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Adam GORB (b. 1958)
Dancing in the Ghetto (2008) [4:18]
Weimar (2000) [17:12]
Symphony No. 1 in C (2000) [17:01]
Serenade for Spring (2008) [15:01]
Love Transforming (2013) [14:22]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic 10/10 Ensemble/Clark Rundall
Royal Northern College of Music Wind Ensemble/Mark Heron/Timothy Renish
Manchester Camerata/Mark Heron
rec. October 2014-November 2015, venues not given

Adam Gorb is one of the leading lights of British music, being widely performed and winning awards for his concert band work Metropolis (review). I last came across his Battle Symphony on the Czech Philharmonic Wind Ensemble’s remarkable Twisted Skyscape album (review), so knew a little about what to expect from Dancing in the Ghetto.

Gorb’s signature high-energy feel is very much in evidence in the title track, Dancing in the Ghetto for a large ensemble of solo instruments. Associations with Stravinsky are called up, with rhythmic asymmetries and multi-layering, skittish winds and brass and a wailing bassoon to complete the picture. There’s also a violin played with folk-like abrasiveness, tuned deliberately up a quarter-tone to add grit to the sound.

The opening of Weimar is also a high-intensity experience, evoking feverishness and chaos in the years between the end of WWI and the rise of Hitler in 1933 – “a glorious, frenetic and dangerously illegal final late-night celebration in the face of utter catastrophe.” There is a moment at the end of the first movement in which the spirit of Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is evoked, and Gorb also allows Duke Ellington space here as someone who “would have gone down fantastically well in that chaotic environment.” The second section is a dark evocation of sinister forces, preluding a “tender and illicit love scene between the oboe and the tenor saxophone.” Such things cannot be allowed of course, and brutality takes over. The wordless singing of two sopranos lends a heightened sense of humanity to the instrumentation, the mood by the end becoming “defiant, sensual and sleazy – the party will continue however dark the forces of evil.”

Symphony No. 1 in C, while imposing in its title and the daunting prospect of writing a first symphony described by the composer, this is in fact a compact and light work: “a party piece for thirteen wind instruments (or twelve winds and double bass)… appropriate for an accompaniment of champagne and strawberries on an early summer evening.” One might say ‘call it something else then,’ but whatever your view on the title this is a gloriously entertaining work, and indeed modelled in certain aspects on Beethoven’s First Symphony in the tempi for its four movements, which also quote from other famous symphonies in the same key, Stravinsky to name just one.

Serenade for Spring is written for a chamber orchestra with single woodwinds, two horns, percussion and strings. This is another light and enjoyable work, with descriptive references to a sleigh ride and a general atmosphere of romance – though with darker forces in evidence as an undercurrent. The final piece; Love Transforming, is a “slow movement charting a progress from browbeating anguish to peaceful fulfilment, through expression and emotions associated with love, isolation, confusion, turbulence, resolve, poignancy and finally rapture.” Despite the convincing strength of Weimar, this final work has the deepest and most personal power attached to it, drawing us into psychological realms in which the imagination becomes immersed in a rather grim labyrinth. Gorb’s expertise in orchestration takes us into unexpected places in which the piccolo can become a mezzo ensemble voice that sings above a dark pit from which we feel we might never emerge. The fragile voices of two instrumentalists sing Shakespeare’s words “Love whose month is ever May,” and the final brief coda is an apotheosis of a kind, though one doesn’t feel entirely released from the traumas experienced.

Well recorded and performed with great panache, this is a collection of works that has proven mightily stimulating. Adam Gorb’s music can at times make one want to rub off a bit of that sparkle of vitality, but in this case the balance between frothy fun and truly thought-provoking music is very well struck indeed.

Dominy Clements



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