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Bernard RANDS (b.1934)
Concerto for Piano and orchestra (2013) [27.42]
Music for Shoko: Aubade (20189 [9.23]
Canti del Sole for tenor and orchestra (1983) [24.56]
Jonathan Biss (piano)
Stephen Chaundy (tenor)
Robert Walter (cor anglais)
Stephen Rose and Jeffrey Zehngut (violins), Joanna Patterson Zakany (Viola), Charles Bernard (cello)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Markus Stenz
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/William Boughton
rec. 2014/18, BBC Promenade Concert; Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Ohio, USA; Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
LYRITA SRCD379 [61.56]

I can just about remember when it was not uncommon to hear works Bernard Rands on the occasional Radio 3 programme like ‘Music in our time’, but sadly, I paid them little attention. Then the man and his music rather disappeared – although a few CD have appeared, they have rarely received much coverage.

It’s interesting to look at his discography, because it can be clearly seen that it is American orchestras which have committed his work to disc, for instance his highly original ‘Madrigali’ was recorded by the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra. This explains why, in the UK, we lost touch with him. After working at York University and studying Dallapiccola and Berio in Italy, Rands moved to America as long ago as 1975. He has become a leading composer internationally, but little-known in the UK. Perhaps he left because, like Peter Racine Fricker a few years earlier, he felt that he was never going to gain the opportunities or recognition in the UK as he might achieve elsewhere. It is also true to say that in the 60s Rands acquainted himself with American music during a two-year Harkness Fellowship, which he spent at Princeton and Illinois.

This point is relevant when considering the opening piece on this disc, the Concerto for Piano and orchestra, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the composer’s eightieth birthday and for the fine American pianist Jonathan Biss. This is a work, which really connects with me and, having played it once, I had to jump in the car for a half hour journey to town and played it over again. What especially attracts me is the delicate nature of much of the material, its orchestration and its lyrical piano writing, which, whilst virtuoso in many sections, places its emphasis on a sort of democracy between piano and orchestra, as Paul Conway so well describes in his, as usual, excellent booklet notes.

The three movements begin with ‘Fantasia: Noble’ and a unison idea on sustained strings, which informs much of the following material and mood. The middle movement, ‘Slow, quiet, vague and mysterious’, is the longest but, despite the possible drawbacks in its description, it holds the attention throughout. The finale, ‘Delicate and playful’, sums up the work with its trills and ornaments and scurrying scale passages. The performance is exemplary but the live Proms recording does include a few ‘noises off’ which might be distracting as they sometimes come during the quietest of passages. Indeed, the middle movement will need the volume control somewhat higher than the rest.

In many ways, the other large-scale work on the CD, ‘Canti del Sole’, is a striking and wonderful work. It is a setting for tenor and orchestra of fourteen poems by eleven poets in four languages of poems featuring the sun. These poets are from the 12th Century right up to Eugenio Montale (d.1981) The first seven take us swiftly and almost ecstatically from the tam-tam opening of first light until noon the second seven through a more relaxed, if world-weary, afternoon to sunset, ending with Quasimodo’s ‘And suddenly its evening’ a poem also set, magically by Elisabeth Lutyens in 1966. Incidentally I take issue with the booklet translator’s rather unpoetical translation of ‘Ed e subito Sera’ into ‘and in no time it’s evening’. And also in song twelve, the translation of Baudelaire’s specific use of ‘ostensoir’ as ‘Sacrament’, when it really means the ‘monstrance’ which is a receptacle for holding the blessed communion host.

The orchestral writing is superb, sometimes impressionistic and always colourful, always gripping. The vocal line, however, often lacks a real lyricism, or warm-heartedness. I felt a little uncomfortable about finding Wilfred Owen’s tear-jerking poem ‘Move him into the sun’ used as song nine, as it seems to me out of place amongst the natural world evoked by many other poems, but Rands’ setting of it is tense, jagged and unforgiving. But perhaps that’s how it should be set and I am being too sensitive. Stephen Chaundy is magnificent, clear, firm with excellent intonation and diction, the sort of singer any composer would want. So, though I have a few caveats, it’s a work worth getting to know.

In between these two pieces is the beautiful Music for Shoko: Aubade, scored for English horn (cor anglais) and string quartet and premiered just a few days after this recording for Lyrita by this same wonderful group. It’s an arrangement of a movement from Rands’ Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra, composed in 2015. For those us who are sometimes up ‘betimes’, this music will probably conjure up the delicate beauty of dawn. It begins and ends quietly and wistfully but has a more troubled middle section. It’s an impeccable miniature.

I really enjoyed this disc and I’m going to end by stating something which our various magazines can hardly bring themselves to admit, namely that Bernard Rands’ reputation, obviously much appreciated across the pond, should be held in equally high regard in the country of his birth.

Gary Higginson

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