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Peter NAVARRO-ALONSO (b. 1973)
Le Quattro Stagioni – Concerto Grosso for Alpha and amplified strings (2014) [25:44]
Concerto in Si minore for recorder, saxophone and vibraphone (2017) [17:06]
Alpha (Bolette Roed, recorder; Peter Navarro-Alonso, saxophone; David Hildebrandt, percussion and vibraphone)
Ekkozone/Mathias Reumert
rec. 2015/17, Copenhagen
DACAPO 8.226591 [42:50]

The first time I grappled with the idea of post-modernism was in my mid-teens. A pal of mine put on his new LP of Berio’s Sinfonia (the old CBS version with the New York Phil and the Swingles conducted by the composer) and as quotation after quotation emerged he smugly identified them one after another (which I couldn’t) while pronouncing the work an ‘original’ masterpiece. It left me feeling empty and confused – if Berio was such a genius why did he spend so much of his time regurgitating other works and so little presenting his own material? This was when I got the lecture. Of course I eventually began to enjoy many of Berio’s ‘own’ works though Sinfonia continues to leave me feeling a bit uncomfortable, notwithstanding the undeniable excitement the piece generates.

Borrowing, quoting, recomposing – of course this has been going on in music for centuries, from the masses of Dufay and Josquin, via Bach’s Christmas Oratorio through Offenbach to Stravinsky and Shostakovich and Schnittke, source material from other composers has found its way into parodies, pastiches and homages. We see the same in popular music, in jazz, in music-theatre. Forgive the prejudice but one could be forgiven for thinking that most new ‘pop’ music is simply old pop music …

A couple of years ago DG issued a disc called ‘Vivaldi Recomposed’ – an album of music ostensibly ‘by’ Max Richter. I remember interviews with Richter at the time where he talked at length about ‘reclaiming the music’ as if the Four Seasons had become so addled and hackneyed it would be quite impossible to experience it anew without mucking about with it (Rachel Podger’s magnificent recent account - review - utterly confounds that notion). The poor old Red Priest’s ubiquitous magnum opus gets yet another makeover here, courtesy of the Danish composer, saxophonist (and organist) Peter Navarro-Alonso. He has distilled elements (predominantly the ‘obvious’ ones) from each of Vivaldi’s concerti into a one-movement-per-season structure and scored the work for his trio Alpha (comprising recorder, saxophone and percussion) and amplified string group. The whole lasts around 25 minutes and the whole corresponds to a traditional fast-scherzo-adagio-fast movement layout.

The opening La primavera starts with staccato high violins and tapping percussion. The nod to a somewhat minimalist aesthetic soon becomes clear though there are certainly some varied and intriguing sounds. At times the dominant vibraphone textures suggest gamelan, until a bass drum pounds out a throbbing dance beat and the rhythm of the piece seems to become its central characteristic. The recorder and saxophone duel in an evocation of a dialogue between blackbirds before gentle strings adopt harmonium–like textures. Finally the pounding rhythms return before oscillating high strings shriek and desist, apparently presaging the storm that will arrive in L’estate. Here Vivaldi’s familiar material is deployed between strings and vibraphone creating a very Reichian sound-world before loud drums trigger the tempest. This is viscerally exciting in sonic terms to be sure, though I have to say it kindled (rather unkind) thoughts of an unlikely collaboration between the Italian ‘Baroque/Rock’ group Rondò Veneziano and the Kodō Drummers of Japan. L’autumno is more unpredictable: here Navarro-Alonso slows elements of Vivaldi’s last movement right down to the extent that the source is almost undetectable until gentle vibraphone chords re-orientate the listener’s memory. Here the music is more disturbing, melancholy and gently threatens one’s equilibrium. It rather cleverly distorts one’s sense of the passage of time. L’inverno, which concludes the work, certainly conveys a winter chill (not unwelcome as it is 29 degrees outside as I record these thoughts). Again, the familiar gestures and progressions from the original are mashed up into a rather frenzied, wayward confection that often brought to mind the player-piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow.

Navarro-Alonso’s ‘re-imagining’ of Le Quattro Stagioni is cleverly laid out for the unusual instrumental forces, it is quirky, good fun and in turn tickles, caresses and shocks the ear. It is brilliantly played and perfectly recorded. While L’autumno proved a more challenging listen for this reviewer than its three companion movements, I do ultimately wonder about the point of such a work. Is it fair to expect more than adroitly arranged instrumental ‘entertainment’? I enjoyed the ride, but at this moment I suspect it’s unlikely I’ll revisit it any time soon. I also suspect others may disagree.

I’m afraid I really didn’t warm to the coupling here, Navarro-Alonso’s Concerto in Si minore. This piece is a more general ‘homage’ to the spirit of baroque music; it is scored for the three instrumentalists of Alpha and incorporates electroacoustic elements in its first three movements; the fourth is purely instrumental and makes use of material from the first movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B minor, RV 580. There are pleasant effects in abundance; the electronic halo that clothes the sound of the first three movements is warm and alluring but I found the musical content clichéd and wearisome, almost a catalogue of minimalist textures, gestures and effects that seem to revel in their own cleverness. One cannot argue with the cool playing and the crystalline recording but its 17 minute duration seemed much longer to me.

The disc is accompanied by excellent documentation which includes detailed accounts of Navarro-Alonso’s compositional strategies. Performance and recording standards are plainly beyond reproach. Under normal circumstances I would be making disapproving noises of any full-priced disc that offered a mere 42 minutes of music but in this case I found it to be more than sufficient.
Richard Hanlon



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