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Robin WALKER (b.1953) Turning Towards You A Prayer and a Dance of Two Spirits, concerto for violin, recorder and string orchestra (2007) [23:49] The Song of Bone on Stone for solo double bass (2018) [13:20]
‘I Thirst’ for string quartet (1994) [7:42] Turning Towards You for double bass and piano (2014) [10:42] His Spirit over the Waters for solo cello (2003) [9:14] A Rune for St Mary’s for solo recorder (2003) [5:34] She took me down to Cayton Bay for solo violin (2018) [4:39]
John Turner (recorder)
Leon Bosch (double bass)
Emma McGrath (violin)
Min-Jung Kym (piano)
Jennifer Langridge (cello)
Manchester Sinfonia/Richard Howarth
rec. 1999/2018, ASC Studios, Macclesfield; St Thomas’s Church, Stockport; St Paul’s Church, Heaton Moor, Stockport, UK DIVINE ARTDDA25180 [75:16]
The opening work on this CD, A Prayer and a Dance of Two Spirits (2007) immediately appealed to me. This concerto for violin, recorder and string orchestra is an elegy for Robin Walker’s parents, written ‘some time’ after their death. The unusual but extremely effective combination of violin and recorder was suggested to the composer by the recorderist, John Turner. Clearly ‘grief’ is the prominent emotion in the opening ‘Prayer’ and thanksgiving for their lives in the ‘Dance’. Stylistically, this concerto is typically ‘Romantic’, with a few ‘modernist’ clichés thrown in for good measure. Here are lyrical melodies and sensuous harmonies. The second movement features some folk-music. I suggest that the listener ignore the composer’s ‘new age’ commentary about the importance of dreams in his music and just enjoy this ‘rhapsodic’ work for what it is, a beautiful meditation on the most basic human condition: death and living. It is a masterpiece.
The Song of Bone on Stone is a strange title. It derives, apparently, from the composer’s habit of bashing his teeth against a small stone trough. This artefact is near to Walker’s cottage ‘somewhere’ in the Pennines. He describes it as a ‘ritual act of obeisance that has become an essential contact’ between self and nature. Bad for the enamel though. This thirteen-minute solo for double bass represents this ‘liturgical’ event. The player’s ‘bow’ is the ‘Bone’ and the instrument is the ‘trough’. Everyone knows that teeth are made up of pulp, dentin, enamel, and cementum. And that enamel is harder than bone. The analogy holds. So far so good. The opening bars grate – rather like fingernails scraped across a chalkboard. Once again, the liner notes exaggerate the music’s goal. This is really a ‘study’ for double bass that incorporates lyrical material, dance rhythms and certain ‘extended’ playing techniques. On this level it is enjoyable and sometimes even exciting. It does not, I fear, ‘endorse all human passions…’ Nor does it need to be seen live to be enjoyed, despite the composer insisting that the soloist ‘theatrical[ly] addresses’ the double bass. And finally, maybe The Song is a wee bit too long for its own good.
‘I Thirst’, written for string quartet in 1994 is an attractive, if lugubrious, work. Clearly inspired by the fifth of the Seven Last Words of Christ, it is an exploration of desolation and innocence. Much intensity is provided by using piercing harmonics. Robin Walker admits that the practice of religious faith is something from his past. But he still finds the need to ‘moor himself’ to something ‘beyond.’ Christ’s words from the cross ‘speak of forgiveness, selflessness, human need, abandonment by the divine, and can be universally subscribed to as such, faith or no faith.’ I agree.
I enjoyed Turning Towards You for double bass and piano (2014). Reading the liner notes gives all sort of ‘philosophical’ underpinnings to this piece. Ignore them. It is a well-crafted work for an unusual instrumental combination. There is sometimes a ‘jazzy’ mood to this music which propels it along ‘toccata-like.’ Often the composer introduces some Romantically inclined episodes which are thoughtful and meditative. Once again, Walker makes use of bass-fiddle harmonics to give colour and intensity, creating a magical effect. Turning Towards You is a long work, but never lacks interest. The piece was dedicated to Robin Walker’s tutor at the University of Durham, Brian Primmer (1929-2008).
The final three works on this CD are for solo instruments. His Spirit over the Waters (2003) is written for solo cello and is in memory of Keith Elcome, a Manchester-based musician. Whatever the liner notes suggest, this work is an ‘elegy’ and a study all rolled into one. It is most impressive in every way.
A Rune for St Mary’s (2003) conjures with an ancient stone located in a field near Robin Walker’s home in the Pennines. There are inscriptions on this stone (runes?) which are undecipherable, but clearly of great antiquity. The solo recorder provides music of a ‘Pan-like’ enchantment with its repetitious ‘incantatory effect.’ It is a rewarding piece that is both timeless, and evocative of the moors above Delph.
The final piece is She took me down to Cayton Bay (2018). This is no ‘Walk to Paradise Gardens’ as the composer rightly states. In fact, Walker suggests that no one he ‘desired’ ever took him down there. The music reflects how he would have felt if someone had. Once again Walker has written a splendid study, rather than a tone-poem. It is a fetching title which may draw the listener into the seaside mood, rather than just baldly listening to a prosaic Etude. I have been to Cayton Bay several times, and it is certainly a wonderful place – with or without a lover. On balance, the music does evoke that wonderful East Riding beach.
The composer Robin Walker was born in 1953 in York. He was a chorister at York Minster and a scholar at the School. At Durham University, he studied with the Australian composer David Lumsdaine. After an academic career at the Royal Academy of Music and London and Manchester Universities, he ‘retired’ to a village in the Pennines to concentrate on composition. Various diverse musical elements find their way into his music, including the folk traditions of India and England.
As noted in the body of my review, the liner notes can be a bit abstruse and ‘new-agey’. However, they are well-written and informative. They include biographical details of the composer and the artists. All performers contribute magnificently to the success of this programme.
This is a fascinating CD. It introduces several diverse works by Robin Walker composed over a quarter of a century. All are enjoyable, approachable and interesting.
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