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Robin WALKER (b.1953) Great Rock is Dead – Funeral March (2007) [9.46] Odysseus on Ogygia - Prelude (2011) [5.27] The Stone King - Symphonic Poem (2005) [11.18] The Stone Maker - Symphonic Poem (1995) [31.42]
Novaya Russia Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker
rec. Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company Kultura, Moscow, September 2015 TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0283 [58.13]
The first thing which might strike you about this CD is the fact that a composer who, is a firm-footed man of the earth - and the Yorkshire earth to boot - should have this first release of his orchestral music recorded by a little-known Russian orchestra. One remembers, twenty or so years ago, when such an orchestra tended to sound … well … not quite up to snuff. This one, under the fine direction of Alexander Walker himself does the composer and the record company proud although at times I found the violin sound to be a little under-powered.
If you have come across Walker before it may be in the Naxos Havergal Brian series where he has brought to life at least seven of those unique, kaleidoscopic works with the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra; the same orchestra used here. Clearly he is an able and guiding hand and in this release he again takes on music that will be unknown to the public and captures its spirit and life force with verve.
Walker studied under David Lumsdaine for a decade and learnt much from him. It was only when he was in his early forties that he felt that he could move away and develop in his own fashion, one quite different from Lumsdaine’s generation. What he has produced, as evidenced here, is something utterly personal and very much his own.
As can be seen from the titles of three of the four scores these works are linked by the word ‘Rock’. They also share a distinctive style. Anyone who has walked, say, the Pennine Way or in the Cumbrian Fells will be aware of rocks and rocky outcrops - stone pavements, as ancient as the world — geological phenomena. This music is rather like that. A composer who comes to mind here is the Icelander Jon Leifs, especially his Saga Symphony. Harrison Birtwistle, perhaps in The Triumph of Time might be something of a distant musical cousin. Then I read, in the conversational essay between the composer and Martin Anderson, that the composer had met Birtwistle, whom he estimates as a 'genius'. Both composers have a similar ‘musical impact’.
It’s not just physical rocks which may form a part of one's outlook. It's also the human ones on which we rely or by whom we have been much influenced. Walker recognises the strong influence of his teacher as mentioned above but also of his father who died in 1995 and to whom the Great Rock is Dead - Funeral March is dedicated. This is a strong, single-minded and determined work.
To describe this music as beautiful would be hopelessly ambiguous. It has the beauty of the sometimes bleak Northern landscape and this is especially the case in The StoneMaker - Symphonic Poem. Walker says that he feels more akin to northern Europe than the warmer southern climes. In that he reminds me of Arthur Butterworth who used to find inspiration in walking the moors and who would have understood the emotions they engender in Robin Walker. Sibelius, who inspired Butterworth, also lies behind Walker’s music not just in its sounds but also in its organic growth. One might even go so far as to say, particularly with regard to the sound-world conjured by The Stone Maker that, in the words of Daniel Defoe when he tracked across Westmoreland in 1726, that the landscape is ‘frightful’ in the original meaning of the word.
Much as I admire the vastness of the statement that makes TheStone Maker so powerful I can’t help but feel that it needs to be more condensed and tighter especially during its middle section. Its last few moments however are beautifully managed and magically orchestrated as it searches and seems to achieve a shining major chord. This is only to be scuppered at the last moment with a ringing unrelated one that fades into the night sky.
Having completed this work the composer then spent several years writing an opera Odysseus on Ogygia, taking an aspect of Homer’s famous epic. The Prelude to that opera is given here and whets the appetite for the stage-work. It's clearly a ‘chip off the block’ and is consistent in language with the other works.
Walker seems to want to describe himself as a non-intellectual composer, having been a choirboy at York Minster and once a dedicated and talented performer. As you read the notes, you learn that he has eschewed academia, resigning from his position at Manchester University where he clearly never felt fully settled and moving to his remote Pennine farm. Despite that, both in the above-mentioned conversation and in his own essay ‘Composition of Physical Beauty’ he makes many scholarly and philosophical points. These will probably result in you reading the essay again as some of his major ideas often seem very pointed, sometimes complex and always individual.
As you can see I am much taken with this music. Of all the pieces I was most impressed with the shorter symphonic poem The Stone King. Its first part climaxes in an emotional collapse and the second is a resurrection back to what the composer calls ‘equilibrium’. Its length and shape are extremely well balanced and the material is of a high quality.
It would be good to hear some of this music live or indeed any of Robin Walker’s works. Perhaps Toccata and Martin Anderson have plans for more, but even if they don’t the disc is well worth searching out. This music is worthy of your complete attention. Gary Higginson
Robert Reilly ~