone (violin); Christian Elliott (cello); Sholto Kynoch (piano))
Rambert Orchestra/ Paul Hoskins
rec. 2015, Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex; Henry Wood Hall, London
CHAMPS HILL RECORDS CHRCD119 [79:16]

Incredibly it is now twenty-one years since Cheryl Frances-Hoad emerged as the 16 year-old winner of the BBC’s Young Composer competition with a Concertino for Cello, Piano, Percussion and Orchestra. I remember being astonished by the maturity and originality of this work, and played to death a rather distorted tape a friend made for me from a Radio 3 broadcast. Now she is basically the house composer for Mary and David Bowerman’s wonderful Champs Hill label and frankly it is difficult to imagine a composer who could better match its aesthetic. Stolen Rhythm is the third of their discs to be devoted exclusively to her music.

It is many years since I last heard the Concertino (the tape is long lost) and it would be instructive to hear it again, especially in the light of this new disc, which contains not only a concertante cello work of more recent provenance, but also an early work for oboe and strings (although this has been newly revised.) The disc is completed by an orchestral suite compiled from a science-inspired ballet, a set of piano ‘hommages’ to seven composers important to Frances-Hoad and a piano trio. There is nothing insubstantial about any of these pieces. In a disc of almost 80 minutes duration showcasing recent work by a contemporary composer it is a wonder that the time simply flies by, so enjoyable and interesting is the material - the whole disc is easily digestible at one sitting. And yet, as is typical of Frances-Hoad, each successive listen yields new delights.

The striking opening of Katharsis, the cello concerto written for David Cohen (the soloist here) immediately betrays the fact that the cello was Frances-Hoad’s first love, so idiomatic and ‘inevitable’ does it sound. While she has identified the solo Suites of Bach and Britten as the inspirational trigger for this substantial work in six movements I feel this admission relates more to the formal structure of each movement (Prelude; Moto perpetuo; Minuet & Trio etc) than to the musical content per se. There is so much going on throughout - an arresting variety of timbre, mood, melody and rhythm - that it seems churlish to name specific influences when Frances-Hoad’s own voice is so recognisable and her inspiration so consistently high. So abundant are the musical ideas that the concerto needs its six movements to accommodate them comfortably, but none is left undeveloped – indeed all are most satisfyingly resolved. There is real concision here –absolutely no padding. The music can effortlessly evoke at different moments both great depths of feeling and a huge sense of fun. But there is nothing clichéd or artful about it, simply a composer revelling in the realisation of her own considerable abilities. The reprise of the opening at the outset of the final canto is seamlessly managed – its moving denouement perhaps shares its spirit with the conclusion of Berg’s Violin Concerto. Frances-Hoad also reveals great flair in maximising the colouristic opportunities afforded by the small ensemble (wind quintet and strings). Katharsis leaves a lasting impression and is superbly performed and recorded.

The idea of catharsis in its psychological sense is also pertinent to the second work, a piano trio intriguingly entitled The Forgiveness Machine, which the composer’s informative note tells us has its origins in a physical artwork by Karen Green; apparently members of the public were invited to note down a past indiscretion on paper and submit it to the device which subsequently shredded it (Our house would certainly benefit from such a product). The music itself is cast in elegiac terms and reflects the composer’s experience of sitting with her grandmother during her final illness and listening to Beethoven’s Archduke Trio through headphones while her gran rested. This permitted moments of emotional respite. The resulting piece is extremely beautiful, and exudes a sense of serenity and consolation. The performance by its commissioners, the Phoenix Piano Trio is empathic and dignified.

A flavour of Stravinskian neo-classicism pervades the following “Quark Dances” which provide a lighter contrast to the trio. A harpsichord adds a frisson of relevant colour to this attractive work, which accompanied the third panel of Mark Baldwin’s ballet “The Strange Charm of Mother Nature” inspired by the Big Bang. As the other two panels were paired in turn with Stravinsky’s ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 it is perhaps unsurprising that these five short dances have both sonic and formal kinships with these works, even incorporating brief quotations.

The “Homages” for piano attempt to harness stylistic ‘fingerprints’ of seven particular composers in what amount to short, individual character pieces. I will not identify them in this review as I suspect It might be great fun for listeners to try and spot the sources before reading the notes – armed with the knowledge beforehand, I have to say that Frances-Hoad manages to distil the essence of each with rare skill and great charm, resorting neither to parody nor pastiche at any point. While the pieces seemingly weren’t intended to form a suite they do work well together and are winningly played by the composer’s long-time collaborator Ivana Gavrić.

The album concludes with the delightful and haunting concerto “A refusal to mourn” for oboe and strings, which Frances-Hoad originally composed as an undergraduate at Cambridge. Though she has since revised it, her early compositional maturity is again glaringly apparent here. Again Bach inspired, while the actual notes of various Lutheran chorales form the cells on which the work is based, the finished article is unmistakeably Frances-Hoad’s own creation and in three brief movements weaves its inexorable way towards a perfectly judged elegiac close. Nicholas Daniel, who actually conducted the work’s premiere in 2000 is the apt soloist here, and shows himself to be completely at one with the composer’s expressive aims. Here, as in the two earlier works for larger ensemble, the Rambert Orchestra under Paul Hoskins prove to be hugely sympathetic accompanists.

Production and recording values are invariably high from this source and the present issue continues this trend. I note that a previous Frances-Hoad chamber music issue The Glory Tree on Champs Hill was accorded Recording of the Month status - I have absolutely no hesitation affording the same courtesy to this superb disc.

Richard Hanlon

 

 




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