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Cobbett’s Legacy - The New Cobbett Prize for Chamber Music
William HURLSTONE (1876-1906)
Phantasie [7.59]
Barnaby MARTIN (b.1991)
Lazarus [11.47]
Oliver KNUSSEN (1952-2018)
A Purcell Garlandupon a ground [3.24]
Sir George BENJAMIN (b.1960)
A Purcell Garland - Fantasia 7 [4.06]
Colin MATTHEWS (b.1946)
A Purcell Garland - Fantazia 13 [3.16]
Samuel Wesley LEWIS (b.1991)
Sequenza [7.34]
Laurence OSBORN (b.1989)
Living Floors [12.32]
Berkeley Ensemble
rec. 2015, Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford-on-Avon, UK
RESONUS RES10243 [50.44]

The first track of this interesting if short CD sets the scene perfectly. It is the Phantasie by the talented and much lamented at the time William Hurlstone, who died only a few weeks after being awarded the first ever Cobbett prize for this work. It is, as the booklet notes by Dan Shilladay claim, ‘a compact and virtuosic display of compositional ingenuity’ which is probably largely lost now on modern listeners, which is why this piece is little known. Purcell is hinted at in the opening bars but there is also a Beethovenian sense of drama and an English lyricism. The speed moves between a fast and slower tempi and the structure is perfectly formed. A fine work to get us started.

But who was Walter Willson Cobbett? He lived from 1847-1937 and was a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. In 1905 he founded the Cobbett prize specifically for young British composers, and by asking them to use the Fantasy, Fancy, or Phantasy form cultivated in the renaissance and early baroque periods he thought to re-create an almost overlooked compositional method. The winning works were also to be printed at his own expense. Hurlstone won the first prize, beating Haydn Wood and Frank Bridge to name just two. But what about reviving the concept? thought the Berkeley Ensemble.

A competition was therefore inaugurated with the clear idea that the winning compositions would be played more than once (!) and would be recorded, offering listeners a chance of repeated hearings of works by otherwise unknown composers. It must therefore have been most frustrating for all concerned that that it has been four years before the disc has appeared on the shelves and so for review. Anyway, this is where the works by Barnaby Martin, Samuel Wesley Lewis and Laurence Osborn come in. So let’s take them in the order as on the disc.

Lazarus by Barnaby Martin follows the biblical narrative as in St. John’s Gospel of the ‘Raising of Lazarus’, one of Jesus’s last and most powerful miracles. Starting with mysterious sustained chords on the strings these are increasingly punctured by a battery of stormy sounds building the tension. Martin has the clarinet representing Christ. The cello, which plays fragments of the ‘Dies Irae’ plainchant right from the start, is Lazarus, and the other characters, Martha and Mary are the violin and the viola. There is also a significant role for the piano, with bassoon and double bass which perhaps represent, as the composer almost implies, the disbelieving chief priests. Religious subjects clearly chime with the composer as he was awarded, in 2017, the BASCA prize for his Cantata ‘The Temptations of Christ’. The end of the piece, with the clarinet intoning a delicate melody over a sustained string pedal is full of wonderful reconciliation. The work is well structured and clearly focused and played with splendid commitment.

Needless to say, this comment also applies to the other works here especially the new pieces like Sequenza by Samuel Wesley Lewis, which won the 2014 Cobbett prize. It’s not often that one agrees with a competition jury but on this occasion I certainly do. This work is scored for string quartet but with the rare addition of a double bass. The composer uses it dramatically. First the quartet takes charge, building up counterpoint to a frenzy before the bass enters powerfully at the climax. Later, in a mysterious and slow passage it has its own solo recitative. Then all five meet in the joyous, buoyant closing section. It’s a purely abstract work, form and content are what matters. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and every bar has its place.

Laurence Osborn was runner up in the Cobbett prize and his Living Floors is scored for just cello and double bass from which he extracts some extraordinary primeval sounds. This is apt because his point of inspiration, the ‘Living floors’, refers to “carpets of bone fragments and crude stone tools” found on Stone Age sites indicating communal eating-places. These rasping noises are imitated in the cello and bass “hacking and scraping of the latter against the former”. But don’t let this description bother you, it is a gripping and ingenious work if perhaps one which slightly overstretches its material.

All of these composers should be followed as each has an arresting voice and strong compositional language.

But someone else wanted to follow up the Cobbett idea. In 1995 when the much-missed Oliver Knussen was Director of the Aldeburgh Festival he asked two composers to arrange a Purcell Fantasia. You will recall that Maxwell-Davies had arranged and adapted several back in the 60s. Knussen’s own “……upon one note keeps the pedal C but subjects it to increased harmonic pressure before it bursts. Colin Matthews tackles the job of completing Purcell’s final Fantazia (No 13) and starts innocently enough before building it into a massive climax and then falling away. Both composers sound distinctly themselves, as does George Benjamin who always can produce a most original sense of harmony and colour and does so here in the ghostly and rarefied atmosphere of his Fantasia 7. And all this is done with a piano, clarinet, violin and ‘cello.

Altogether this is a fascinating disc, well programmed but sadly, at well less than an hour, one which may leave you feeling as if something else, perhaps rarely heard but relevant, would have added an extra interest to the programme.

Gary Higginson

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