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David Hackbridge JOHNSON (b. 1963)
Symphony No. 9 in C sharp minor Op. 295 (2012) [49:04]
Communion Antiphon No. 14 Op. 359 'St. Boniface, Whitechapel' (2016) [5:33]
Motet No. 2 Op. 257 No. 2 (2009) [13:17]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul Mann
rec. 2016, The Friary, Everton, Liverpool
All premiere recordings
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0393 [68:09]

I am not sure that any recording company currently does more to promote the music of living composers than Toccata Classics. And not just small-scale works but multiple discs of substantial orchestral works as here. Now of course, I know that the funding of these discs often relies on the composers involved being able to secure financial support away from the label carrying all the cost and risk alone. But the fact remains that these very well produced, engineered and performed discs give composers a platform from which their work can be promoted quite literally to the world.

A case in point is the music of David Hackbridge Johnson. The liner essay by Johnson is tellingly entitled "The confession of a secret symphonist" in which he elaborates in some detail the origins of and influences on his music. In essence, it would appear that Johnson had earned his daily bread through school teaching in parallel with a remarkably prolific life as a composer. This is evidenced by the opus numbers on this disc alone – the Communion Antiphon No.14 is a rather mind boggling Opus 359. Of course producing music in such vast quantities always raises questions of variable quality – pace Villa-Lobos or Milhaud - but it also speaks of a hard-wired imperative to compose that cannot be denied. Writing of his Ninth symphony Johnson says "[it] is one of those pieces that was clamouring to get out … the speed [of composition] should not surprise, since it was in my head for so long and just wanted writing down". I find the choice of words there very telling; they speak of the music almost having a separate existence with Johnson the vehicle through which it finds a voice.

As to the music itself the three works presented here are quite different from each other, but all are dynamic and individual. I wonder if now Johnson is able to listen repeatedly and in detail to these substantial orchestral scores he finds that his approach to orchestral writing is changing. He uses a large but standard orchestra with prominent parts for harp, celesta and orchestral piano. His percussion writing again is effective but not excessive or that elaborate. Indeed all of his instrumental writing 'works' although there is nothing especially individual in his handling of the orchestra as a collective instrument. The 9th Symphony – written Johnson concedes as an unconscious memorial to his first wife – is in three well balanced and substantial movements. After a driving opening Allegro molto, the second movement is an impressive theme, nine variations and passacaglia with the closing movement bi-partite with the opening vivace energico reaching in effect an extended coda which is another passacaglia marked andante dolente. I am always cautious about expressing too definitive an opinion about music which I know far less well than the composer or indeed the performers. My impression from a series of listenings is that the music - especially when Johnson is writing for the full ensemble playing fast and/or loudly is that the textures can become rather cluttered and dense. Additionally, Johnson quite often writes themes in a fragmentary way with the music distributed across the orchestra. Very well though the ever reliable RLPO play, for the unfamiliar ear it is not always clear how to 'track' the musical path. In its defence I should say that conductor Paul Mann describes the music as "[written] with complete mastery, and meticulous craftsmanship, with no hint of awkwardness or impracticality" – and he knows these scores infinitely better than I!

That this is how Johnson wants to write rather than it being a flaw is clear in the second movement where he utilises the orchestra with great care and aural precision. I must admit I found this to be the most impressive section of the work. Johnson is not afraid in the liner to mention other composers who – one imagines – are implicit influences. One he does not mention is Britten and the presence of the two passacaglias – that form so beloved by Britten – would suggest an admiration at least. Certainly the one that closes the second movement has strong echoes of Peter Grimes not least in the way that Johnson builds it to an implacable and shuddering climax before it sinks back into a rather beautiful horn elegy over a long-sustained bass pedal. The construction of this movement is particularly impressive with each of the variations evolving out of the other in a very coherent manner. Another composer Johnson does not reference – and to be fair there is no real similarity in terms of the sound worlds they occupy! – is Franz Schmidt. But interesting to note that Schmidt's 2nd Symphony is of a near identical length, in three movements with the central one – the longest – being a set of theme and variations.

The third and final movement returns to the stamping energy of the opening initially at least – with the timpani writing, brass interjections and athletic string writing more than occasionally reminding me of Malcolm Arnold. Mann contributes to the liner an extended and very detailed analysis of the whole work, which includes very valuable music examples. For a work new to a listener such as this the level of detail is extremely helpful – apart from proving that this is truly a labour of love for Mann and not simply some read-record session. The collapse of the closing vivace section after 7:30 is quite surprisingly abrupt leaving the orchestra in chilled near silence before the harp initiates the closing passacaglia of an identical length. Again the pacing of this section of the work impresses but rather than this being an arch form as in the 2nd movement, Johnson builds this to a powerful almost ecstatic close with high trilling strings over low growling brass.

Next on the disc is the Communion Antiphon No.14 which opens with bell tones from piano, harp and celesta over glassy string harmonics. Mann describes this with brilliant concision as "evoking a sense of liturgical ritual and contemplative stillness." Mann also notes a deliberate echoing of the Carillon Nocturne from Enescu's Third Suite for Piano – a piece I do not know so the allusion eludes me. Certainly Johnson very skilfully evokes a sense of ancient and modern fused in a place out of time. In his essay Johnson notes the importance of the childhood influence of church music with both his parents active in the local church in London's East End. I do not think that this extends to making this music 'religious' but it is certainly influenced by the atmosphere and spirit of church music. This influence extends to the final Motet No.2 as well – one of a series of eleven so named works for orchestra. Johnson admits to the music material being influenced by use of the plainchant Liber Usualis although Johnson states it is non-liturgical. Mann goes further writing; “I ... regard it as anti-liturgical; there is too much earthly pain in this music to suggest any form of religious consolation." Overall, I think this is possibly the most impressive work on the disc – there is a lowering sense of protest and outrage that is very compelling. Brief passages of consolation for the high strings – punctuated by the lower reference to a plainchant-like melody and harp figurations are brief and rather chilly instead of giving any benediction. Usually with new and unfamiliar music I try and avoid the 'sounds-like' analogies. But with Johnson's music there seems to be a conscious almost magpie-like acquisition of the fingerprints of others. So immediately after the strings have tried and failed to offer warmth, the flute repeats the attempt over tremolandi strings in a passage that echoes the Siberian chill of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. Then at the ending Johnson's use of high trilling string figures is unmistakeably a homage to JanŠček. The back of the CD case lists seven composers as influences so this is not me seeking to diminish the achievement of the music here which is considerable – Johnson's skill is to find a unique amalgum of all these other composers and in so doing produce something quite individual.

As mentioned, Paul Mann leads committed and impressive performances well engineered and produced. Perhaps by their own superlative standards the RLPO sound a rehearsal or session short of the world-class level of playing they so often achieve these days but this is still very good indeed. The engineering is good on detail - important in these scores which – as mentioned – can veer toward textural thickness in the fastest loudest passages. Just occasionally I did find balances to give undue prominence to certain instruments within the overall orchestral palette. The 20 page English only booklet is a real boon – Toccata's recent redesign of their 'house' style is a small but significant improvement in the label's presentation. I have enormous respect for any artist who is so dedicated to their craft that they produce works of this calibre in such splendid isolation – a disc such as this vindicates the years of effort and work and energy that has been devoted to the creation of so much music. I would imagine that Johnson must be rightly delighted with the quality of this disc and for the listener seeking the unusual and unknown this is a rewarding disc.

Nick Barnard

 




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