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Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
Run to the Edge (2003) [4:53]
The Ringing Isle (1997) [5:53]
Hojoki (An Account of my Hut) (2006) [29:36]
Airport Scenes (2006) [16:47]
Gaia Theory (2014) [22:16]
Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor)
BBC Philharmonic/Timothy Redmond
rec. 2018, MediaCity, Salford, UK.

Over the last few years I’ve heard quite a lot of music by Jonathan Dove but most of this has been vocal or choral, albeit at least some of the music has involved an orchestra. I was pleased and intrigued, therefore, to receive this disc of his orchestral music for review. Timothy Redmond, the conductor on this disc, is clearly a fan of Dove’s music and he’s contributed an excellent booklet note about the music.

In discussing Dove’s music previously – and in particular his choral/orchestral work There was a Child (review) – I’ve commented that sometimes his orchestral writing puts me in mind of John Adams. That similarity is in evidence here too, not least in Run to the Edge which opens the programme. This was composed for the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, with which Dove once played as a violist, for a tour they made to Japan in 2003. The music is, as the name suggests, swift in tempo and is characterised by vigour and high energy, expressed in a way that I’ve heard from both Adams and Michael Torke. Indeed, a passage around 2:30 suggests to me the British equivalent of A Short Ride in a Fast Machine. It sounds great fun and it receives a dazzling performance here.

The Ringing Isle is another short showpiece, composed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Association of British Orchestras. Its title is the description apparently used by Handel on his arrival in England, so struck was he by the seemingly omnipresent sound of church bells. Dove’s score is peppered with bells sounds, both actual and figurative. At 3:55 Timothy Redmond draws our attention to a long-breathed string melody. I was intrigued to read that this uses a technique described by Robin Holloway as ‘suppressed vocalisation’. Using this technique, Dove has the strings ‘singing secretly’ John of Gaunt’s stirring speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II, which begins ‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle’, words memorably set as a unison song by Parry. I confess I have no idea how Dove achieves this ‘suppressed vocalisation’ but that didn’t stop me enjoying the passage.

Airport Scenes is a four-movement orchestral suite made by Dove using material from the work that really put him on the map, his 1998 opera Flight. The music will probably be familiar to anyone who has heard the Chandos recording of the opera (review). The first movement ‘Take-off’ offers a pretty vivid depiction of a jet airliner preparing for and accomplishing take-off. ‘Storm’ uses music from Act II when the travellers who form most of Dove’s cast of characters find themselves stranded in the airport building by an electrical storm. ‘Dawn Landing’ depicts the morning after the storm. ‘Departures’ first reprises some of the material from the first movement before using music from the opera’s closing chorus. The suite is colourfully and inventively scored and it’s incisively played here. I enjoyed it very much.

Gaia Theory was premiered at the 2014 BBC Proms when my Seen and Heard colleague, Robert Beattie gave it an enthusiastic welcome (review). That performance, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Josep Pons, has appeared on CD already: it was coupled with Dove’s A Brief History of Creation on NMC D233. The title refers to the scientist and environmentalist, James Lovelock and his assertion that the earth functions as a self-regulating organism. One thing that Timothy Redmond omits from his otherwise admirable notes is found in the booklet that accompanies the Pons recording. Apparently, the work was inspired by a visit Dove paid to the Arctic as part of the Cape Farewell project which allowed artists to experience climate change first hand. Dove, we learn, wanted to write about climate change, as he put it, “without finger-wagging” and that led him to Lovelock’s writings.

The result is a three-movement work for a substantial orchestra. The first movement, Lively, features busy, bright textures and has plenty of momentum. The writing is very eventful and often exciting. The central movement, Very spacious, is aptly described by Timothy Redmond as “trance-like”. The music has many long-breathed melodic lines in it and is not only beautiful but also highly atmospheric. The music moves without a pause into Dancing. Again, Timothy Redmond’s description is apposite: an “orgiastic dance of perpetual life”. The music is frenetic and thrilling and this performance generates terrific rhythmic drive. While I wouldn’t wish to say that the present performance is “better” than the Pons performance, the Orchid Classics recording has rather more impact and that sways it for me.

I’ve left the other work on the disc till last for two reasons. Firstly, Hojoki (An Account of my Hut) is the only work that isn’t purely for orchestra and secondly, though the other pieces are very good, this one strikes me as remarkable.

It’s a setting for counter-tenor and orchestra of a text – a piece of prose, I think – by a Japanese monk, Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216). He lived in Kyoto and in this text, he recalls a series of natural disasters which befell the part of Japan in which he lived within the space of just a few years (approximately 1179-85). If I sound unsure about any of this it’s because, unfortunately, the sung text is not provided and I’ve had to rely on what I’ve heard Lawrence Zazzo sing. His diction is very good but there’s no substitute for having the words to hand. I was able to garner some additional information from the website of Edition Peters, who publish the score. There, for example, I learned that the text is sung in an English translation by Donald Keane.

I believe that the work was conceived in response to a request for a work by David Daniels. However, the present soloist, Lawrence Zazzo gave the premiere of the work, so he’s clearly very familiar with the piece. Timothy Redmond’s notes say that the premiere, in which Zazzo was joined by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiri Bělohlávek, took place in September 2008 but the Edition Peters website says 2006. The choice of the counter-tenor voice is interesting - and in passing I note that the principal role in Flight, that of the Refugee, was also written for a counter-tenor – not least because the rather ethereal voice gives a timeless, other-worldly feel to the music. Had a tenor or baritone voice been used, for example, it might not have sounded so effective as the voice of a Japanese monk speaking to us, as it were, across some 800 years.

The text describes several natural disasters and other massively disruptive events. These include a great fire (from 3:35); a whirlwind (7:15); the uprooting and relocation of Kyoto (10:48, and impressively prepared for in the orchestra from 9:15); and an earthquake (16:05). All of these are not only narrated dramatically by the soloist but also illustrated most resourcefully and imaginatively by the orchestra. At 18:20 Kamo no Chomei tells us that at the age of 50 he became a monk and retreated from the world to live the rest of his days in an isolated tiny hut. From this point on the music becomes ever more contemplative and the scoring is very delicate. From here to the close both the vocal line and the orchestral writing are very beautiful. I find it hard to imagine that this performance could be bettered. Zazzo’s singing is superb. He really draws you in to the narrative, at once telling the story both compellingly yet with a stoic air of detachment. The tone of his voice is hauntingly affecting and he sings with great expression. Nor should one underestimate the mental and physical stamina required to sustain 29 minutes of singing, albeit orchestral passages provide a few opportunities for a rest. The orchestration throughout is highly imaginative and aptly illustrative. Dove says that he has not attempted to write music that sounds Japanese, though he has used some Japanese modes. There’s no hint here of pastiche. The work is brought vividly to life, not just by Lawrence Zazzo but also by the BBC Philharmonic, whose playing is, according to the demands of the score, either splendidly incisive or wonderfully delicate and refined. Hojok is a marvellous work, and though it’s a concert work it demonstrates why Jonathan Dove is so highly regarded as an operatic composer.

Hojok may be the stand-out work on this disc but Gaia Theory is also very impressive and all the other music on this disc is well worth hearing. Timothy Redmond., Lawrence Zazzo and the BBC Philharmonic have served Jonathan Dove’s music brilliantly and their performances have been captured in excellent, very realistic sound.

John Quinn

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