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Peter CHILD (b. 1953)
Jubal (2001) [15:04]
Adirondack Voices (2006) [12:45]
Shanti (2011) [37:14]
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec 2010-2014 at Jordan Hall, Boston, USA
BMOP SOUND 1057 [65:04]

English by birth, American by training and domicile, Peter Child is by now in his mid-60s. He has a tentative foothold in the catalogues; single works by him occasionally feature in chamber or vocal recital discs, while Lorelt released a portrait CD in 2007 which featured a couple of pieces for ensemble (one with voices) and a concerto for harpsichord with string quartet. I’m afraid he is another example of a fine composer whose name has somehow passed me by; fortunately enterprising independent labels like Gil Rose’s BMOP Sound exist to right these little wrongs. There is unquestionably some fine music on this outstandingly performed and recorded orchestral portrait.

Jubal, in part inspired by Dryden’s poem A Song for St Cecilia’s Day, 1687 is a fifteen minute orchestral showpiece in four linked sections. The rapid moto perpetuo introduction is urgent and motoric, it makes a strong impression for 90 seconds at which point it quickly dissolves into a reflective episode of chamber-like material dominated by busy, sinuous woodwind, which in time takes a more menacing turn with ominous string chords. Other instruments provide a commentary before a glitteringly orchestrated passage ends in a brief workout for solo harp. This links to a scherzo which starts fugally with agitated strings before wind, brass and percussion take up the material. Child’s writing across the entire orchestra is impressive and absorbing throughout this piece, notably the cascading wind and percussion climaxes that feature in this penultimate section. His writing for brass is lyrical and elemental and by turn rasping and monolithic, while this third panel incorporates thrilling percussion at its conclusion with prominent timpani, side drum and tam-tam. Jubal’s final section is counterintuitively calmer and rather unselfconsciously hesitant, with raindrop xylophone, whooping horns and muted trumpets; it intensifies briefly, before a fragmented, gnomic conclusion. By any standards Jubal is attractive and entertaining; expertly wrought orchestral music played with real swagger and commitment by the BMOP, and presented on its own label in characteristically glorious sound.

If there is a sense of monumentality to Jubal, a different side of Child emerges in the three brief movements that comprise his 2006 work Adirondack Voices. The title refers to the Adirondack Mountains which form a huge massif in the north-east of New York State. Charles Ives enjoyed spending time in the area. Child’s piece amounts to sophisticated Americana presented through a prism of Britishness; whether this is due to Child’s birthplace or to the influences which lie never too far from the surface is open to question, although the music that results is certainly attractive, but never cosy. The opening piece ‘Miner Hill’, for example, offers a winning tune which is varied and distorted by processes that will not be unfamiliar to anyone familiar with the work of Percy Grainger. The second piece, ‘Donny Dims of the Arrow’ is loosely based on a Scottish folk-tune (one of the hundreds once arranged by Haydn in fact); trumpets and clarinets in canon are succeeded by a wistful statements of the tune firstly on oboe, and subsequently flute, over very Graingerian strings, although the brass chorale that arises from about 2:11 is most certainly more American in feeling, and the solo strings that follow are beautifully decorated by tolling bells. The highlight of the work for me though is the haunting ‘Jam on Gerry’s Rock’, which refers to more specifically local subject matter. It makes use of an old ballad, itself based upon an actual event, about a logjam whose eventual resolution actually proved fatal for some of the poor loggers. It opens with warm clouds of strings before a briefly enchanting folk-fiddle solo. The tune of the ballad is concealed in the instrumental backcloth, presented by winds, strings, and then trumpets. Rolling timpani in the background are harbingers of doom; this is more overtly dark, troubled music. If the mood at this point, superficially at least, suggests a rather modal Roy Harris soundscape when the solo fiddle returns, the orchestral backdrop leaves the listener in no doubt that it’s a ghostly presence set against a prevailing atmosphere laden with tragedy. It is thus transformed into ambiguity of a more Ivesian hue. This little thirteen minute suite encompasses a considerable emotional landscape. It is effortlessly affecting.

The longest work on the album is Shanti, an eight movement work which lasts just shy of 40 minutes. Early on in his career, Peter Child spent time in India, studying the music of the Karnatic tradition in what is now Chennai (formerly Madras). Four decades or so later, Child dusted down some of his old textbooks, selected some of the melas (Indian scales) and transformed them using Western techniques fully absorbed and practised over years. The eight movements of Shanti each correspond to all but one of the nine rasas (aesthetic ‘essences’) of Indian art, literature or music.

In the first movement ‘Adhibuta’ (wonder), Child melds Messiaen-like string material with Tippett-like rising brass fanfares – at first these influences seem lightly worn and the music still emerges as fresh if somewhat ambiguous, awe-inspiring yet yearning. The thrillingly recorded drums at its conclusion yield to more glacial strings which begin ‘Karuna’ (compassion). The melancholy of Child’s music here is momentarily challenged by briefly optimistic butterfly-like figures although they are ultimately consumed by a quiet abyss of bassoons and basses. In ‘Bhayanaka’ (fear), anxious and jagged brass chords jostle with the flurries of flutes and high woodwind, material which is mirrored by the high strings and muted trumpets – exciting, exacting music which culminates in a rumble of percussion and a siren. ‘Hasya’ (humour) is a palpably Prokofievian scherzo.
Child’s orchestral writing is unquestionably accomplished, and while the music unfailingly holds one’s interest I began to feel that by the second half of Shanti he was veering a little too close to his models and influences for comfort. Both the fifth movement ‘Veera’ (valour) and the sixth ‘Roudra’ (rage) are rhythmically, texturally and harmonically very similar to parts of Messiaen’s epic Turangalīla-Symphonie, itself modelled on rhythmic patterns characteristic of Indian classical music. One cannot deny that Child’s work is expertly crafted but here and there the stylistic influences are a bit too obvious for me, and although Shanti is attractive on one level, some listeners may find these two movements in particular a little jarring on another.

Child’s own voice is more apparent in the final two movements which together constitute almost half the duration of the whole work. The seventh piece, ‘Shringar’ (love) seems to be built on a call/response dialogue between the folk-like questioning of the strings and a somewhat non-committal answering motif in the flute. The music winds down to near stasis, projecting warm and comforting textures until halfway through the movement, at which point a riot of shimmering percussion combines with bursts of sunlight from the brass in material which is both exciting and richly detailed. After a pause, the tender music of the opening returns. The outstanding BMOP SOUND engineering comes into its own at this point. The final panel ‘Shanti’ (peace) embodies calm flute and celesta, a kind of chorale in the strings and lots of muted brass. Perhaps this last movement is a little too long; its mellow moods are maintained consistently throughout its ten minute duration.

Notwithstanding my caveats Shanti ultimately constitutes an effective suite which provides numerous examples of Child’s abundant skills as an orchestrator. In the final analysis it is brimming with interest, excitement and allure. Like its two fine couplings it reveals its composer as a maker of richly communicative, technically imaginative and often deeply affecting music. I will certainly be keeping my eyes peeled in future for more of it. As ever, the BMOP performances are fastidiously prepared by Gil Rose and thrillingly executed by his band. The sound on the disc approaches demonstration quality.
Richard Hanlon

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