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Philip GRANGE (b. 1956)
Tiers of Time for piano, violin, viola and cello (2007) [8:47]
Elegy for cello solo (2009) [9:50]
Piano Trio: Homage to Chagall for piano, violin & cello (1995) [21:40]
Shifting Thresholds for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, cello and conductor (2016) [30:52]
Gemini/Ian Mitchell
rec. 2019, All Saints Church, Franciscan Rd, Tooting, London.
METIER MSV28591 [71:25]

The earliest piece on this CD is the remarkable piano trio Homage to Chagall, composed in 1995. Much of this work is inspired by Marc Chagall’s (1887-1985) general aesthetic rather than concentrating on individual paintings. However, the slow third movement adagio does provide a music commentary on two artworks: Solitude (1933) and War (1964-1966). Chagall employed a limited number of tropes that appeared to a lesser or greater extent in many of his paintings. He described his work as ‘pictorial arrangements of images that obsess me’. They are often autobiographical in content. Grange’s music parallels this concept with phrases which appear in many foreground/background relationships. Clearly, without the score it is hard to define the thematic relations between the various movements. The quicksilver but muted scherzo is a masterpiece of trio writing. An angry wasp’s flight would not put too fine a point on it. The adagio is intensely felt music. It progresses slowly, with considerable struggle and effort. The finale would seem to be a compendium of motifs and phrases that have ‘gone before’. Despite the force of this trio, there is often a luminous quality that reflects the work of Chagall. The musical language is not easy but is totally rewarding and ultimately satisfying.

English poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) is a long-standing interest of the composer: he has set several of his poems. The Elegy for solo cello was composed in 2009 after Grange had visited the author’s grave in the French village of Agny in the Pas de Calais region. Grange regards Thomas’s death as ‘emblematic of the loss of human potential caused by [war]’. It is a common reaction. The present Elegy is an exploration in a single line of music (virtually by definition) that is subject to multiple transformations. It ranges from moods of anger to despair, but finally resolves into a qualified resolution. It is a beautiful work: I cannot praise it highly enough. This music is virtuosic in both the ‘notes’ and the necessary depth of its interpretation.

I have not heard North Country composer John Casken’s (b. 1949) Piano Quartet. Philip Grange explains that he garnered material for his Tiers of Time (2007) from the that work’s final bars. The stimulation of Grange’s ‘landscape inspired’ piano quartet was found in ‘the desolate, gloomy moorlands and the breath-taking vistas often illuminated by powerful sunlight’ prevalent in the English Peak District. The title itself is derived from geological strata apparent in those hills. This work is not a ‘cow and gate’ depiction of the countryside: it is hard-edged, more mill-stone grit that anything else. It is not a difficult musical language, but one that is not immediately approachable. I had to listen to it twice before the gentler, more lyrical passages revealed themselves, especially in the deeply moving conclusion. It is an impressive piece of writing for the ensemble. Whilst still in the North Country, I would love to hear Grange’s Lowry Dreamscape for brass band!

The final work on this CD is Shifting Thresholds for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, cello and conductor. It was composed in 2016. The inspiration for this piece is the Irish-born author and playwright, Samuel Beckett. I cannot say that I have ever read his work (mea culpa!) but I do know that part of his modus operandi is stream of consciousness or interior monologue. Philip Grange states that this technique can be imagined as an attempt at creating a literary equivalent of Richard Wagner’s ‘endless melody’. The actual novel used as a stimulus was Malone Dies, written in 1951. The plot majors on a man about to die, who ‘invents stories to keep him entertained’. Also, he ruminates on his past life, including his murder of six men. The critical thing is that much of the literary text is tangential to the main story, such as it is. Grange’s music features ‘melodic threads’ that are interrupted by diverse episodes. (A classic rondo, perhaps?). Shifting Thresholds is lengthy – more than half an hour, but somehow the passage of time is disguised. To be sure, the musical contrasts do (deliberately) tend to break up the flow of ideas. Does this fusion of literary device and musical form work? I am not convinced. Maybe I need to hear this work again, forget the Beckett Connection, and just enjoy it a series of loosely connected musical ideas with Ariadne’s thread to keep me on the straight and narrow. There are certainly some lovely moments in Shifting Thresholds, where the story is clearly enchanting rather than morbid.

Philip Grange is an academic as well as a composer. This should not be met with disapprobation. There is nothing pedantic or arcane about any of these pieces. He is currently Professor of Composition at Manchester University, a position he has held since 2001. He has also held posts at Durham University, Trinity College, Cambridge and Exeter University. Grange studied with Peter Maxwell Davies between 1985 and 1981, as well as David Blake at York University between 1976 and 1981.

Gemini’s playing of these four remarkable works is first-class. I think that special honours ought to go to Sophie Harris for her extraordinary performance of the Elegy for solo cello.

The liner notes are excellent. After an opening Foreword by Ian Mitchell, the leader of the ensemble, Philip Grange provides a succinct commentary on the four works. This is non-technical but provides all information needed to appreciate this music. There is a brief biographical note about the composer and the ensemble. Several photographs taken during the recording sessions are included. All that said, the cover is insipid. I think Métier could have created something with greater effect to match the music. I would pass over this CD in the record shop browser (if we still had classical record shops). And that would be a shame.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable programme. True, the music is not always immediately obvious, but that is no bad thing. Works of art can give up their secrets and their beauties slowly. All the pieces are written in a modernist style that is always approachable, interesting and satisfying. All these works are written with skill, strong formal principles, sharp dissonance balancing lyricism, and a rigorous intellectual underpinning There is nothing here for enthusiasts of neo-minimalist, characterless, post-Einaudi music that seems to dominate so much that passes for ‘art music’ these days.

John France

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