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An Eventful Morning in East London – 21st Century Violin Concertos
Paul PATTERSON (b.1947)
Allusions for 2 solo violins and strings (2007) [19:17]
Deborah PRITCHARD (b.1977)
Wall of Water – Violin Concerto (2014) [21:07]
David MATTHEWS (b.1943)
Romanza for solo violin and string orchestra (2012) [10:49]
Robert FOKKENS (b.1975)
An Eventful Morning Near East London – Violin Concerto (2006) [13:12]
Emily DOOLITTLE (b. 1972)
falling still for violin and strings (2001) [5:09]
Harriet Mackenzie, Philippa Mo (violin)
English String Orchestra, English SO/Kenneth Woods
rec. 2014, LSO St Luke’s (Pritchard); 2017, Wyastone Concert Hall (others)

Nimbus originally issued a CD single of this performance of Deborah Pritchard’s “Wall of Water” Violin Concerto a couple of years ago. I read a couple of extremely positive reviews, but found the physical disc really hard to obtain. I finally gave into the pressures of 21st century market forces and took out a streaming subscription earlier this year and recall it was the first piece I actually sought and heard through the new platform. A day later I looked to repeat the experience and it had completely disappeared, never to return! The welcome arrival of this new disc, where “Wall of Water” is put into context by its pairing with works of a similar genre and era presumably accounts for its sudden removal.

I mention this because at first hearing I was certain that “Wall of Water” was unequivocally a masterpiece. I have now heard it a dozen times and can only confirm that to my ears at least it is one of those pieces that keeps on giving. One of the tests I try to apply to new works is to pose the completely hypothetical “How might audiences perceive this work in 100 years time?” test. In my view it certainly merits ‘repertoire staple’ status. In terms of form, style, orchestration, melodic shape and the like, there are perhaps no obvious cues to elicit a “Wow – that’s new and different!” type response from the listener. But the lack of such gimmickry epitomises the strength of this piece. There is a completeness, a confidence, an honesty and a consistent lyrical beauty that has moved me again and again. These qualities all emerge in Harriet Mackenzie’s utterly magisterial performance. There is little evidence of a composer finding her feet – we have a truly ‘grown-up’ concerto, in a perfectly proportioned slow-fast-slow arch.

Composer and soloist evidently collaborated in the composition of the piece. Mackenzie’s interesting notes identify a friendship enhanced by a common interest in the visual arts. Communication with the artist Maggi Hambling resulted in a visit to her Suffolk studio during the creation of a thirteen panel series of oils entitled “Walls of Water” and the present concerto stemmed directly from that encounter.
I certainly feel there is something intangibly marine (and more obviously English) about the spirit of this piece – in my view it would be untruthful to say that the particular essence of Hambling’s magnificently visceral works lurks obviously in the background. Pritchard limits her timbral choices to those offered by the accompanying string orchestra but my word , does she know how to make full use of it! There are soaring lines, episodes of stasis and elegiac reflection, and above all a real sense of inevitability as one comes to know the piece. There is expert writing throughout for both soloist and ensemble, whose appreciation of it comes over in this recording in spades. It is rare for a new work to utterly bowl this listener over from start to finish, but this one, from 2014, most certainly does and is worth the price of the disc alone.

However the merits of this issue do not end there. The album presents four more concertante works to provide both context and contrast. They all have something to say, although two of them are occasional pieces on a smaller scale. Two of the composers are Pritchard’s direct contemporaries, while two belong to the previous generation.

Turning firstly to the piece which gives the album its name, Robert Fokkens’ (b.1975) Violin Concerto “An Eventful Morning near East London” was premiered in 2006 and refers to the place in his native South Africa rather than to Tilbury Docks. Its starting point was a quotation by Christopher Hobbs – a conceptual ‘performance instruction’ in fact - in “Scratch Music”, the eponymous manifesto of the 1960s experimental and improvisational movement led by Cornelius Cardew. Without repeating the whole quote, Fokkens has reimagined the event taking place on a “hazardously cattle-infested stretch of….(a) motorway….in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province”. The concerto employs a large chamber orchestra featuring particularly colourful pianos and percussion. Lest the reader be turned off by reference to the Scratch Orchestra I can only give reassurance that the piece synthesises some stratospherically high violin writing, the “Dies Irae” and some distinctive African flavours and crams a great deal into its thirteen minute duration, which absolutely flies by. It creates a unique and attractive atmosphere and is blessed by another fabulous performance by Mackenzie and the full English Symphony Orchestra on this occasion, under Kenneth Woods’ assured baton.

This is followed by a short piece “falling still” by the Canadian (now resident in Scotland) composer Emily Doolittle (b.1972). Mackenzie (again in her note) sees it as an elegiac nature piece in the same line as “A Lark Ascending” and although it is slower and much shorter it is certainly affecting and beautiful.

Bookending “Wall of Water” are two pieces by more established representatives of the previous generation, Paul Patterson (b.1947) and David Matthews (b. 1943). Patterson’s “Allusions” (2007) is a double violin concerto (with string orchestra) commissioned from him by the Orchestra of the Swan to celebrate his 60th birthday. The allusions of the title refer to operatic characters and material relevant to each is embedded within the score. Verdi’s Falstaff is the implied hero of the first movement “False Impressions”; while Mozart’s operas provide the source material for the other two, specifically Don Giovanni in “Mindscape” and The Marriage of Figaro in “Beneath the Surface”. This work is an enjoyable romp for the soloists, and Harriet Mackenzie is here joined by her Retorica duo partner Philippa Mo. Michael Tippett is the influence who seems to hover over this music – his “Little Music” for strings came to my mind in the first movement, and some of the interplay between the soloists recalls the “Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli” in the second. “Allusions” is certainly not a derivative work, however – it is beautifully written and tremendous fun.

David Matthews’ “Romanza” dates from 2012 and is a short concertante work employing a splendid waltz in the central section – a real earworm I have found hard to remove! The spirit of Mahler is never far away and as always Matthews’ fastidious orchestration is notable throughout.

In summary, this is certainly one of my discs of the year. Performances and recording are first-class throughout. Harriet Mackenzie’s commitment to these composers and these works is obvious, her performances are riveting. She needs to be making more records for sure. But if you limit your new music listening to one piece this year, I urge you to make it Deborah Pritchard’s “Wall of Water”.
Richard Hanlon
Previous review: Nigel Harris



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