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Kenneth YOUNG (b. 1955)
Shadows and Light
Remembering (2007) [10:20]
Lux Aeterna (2009) [13:52]
Symphony No. 2 (2004) [24:34]
Invocation (2014) [7:45]
Douce Tristesse (2012) [9:14]
Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin); Andrew Joyce (cello); Robert Orr (oboe d’amore); Donald Armstrong (violin)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Young
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 2014
ATOLL ACD216 [66:00]

Digression alert: as an incurable collectophile and obsessive I have, over the years, been fascinated by the ways fellow enthusiasts organise their discs, downloads, vinyl et al. I have seen collections arranged by alphabetical order, historical era, label (most aesthetically pleasing, perhaps) and chronological order of composer’s birth year (bad luck if one is searching for Bach, Handel and Scarlatti) among other ‘systems’. For downloads the most popular methods seem to be alphabetical order by Christian name (disorientating to recognise that Kodály is always going to be at the end of the list); most common of all is categorisation according to composer’s nationality. This characteristic seems to be materially inseparable from so many of our musical preconceptions. It’s truly hard to find reviews or articles which don’t acknowledge Sibelius’s ‘Finnishness’ or Bartók’s ‘Hungarianness’, or include some inevitable and often inaccurate reference to ‘English pastoral’ or similar if we consider Vaughan Williams, for example (Interesting how it’s never ‘German composer Beethoven’ or ‘Italian master Puccini’ though!).

Of course I fall into this category myself. I wonder if similarly other listeners, subconsciously, hope to hear a dash of cimbalom or zither in an unknown Hungarian symphony; or a pair of Lur horns in a Leifs epic. We might revel in the music of Chávez or Villa-Lobos because both often make use of indigenous instruments. James Macmillan’s quasi-religious concerns are sometimes enlivened by a fiddle reel or jig. I wonder if such examples help provide some aesthetic point of reference for us, or if instead we merely enjoy the whiff of superficial exotica.

In terms of what Northern folk like me refer to as the Antipodes, the late Australian master Peter Sculthorpe loved to use the didgeridoo in orchestral and chamber works, and how beautifully he integrates its extraordinary sounds. Crossing the Tasman Sea Gillian Whitehead has done the same with the indigenous Maori instruments known as Taonga puoro. In their cases I think these local additions truly help us connect sound and place – they present another entry point for those of us who have never physically experienced these lands (and –from my personally aerophobic perspective - are unlikely so to do).

Kenneth Young is a scion of the New Zealand music scene whose music eschews such local cues, but to my ears his work nonetheless seems to radiate an Antipodean glow. Some years ago I remember encountering the first bars of his Symphony No 1 and thinking “this sounds very ‘Cheltenham’ like” but before long the somewhat austere sounds imperceptibly began to shimmer and burn – not least due to the presence of a memorable (if at one point scary) part for coloratura soprano. The present disc includes its successor, but all of the five pieces here seem to diffuse a discernible South Sea aura. How is this so? In general Young’s orchestration generously displays both of the characteristics that give the disc its title - ‘Shadows and Light’. But more than this there really is no rush – while Young’s First Symphony lasts nearly 40 minutes and seems to me to possess an energy created by constant metamorphosis – brief motifs and gestures which appear, merge and dissolve- its successor, and the other works on this album seem to be more leisurely, their ideas longer-breathed. Young simply gives us more time to embrace, caress and appreciate them. There is abundant space for the listener to reflect on the beauty of (and craftsmanship behind) each piece.

In the notes the two key figures of Dutilleux and Duruflé are cited as influences, but it is the former that I suspect will particularly chime with many listeners. And yet while this late (French!) master may be recalled by both form and timbre there is no sense of slavish imitation whatsoever, as this is demonstrably a fully absorbed influence, a stepping stone for Young to create something both memorable and individual. Thus it is difficult to imagine that this music has not been touched by something else – I strongly suspect the New Zealand topography, its landscape and seascape; its ‘Shadows and Light’.

The focus of the disc is Young’s Symphony No 2 – it is the third track and by far the most substantial offering. It opens with a recurring, rising clarinet figure against soft string chords. The orchestral sound gradually swells: tuned percussion and brass get involved. There is a telling role for the plaintive violin of NZSO leader Vesa-Matti Leppänen before the work seems to settle down into an alternation of slow, reflective material and more abrasive brass and percussion led episodes. At no stage however does this faster music feel rushed. Moreover Young’s orchestration reveals a real craftsman. This presents something of an overlap with Dutilleux: the oeuvre of both composers is modest, epitomising, perhaps the triumph of consistent quality over quantity. As the work proceeds the material appears to spread out and thus enables the listener to absorb it more carefully – within there are reminiscences of earlier motifs. A gorgeous violin solo presages what appears to be a fleeting reference to Mahler 1 before isolated glockenspiel notes glisten like the early-evening stars in a Southern sky. The music dissolves, before quicker material re-emerges and sees the symphony through towards a haunting and satisfying denouement. Young’s treatment of symphonic form is convincing throughout; his building and release of tension adroitly judged; his orchestration masterly.

The programme begins with Remembering, a ten minute ‘mini’ violin concerto. Don’t be dissuaded by the rather innocent, generic title: this brief work is both substantial and compelling. It occupies a non-specific elegiac territory, the solo cantilena (sensitively presented by Leppänen) unfolding against a gentle backdrop of ethereal strings and harp. The central section is more restless, the deft orchestration here sometimes recalling Takemitsu before the piece relaxes into the nostalgic spirit of the opening. This closing section features some delightful playing from the NZSO flautist.

The following Lux Aeterna is more substantial, a colourfully scored tone poem which seems to link ancient with modern. The monody presented by the woodwind that opens the work might fleetingly suggest Messiaen, but as the piece builds the sound fills out to evoke yet more space and light – the timbres and textures constantly in flux. There is a profound sense of calm which underscores this work despite the occasional skittering intervention. Lux Aeterna exudes a certain timelessness and proceeds inevitably towards the presentation of the original Gregorian Lux Aeterna melody on brass and strings just prior to its quiet conclusion.

Two shorter works conclude the disc: Invocation begins with solo oboe d’amore presenting a measured, doubtful plea against a calm orchestral background. The soloist has to negotiate busier, agitated terrain in the more disturbed central section before the piece returns to the serenity of its opening. The final ‘Douce Tristesse’ is an atmospheric and melancholy recollection of family holidays past – the specific location Young recalls is the Bay of Plenty. Again the composer’s luminous orchestration is a delight in itself and to my ears at least effortlessly evokes what I can only imagine are the mysteries of that place.

The whole Atoll production is most desirable: the stunning photograph on its cover (“Whistling Winds” by Enjo Matthew) is not easily forgotten. The recording is generous, detailed and faithful; the performances by orchestra and soloists, conducted by the composer betray total commitment and tangible enjoyment. After many listens, I can only confirm that this reviewer at least was deeply touched by Shadows and Light.
Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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