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Larry GOVES (b.1980)
The Rules (2014) [22:24]
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Paul Daniel
rec. live, 13 January 2014, Barbican Hall, London

The first disc entirely devoted to the music of Larry Goves was an NMC ‘Portrait’ disc released in 2014 and enigmatically entitled ‘Just stuff people do’ (NMCD 198). I was much taken with the two large scale works on that issue, especially an engaging piece for piano, orchestra and electronics called ‘Things that are blue, things that are white and things that are black’. This busy, absorbing concerto covered a lot of ground in its 30-minute duration and I have since kept an eye on the release schedules for more of Goves’ music. It’s taken four years but now we have ‘The Rules’, a piece for huge orchestra expressly written for the NYO in its 2014 vintage and performed here by them with show-stopping virtuosity.

Goves currently teaches at the RNCM and essentially the impulse behind this opus was the idea of providing a kind of non-patronising 21st Century ‘Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra’. In the notes to this issue, he makes the point that he was very wary of talking down to young players, especially to those that constitute the hyper-virtuosic machine that is the NYO. The title ‘The Rules’ then alludes more to conventions these players can break rather than follow. I found the work chaotic but not unpleasant, and somewhat underwhelming, alas.

The Rules has five movements, each of which has three titles which Goves explains reflect, in turn, a compositional conceit, a natural law and a social description. Hence, to provide two examples, the first movement is ‘Transforming patterns//Superposition//Families and cliques’; the third is ‘Canon X//Conjuction fallacies//Facebook etiquette’. Goves obviously likes making titles. The problem for me here is that this practice draws attention unnecessarily away from the music; it seems to strive too hard for ‘clever’ and ends up being, well, ‘clever-clever’.

The music starts aggressively with frenetic, aggressively overlapping rhythmic patterns in the strings with regular interjections from harps and specially tuned percussion. This version of the NYO is huge – names are printed in the back of the booklet and number roughly 160 and they play this dizzying, complex music as though their lives depend on it. The composer considerately provides moments of stasis for players and listeners alike to find their bearings and, while the textures are often interesting, it’s odd that one of the strengths of the work I mentioned earlier, its ‘busyness’, is one of the problems in The Rules. At times it just sounds too cluttered. This is, as far as I can make out, by no means down to the orchestra or its heroic conductor.

I found the second, slow movement by far the most formally convincing and sonically appealing. Here, an expressive unison melody pervades and persists notwithstanding punctuation from tinkling and knocking percussion and muted brass. The weight of strings involved seems to imbue the melody with a Bollywood kind of flavour, while eventually the strings trade in microtonal harmonies and weirdly disorientating glissandi. The harps contribute Birtwistle-like interjections but this nine-minute movement provides some breathing space and presents material which becomes more graceful and appealing with repeated listening.

The three brief movements which conclude the work are dizzying and diffuse. In each case there’s almost too much going on, often at breakneck speed and, while some of the principals get their moments in the sun, these short panels fail to convince formally or in terms of sound. There is much violent jagged percussion in the third movement – the ’canon’ referred to alludes to Conlon Nancarrow but this reference passed me by, alas. Yet more harp ‘punctuation’ is heard throughout the fourth and fifth – it’s good at least to have a piece where no fewer than four harps are worked as much as they are here. All these gestures, though, create are a lexicon of showy effects as opposed to a coherent, satisfying whole. The end comes unexpectedly but, to my ears and brain, not a moment too soon.

One cannot praise the playing of the NYO too highly, nor the tremendous efforts of Paul Daniel to make some structural sense of what is a colourful but unwieldy piece. The fifteen titles (for a 22 minute piece) perhaps give the game away – Goves in my view tries far too hard to do too many things at once. While there may be something admirable in his ambition, I feel this work would really have benefited from a little more discipline and restraint. Given its title and its composer’s rationale, this is ironic indeed. It’s a vividly detailed BBC recording, nevertheless. And it’s only four quid, and frankly the playing standards are stellar – the NYO demand to be heard.
Richard Hanlon


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