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Adam POUNDS (b. 1954)
Symphony [No.1] (1985) [19:47]
The Martyrdom of Latimer (2009) [08.35]
London Festival Overture (1987) [04.55]
London Cantata (2016-17) [25:38]
Matt Wilkinson (baritone, London Cantata)
Stapleford Choral Society
Academy of Great St Mary’s, Orchestra/Adam Pounds (Festival Overture)
rec. 1985-2018, Great St. Mary’s, Cambridge; Walthamstow Assembly Hall, UK

This new CD of orchestral and choral music by Adam Pounds opens with a splendid symphony. This work was completed in 1985 and was given its premiere on 29th November 1985 at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall.

The overall impression of this approachable work is one of contrast between anger and sheer beauty. The entire first movement is predicated on the opening dramatic three note motive that will come to permeate the entire work. Here, progress is presented as a contrast between an edgy first subject and a mood of introversion. Rather than imagining this movement in standard sonata form I hear it as a series of panels – reflecting the two contrasting tempers. Much of the scoring is powerful and even aggressive, but this is offset by much lighter orchestration that is often ethereal in effect.  The Adagio is designed to represent ‘a cold winter wasteland.’ Certainly, anyone familiar with the Cambridgeshire Fens and/or the poetry of John Clare, will find much of interest in the ‘icy’ instrumentation. The third movement is truly imaginative. This perfectly balanced scherzo with a catchy trio was meant to be aggressive: I imagine it more as playful with a mischievous edge. There are some nods to Malcolm Arnold and William Walton. The Scherzo segues straight into the finale, which is toccata-like in its explosion of sound. Material from the opening movement and the adagio is reprised.

This is a thoroughly entertaining symphony, that could be labelled as ‘Cheltenham.’ For me that is not a pejorative term – many of my favourite symphonies are defined as belonging to this genre. As an aside, fifty years ago (1969), Adam Pounds’ teacher Lennox Berkeley’s Third Symphony was premiered at the Cheltenham Festival. Pounds’ essay is characterised by interest, excellent orchestration and traditional form.  It is well-played on this recording by the Academy of Great St Mary’s conducted by the composer.

The London Festival Overture was commissioned by the London Borough of Waltham Forest with funding from the Greater London Arts. It was completed during 1987 and received its first performance in June of that year at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall. Pounds conducted the Nelson Orchestra. The whole mood of this work is one of sheer exuberance. The liner notes explain that five themes are presented in this Overture: they are played individually, combined and recombined.  The work is characterised by a massive battery of percussion including tom-toms and roto-toms. There is also a call for a saxophone. A powerful, but beautiful, string theme tries to establish itself but never seems to quite get there until the final bars. It is always displaced by the energy of the brass and percussion. Pounds has suggested that the mood of the work presents an ‘urban environment…that would fuse several styles together.’ There is a reminiscence of Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No.4 in these pages. The reader will recall that work was written in the aftermath of the 1960s Notting Hill riots.

I am not too sure how much street-cred the overture would have had in North London. It is more West Side Story, 1961, than Hackney Hip Hop, 1987. The recording was made at the premiere performance and includes a few seconds of applause.

I guess that the listener might expect a work entitled The Martyrdom of Latimer to be an oratorio, a cantata or even an opera. In fact, it is an orchestral piece: a tone poem. It was commissioned by the Ely Sinfonia to celebrate their tenth anniversary in 2009.  Pounds writes that ‘it explores the final days of the cleric Hugh Latimer’s life, his death at the stake and his martyrdom.’ For the record, Hugh Latimer (c.1487-1555) was one of the Oxford Martyrs who were burnt at the stake in Oxford on 16 October 1555 under the auspices of the Catholic Queen Mary. Nicholas Ridley was martyred on the same day and Thomas Cranmer the following year on 21 March 1556.

The music progresses from the quiet opening, by way of a bell-like statement in the orchestra leading to a huge climax. This is followed by a desolate Adagio featuring an oboe solo. The tensions build up to the moment of martyrdom, complete with swirling flames. I understand that the composer was asked to especially ‘explore the concept of resurrection in the piece.’ To this end he has provided a powerful brass coda, which manages to create a sense of optimism, if not triumph.

The Martyrdom of Latimer is an impressive and moving work. The whole tenor of the music is a powerful mediation on the death of the Bishop and the renewed life of the Martyr in heaven. It can act as a metaphor for martyrdom in general. I have noted before that it is possible to listen to this superb tone-poem as a legitimate piece of abstract music.

The final number on this CD is the hugely impressive London Cantata. The work was specifically composed for the ‘combined forces of the Academy of Great St. Mary’s and the Stapleford Choral Society. It is scored for a normal sized orchestra, baritone solo and standard four-part chorus and was composed during 2016-2017. It received its premiere at Great St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge on 23 September 2017. The present recording supersedes that made in 2017 and reviewed in these pages.

The uplifting opening section of the London Cantata has overtones of William Walton and George Dyson. Both these composers set the Scottish poet William Dunbar’s most enduring poem, ‘In Honour of the City of London’. This is a powerful and dynamic paean. The mood now changes. Pounds writes: ‘George Eliot’s ‘In a London Drawing Room’…really explains the idea behind the work in that we scratch the polished veneer of the great city and we find a vast array of lifestyle, history, opulence and poverty.’ ‘The Docker’s Song’ is a fierce setting of words by an unknown poet. The words ‘dirt and grime’ are given a brutal, mechanical treatment.  There follows a restrained setting of William Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.’ This is performed by the baritone Matt Wilkinson and the chorus.

In the middle of the Cantata, Pounds has provided an orchestral interlude. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main theme is based on the world-famous Westminster Chimes (now – 2019 - temporarily silenced during ongoing structural repairs to the Elizabeth Tower). Yet there is a strong Cambridge connection: the chimes that we (and Vierne, Coates et al) know and love were composed in 1793 for Great St Mary’s Church. It is a small world. This is a lovely little interlude that could easily gain traction as a miniature.

Anyone who has explored London Docklands will have been struck by the atmosphere of Shadwell. Despite nearly four decades of gentrification along the Thames, there is still a feeling of ‘slippery’ time. There has been considerable debate about the background and inspiration of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Shadwell Stair.’ While this is not the forum to discuss this, Pounds’ music expresses the ghostliness of Owen as he explores this part of London whether alive or dead.  Then a vibrant setting of Amy Levy’s poem ‘A March Day in London’ follows. Initially reflecting a ‘mad march day’ there are some quieter moments when the choir reflects on ‘the gas-lamps gleam’ and ‘the ruby lights of the hansoms flicker’
The London Cantata concludes with a reprise of the ‘William Dunbar’ music, bringing the entire works to a satisfying and impressive conclusion.

My main problem with this CD is the liner notes. For some reason, they have been printed on a colour photo: it makes it almost impossible to read. The full texts of The London Cantata are included. The soloist, baritone Matt Wilkinson, is not acknowledged in the liner notes.

The quality of the recording is variable: it does sometimes lack clarity and definition, especially in the London Cantata. There are issues with intonation with both orchestra and choir. Sometimes the latter sounds a little strained. For this listener, it is not a problem. I would much rather have these works in an amateur performance than not at all. Clearly all the participants hugely enjoyed this project.

I would like to think that at least the Symphony and the London Cantata could receive a full professional recording soon. This is no disparagement of the present performance.

I understand that Adam Pounds has begun work on his Symphony No.2. I look forward with interest to hearing this work.

John France



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