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Steve ELCOCK (b. 1957)
Clarinet Sextet, Op. 11a (2001/2014) [26:48]
String Trio No. 1, Op. 8b (1998/2016) [11:52] The Shed Dances, Op. 26b, for clarinet and string trio (2016) [19:33] An Outstretched Hand, Op. 24, for flute, clarinet and piano quartet (2015) [21:15]
The Veles Ensemble
Peter Cigleris (clarinet), Yuri Kalnits (violin), Leon Bosch (double bass), Daniel Shao (flute), Catalina Ardelean (piano)
rec. 2018, St. Silas, Chalk Farm, London TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0506 [79:36]
As a label, Toccata Classics has given a massive shot in the arm to a number of unsung, even unknown contemporary British composers. Its evangelical proprietor Martin Anderson has almost single-handedly unearthed an exciting netherworld of musical creativity which has caught many of us so-called critics unaware – nor has this proved to be merely a tokenistic identification exercise. By hook or by crook Anderson has pulled off one logistical miracle after another, somehow finding the time, the musicians and the funding to record and release a series of discs which is effectively forcing reviewers like me into a radical reappraisal of the British classical scene. So not only have past figures once considered peripheral been given a degree of exposure (William Wordsworth, Stephen Dodgson, Ronald Stevenson to name but three), but a generation of living, breathing composers of unquestionable stature has suddenly emerged as if from nowhere. Anderson deserves huge kudos and recognition for the single-minded determination he has displayed in his quest to record large scale orchestral works by the likes of Robin Walker, Jerome de Bromhead, David Hackbridge Johnson and Rodney Newton among others. This particular reviewer has found each successive release to be both significant and satisfying. Another example is Steve Elcock, who would surely admit to having been a ‘composer for the bottom drawer’ before he speculatively sent off a few scores, tapes and mock-ups to Mr Anderson, who eventually found the time to look and listen. Duly impressed, he put out Elcock’s terrific Third Symphony in 2017, and now we have a first volume of his chamber music. Thus we can appreciate for ourselves four superbly crafted, extended works, three of which feature an important role for clarinet, while the fourth is a twelve minute string trio which is a model of economy and serious intent.
Features of Elcock’s style that strike the listener more or less instantly in the first (and longest) work here, a sextet for clarinet and strings, are the confidence and fluency of his writing, a seemingly infinite melodic and harmonic imagination, an unerring sense of purpose and direction as well as his complete absorption of a number of recognisable influences, mostly English; and in terms of the latter, his music impresses with its integrity, in other words his comprehensive avoidance of any slavish imitation of these models. On any level this is fulfilling, satisfying music which will both entertain and move. Elcock exhibits both taste and restraint at every turn of these four fine pieces. The sextet, in particular, confidently navigates a sometimes tricky channel between light and dark in its opening Allegro commodo; the unfolding of its touching second subject really focuses the listener’s mind, and may well generate the questions ‘how did he do that?’ or ‘why have I never heard anything by this composer before?’. It’s not as though Elcock is breaking any moulds; it appears that he has simply learnt to fashion proper music via thoroughly assimilated traditional means. The composer’s entertaining note is also a model of clarity and reveals that the drone in the bass with which the central Romanza begins owed its existence to a noisy central-heating system in a local church concert venue; the rapid middle section here possibly owes something to Finzi but the movement as a whole is a prime example of Elcock’s skill in contriving mood changes which seem perfectly organic and never jar. The finale is derived from the slow tread of the bass at the conclusion of this middle movement. It’s a brilliantly crafted ‘spot the influence’ variations and theme confection whereby ten expertly contrasted variations ultimately give way to the theme, a jig known as ‘The Mason’s Apron’. It will raise more than a smile. Connoisseurs of fine music will be asking themselves (and each other) why this superb sextet is not a repertoire staple. The polish and commitment of the performers, notably the gymnastic clarinettist Peter Cigleris strongly suggests they feel the same way.
By contrast, the String Trio that follows is a terse, twelve-minute utterance which projects a much more serious tone. It is a piece of extremes, contrasting agitated, brittle episodes with more meditative, chorale derived material. It is superbly laid out for the instruments and like the best recent British chamber music it needs a few plays to yield its many secrets. There is both a momentum and a seriousness of purpose here that evokes the spirit if not the surface of Robert Simpson. Elcock covers a lot of ground in its brief timespan. The Veles Ensemble are impeccable, virtuosic advocates.
The intriguing title of the clarinet quartet The Shed Dances hints at something light, but that’s not the whole story by any means. The unusual impulse behind this work involved a suggestion from an individual with ataxia, an unusual neurological disorder which involves deficits in balance and co-ordination. The piece was a contribution to a project which was designed to raise awareness of the Frenkel Exercises, a once popular (and seemingly effective) self- rehabilitation therapy for the condition. As might be imagined, often irregular rhythmic contrivances are at play in these engaging miniatures, most daringly in the third piece, entitled ‘Leaden Clog Dance’, in which Elcock imagines quite literally wearing his friend’s dancing shoes; if the sense of awkwardness and frustration is palpable for much of this brief panel – Elcock creates a vivid picture of dancers falling over themselves and each other- its conclusion radiates uninhibited optimism. All of the movements in this work are brilliantly conceived and thrillingly executed.
The disc concludes with another sextet, An Outstretched Hand, for flute, clarinet and piano quartet. Elcock has identified a quotation of Gerald Finzi’s as its original inspiration, his comparison of the act of composition to “shaking hands with a good friend over the centuries”. He began work on the piece in 2015, and as the composer became more aware of the refugee crisis that was beginning to dominate the news at the time, the idea of the ‘Outstretched Hand’ began to change in his mind, morphing into a mental image of a hand seeking help, alongside another hand offering it. As someone who frequently finds refuge in music from the seemingly omnipresent misery of both national and international news I am profoundly impressed that Elcock at least has the strength of constitution to address it head on. The terse opening of the work is based on oscillating semitones which appear in the strings and clarinet. This music is simple and disarmingly powerful; although it may appear doleful at first, it becomes more consolatory as it proceeds. It has a tentative, unsteady tread, and while it is indicative of our troubled world, it is neither unattractive nor superficial. This is music of utter sincerity and it unfolds with consummate naturalness. The more agitated material that features in the middle of the piece hints at catastrophe and anger. Its stop/start countenance is clearly emblematic of an uncertain world. The slow fade at the end is ominous and haunting. An Outstretched Hand embodies real humanity rather than tokenistic polemic, and it convinces yet more on repeated listens. The arrangement of the musical material among the six players is masterly.
The contributions of all eight musicians to the success of this disc are terrific. They approach each of Elcock’s works as though their lives depended on it, and the performances consequently encompass the entire emotional gamut between lightness and intensity. The Toccata sound is impressive too, natural, honest and detailed. This disc represents a first- class calling card for an accomplished, talented and dare I say important composer; lovers of English music shouldn’t miss it on any account.