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Aztec Dances
Edward GREGSON (b. 1945)

Aztec Dances (2010) [18:48]
Gregory ROSE (b. 1948)
Garden of the Gods (2013) [16:19]
David BEDFORD (1937-2011)
Keptown Races (2010) [7:10]
George KING (b. 1979)
Dance Suite (2011) [7:25]
Daryls RUNSWICK (b. 1946)
Cycles (2013) [21:21]
Jill Kemp (recorder)
Aleksander Szram (piano)
rec. July 2014, Wathen Hall, London

One of my small regrets is giving up the recorder in favour of the flute way back in the 1970s, not long before becoming aware of that instrument’s renaissance both in terms of a revival of early music and its potential for exploration by contemporary composers. This stunning collection of recent works for recorder and piano represents another substantial addition to its ever-expanding concert repertoire.

Edward Gregson’s Aztec Dances was inspired by an exhibition at the British Museum about the Aztec ruler Moctezuma, the role of music and dance in Aztec life having particular resonance. The four movements are both illustrative and atmospheric, the sharpest contrast being between a wild Fertility Dance followed by a mysterious Ghost Song with dark rumblings from the piano and various incantations from the recorder, including playing into the resonance of the piano strings. A more conventionally expressive ‘song’ emerges towards the end of this movement, leading us towards a final Sacrifial Dance. I remember Mr Gregson referring to Stravinsky as a kind of musical god when he taught me briefly at the RAM in the 1980s, so it’s no big surprise for the connection to be conjured here, with stabbing rhythms and plenty of virtuoso demands made of both players. Andrew Mayes’ booklet notes point out the inherently ‘primitive’ nature of the recorder which suits this subject well, although other versions of this work exist for flute.

Gregory Rose’s Garden of the Gods also takes us back into a distant past, in this case to the ruins of the ‘Odeon’, Agrippa’s concert hall from around 15 BC, located in Athens not far from the Acropolis. Composed for Jill Kemp and Aleksander Szram, this suite of seven relatively brief movements exploits their virtuosity both with its powerful rhythmic character, and lyrical but still enigmatic slow movements such as Love Song and the strangely but logically chromatic Altar of the Twelve Gods. As with Edward Gregson’s piece, this work uses the qualities of a variety of recorders, the more ‘stark’ descant contrasting with the mellow tenor recorder, which is given an unaccompanied solo on The Pantheatic Way.

David Bedford’s Kemptown Races is an unashamedly virtuoso set of variations on the famous tune ‘Camptown Races’ with one section that demands the recorder player duet with herself, performing on two instruments at once; a starling effect indeed. This, sadly, was one of the last pieces he wrote before dying just weeks before it saw its première on 23rd October 2011, but it is a sheer joy from beginning to end.

George King’s jazz-infused Dance Suite is an excellent modern take on an ancient form, opening with Dub, a crazy rhythmic piano ostinato bass line over which the recorder magically seems to fall between each note. A sprightly Jig precedes a more lyrical Minuet, though both of these defy convention in their inventive departures from any expectation you might have from such titles. The final Bebop ranges wider than the opening, but shares its way of using the recorder almost as much as a percussion instrument as anything melodic.

By far the longest piece here, Daryl Runswick’s Cycles is a piece that uses free notation and scoring techniques to give considerable autonomy to dedicatees Jill and Aleksander. Departures from more usual sonorities include a small-gauge chain laid across the bass strings to give them an additional ‘buzz’, as well as occasions in which strings are played with a percussion beater or plucked. The recorder and piano parts have their improvisatory outbursts, but the general effect is of slow development and an atmosphere of reflection in a strange hall of portraits, some of which invite us to look closer while others have a more obstreperous manner, or seem to want to communicate but are frustrated by a gulf of semantic abstraction.

This is a very well recorded and superbly performed collection of new music for recorder and piano, and comes highly recommended for anyone interested in this combination or a fresh look at chamber music in general.

Dominy Clements


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