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Stuart HANCOCK (b. 1975)
Variations on a Heroic Theme [5:54]
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra [32:22]
Raptures – Suite for Orchestra [21:56]
Jack Liebeck (violin)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Levon Parikian
rec. 2019, Watford Colosseum, London

In reviewing for MusicWeb International, I sometimes find myself listening to recent orchestral music by British and American composers. I have often noted that when the music is tonal (my preference), there is tendency to import some features of American film music, notably that of John Williams, of Star Wars fame. Brazen fanfares spring to mind, which I like, but a tendency to cap each and every climax with cymbals is less to my taste. Stuart Hancock does this, and it is the one aspect of the music on this disk that (very slightly) reduces my enjoyment.

The booklet notes make no secret of the fact that Hancock is very much influenced by John Williams – I instantly noticed it when the theme appears a few seconds into the first piece - Variations on a Heroic Theme, and it is also present in the Violin Concerto.

I’m not complaining, because each work is strong on drama and melody, and this particular compositional facility has undoubtedly helped him in his career in the world of advertising, film and television, and he has won several awards for his work in these fields. It seems that his habit of delivering commissions on time has also endeared him to media executives.

The disk opens with his Variations on a Heroic Theme, which begins in an arresting manner, very quietly for two or three seconds followed by a sudden percussion-capped crescendo, immediately followed by the quite memorable lion-hearted theme (as the booklet describes it), which is subject to display by the various sections of the orchestra: we get a waltz episode for woodwind followed by a tranquil variation for strings, cor anglais and trumpet. The pace picks up again and the piece hurtles to its all-guns-blazing climax. I should think that this is a crowd-pleaser, par excellence.

The Violin Concerto is a substantial, attractively memorable and superbly orchestrated work that has given me a great deal of pleasure in recent days. Once again, the influence of John Williams is apparent, but since this means melodic interest and orchestral virtuosity, it is fine by me. Probably the best movement is the 15-minute first, which begins with a declamatory orchestral introduction that calms for the entrance of the soloist, singing the melancholy principal theme. It morphs over the following bars until the powerful theme from the introduction returns, whilst the violin indulges in florid virtuosity leading to a major climax. The orchestra is silent during the cadenza and creeps back in, leading to a quiet close.

The slow movement is equipped with all the facets necessary to create an enjoyable romantic concerto, and a good tune is one of them. The soloist and orchestra rhapsodise with the melody, the whole forming a dreamy yet passionate movement. The finale has an exuberant theme as its basis, and sounds like a sprightly jig. The theme of the slow movement returns, as does that of the first movement on the violin.

If you enjoy the concertos of Barber, Korngold and Rózsa, I feel sure that you will like this piece. I really cannot praise it too highly. It is such a pleasure to be able to thoroughly enjoy a modern work, to be able to believe that the orchestra are thoroughly enjoying themselves, and that the soloist has the opportunity to make his instrument sing as well as dance.

The last work on the CD is Raptures, an orchestration of Hancock’s chamber work; it is his most recent concert-hall composition. A five-movement suite, it bears the same hallmarks as the other pieces, and my liking for orchestral textures that vary from the impressionistic to the impassioned, is well satisfied. The movements vary from the tranquil, rather impressionistic opening, entitle Fathom, to the jagged rhythms of the second, Rush. Then we have lullaby representing a mother singing her baby to sleep, followed by the sinuous, waltzing Serpent. The finale, Rapture, is a stomping dance, which is succeeded by recollections of earlier themes.

The recording is first rate, and the orchestra plays very well indeed. The performances are passionately committed, and the booklet is suitably informative about the music and the composer.

Jim Westhead

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