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John ROBERTSON (b.1943)
Concerto for Clarinet and Strings, Op.27 [23.26]
Hinemoa & Tutanekai, Op.22 [10.11]
Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, Op.58 [16.46]
Symphony No. 3, Op.71 [27.30]
Mihail Zhivkov (clarinet)
Kremera Acheva (flute)
Fernando Serrano Montoya (trumpet)
Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra/Anthony Armoré
rec. 2017, Philharmonic Hall, Sofia, Bulgaria
NAVONA NV6223 [77.53]

This is an interesting and very worthwhile release for the music it contains, despite some indifferent performance in parts.

John Robertson was born in New Zealand, moving to Canada in his early twenties. Having studied music at school, he undertook private lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, during the 1970s. His career was largely in insurance (as was that of Ives), but his compositions have achieved more prominence over the last twenty or so years. His First Symphony was from 1986, the Second from 2014. The First Symphony (coupled with the Suite for Orchestra, Op.46, and the Variations for Small Orchestra, Op.14) was released in July 2018 (Navona NV6167). The Second Symphony, with the Vallerta Suite, Op.47, was issued in August 2017 (Navona NV6117).

Is the music any good? Robertson is no Ives, pushing the boundaries of the medium. His work is firmly tonal, rooted in classical structures and harmonies, following traditional models. It pleases with clearly enunciated themes, frightens no horses, and reveals both confidence in exposition and a keen ear for orchestral textures. In one way, it might have been written at any time in the last century or so, but – and this matters – Robertson has a distinctive voice, apparent in strongly etched and long-breathed tunes (listen, for instance, to the woodwind themes in the first movement of the symphony). Less immediately evident is his skilful layering of sounds, but it is a real gift – and he can surprise. Repeated listening reveals more gifts and new aspects of the music. The confidence is evident in each of the pieces, though one might query whether the absence of apparent struggle limits the emotional range.

The Concerto for Clarinet and Strings follows the usual concerto structure, with a theme announced in the slow introduction, to be redeveloped in all three movements, acting as a unifying motif. Hinemoa & Tutanekai is perhaps the most instantly attractive work, based on a Maori legend of two lovers destined to meet. The flute solo, performed by Kremena Acheva (all three soloists on the disc are principals of the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra) is rapt in tone, and very touching. The trumpet concerto was written for a Cuban trumpeter in Mexico and finishes with strong Latin-American Rhythms.

Like the Concerto for Clarinet and Strings, the three-movement Symphony, has a unifying theme announced by solo trumpet. The symphony is well-crafted but the performance feels under-characterised, even a little flaccid in parts. The Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, while not one of the greatest, is very fine, so perhaps the issue is in the conducting. Phrasing could be more completely characterised, with more of a sense of forward movement. The Symphony is dedicated to Anthony Armoré, the conductor and long-term advocate of Robinson’s music, but here the music suffers from too much reticence. The confidence of the composer needed to be matched in the execution.

Nevertheless, this is a rewarding disc and an invitation to explore more of Robertson’s friendly and attractive output.

Michael Wilkinson

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