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Robin WALKER (b 1958)
Turning Towards You
A Prayer and a Dance of Two Spirits, Concerto for recorder, violin and string orchestra (2007) [23:55]
The Song of Bone on Stone, for solo double bass (2018) [13:26]
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), Emma McGrath (violin), Leon Bosch (double bass), Min-Jung Kym (piano), Jennifer Langridge (cello)
Manchester Camerata String Quartet
Manchester Sinfonia/Richard Howarth
rec. 1999, ASC Studios, Macclesfield, UK; 2018, St Thomas’s Church, Stockport; St Paul’s Church, Heaton Moor, Stockport, UK
DIVINE ART DDA25180 [75:16]

I first discovered the music of Robin Walker a couple of years ago on an outstanding Toccata Classics disc devoted to his orchestral music (review); while all of the four works are compelling, the half-hour symphonic poem The Stone Maker from 1996 is exceptional – the composer David Matthews has described it as “one of the great orchestral works of our time” and I can only concur – it’s a piece whose growling textures sometimes recall Birtwistle but which are somehow tempered with a Sibelian sensibility. The Stone Maker is appropriately monolithic and exudes an identifiably Northern voice; it has repeatedly absorbed this listener at least from first note to last. His music was certainly a find – and I was further astonished and delighted to find that he was for some years a near neighbour of my late father in the Saddleworth village of Delph (a location which apparently inspired one of the present works on this album) although he has since re-located to Todmorden, another place where the red and white rose counties converge.

These landscapes seem profoundly important to much of Walker’s music. The Toccata disc revealed a predilection for the deep, rumbling textures that can be drawn from instruments like tubas, timpani and double-basses, sounds which undoubtedly conjure in my mind the wild, unkempt moors that overlook these familiar places. Walker writes quite brilliantly for these forces and this ability manifests itself most obviously in three of the works on this fine new disc – two of these involve double-bass and one is for solo cello. If The Stone Maker evokes the Millstone Grit of the Saddleworth moors, the same earthy tang is certainly detectable in The Song of Bone on Stone for solo double bass, the most recent piece in this conspectus. It essentially recreates the composer’s ritual of touching a local stone-hewn trough with his teeth each time he passes it; a homage from the ‘passing ship’ of humanity (as represented by the ‘bone’ of the bow of the bass) toward the relative indestructibility of stone (the instrument proper). It wavers between abruptly percussive, seismically grumbling and tentatively lyrical material. It seems an essential addition to what is a rather small repertoire for solo double-bass. By way of contrast Turning Towards You for the same instrument with piano eventually employs a more conventional language and attempts in musical terms to embody the elusive (for many of us) quality of ‘knowing oneself’. This piece encapsulates what I feel is one of most appealing characteristics of Walker’s music; it has profound integrity – there is a very real sense of “you may or may not like or admire this music, but it’s absolutely what I meant” about it. There is something rather naked and raw about both these challenging, fascinating pieces. The solo cello item His Spirit over the Waters presents another side of Walker’s essential sincerity; it is an elegy commemorating the Mancunian cellist Keith Elscombe. The work intertwines elements of repose and dance and seems to reference the Prelude of Bach’s first cello suite. It is touching without being remotely mawkish or anguished.

In a similar vein but on a larger scale, the rapturous and elegant double concerto A Prayer and a Dance of Two Spirits sumptuously marries two unlikely bedfellows, recorder and violin in an even more personal statement. The piece attempts to weave the benefits of temporal distance to process and distil grief, in this case elicited by the passing (in sadly quick succession) of the composers’ own parents. If the notes accompanying this disc are at all representative of his writing, Robin Walker is also wonderfully lucid in succinctly expressing the structural and emotional goals of his music, and as an individual who has attempted to make sense of bereavement in both professional and personal contexts, I was much taken by one of his comments: “In generating an expressive form it is clear to me that feeling should always precede intellect: that is the natural order of things, and without it lyric art is all but impossible.” Of course grieving never ends – we learn over time to deal with its consequences in much the same way that we strive to legislate for all of the tragedies and disappointments life throws at us. Walker’s concerto at once suggests this kind of management; the rapturous Prayer movement aims at solemnity but utterly transcends it, the high-flying lines of the soloists hovering above orchestral textures and harmonic shifts which occasionally evoke Delius. The subsequent Dance is music of resolution and determination, apparently inspired by a ‘coming-to-terms-with’ dream Walker experienced which featured his parents together “on a tranquil and glistening lake”. This experience has evidently paved the way for Walker to practically confront his grief in what is a soaring, memorable work. I suspect listeners familiar with The Stone Maker will be wrong-footed and moved by the flowing lyricism of this work, and by its tangible serenity. And yet closer acquaintance will certainly confirm that A Prayer and a Dance of Two Spirits is cut from the same cloth. Walker is nothing if not a meticulous craftsman. The recorder playing of the indefatigable John Turner is sensitively mirrored and matched by Emma McGrath’s violin and by the strings of the Manchester Ensemble. ASC’s recording is warm and sympathetic.

The string quartet movement I Thirst is the oldest piece in this collection and perhaps relates to a time when the composer engaged more overtly with organised religion – in his youth he was at one time head chorister at York Minster and studied there with the legendary organist Francis Jackson. The title alludes to the fifth of Christ’s Seven Last Words. Its meditative, consoling nature is tactfully projected by a quartet drawn from the Manchester Camerata in a performance and recording which is by now two decades old; it certainly doesn’t show its age and fits perfectly with the other pieces here.

The last two items are brief confections for the solo instruments that featured in the double concerto. A Rune for St Mary’s for solo recorder has been characterised by the composer as an ‘incantation’ or ‘enchantment’ inspired by feelings of calm engendered by the carvings in an 11th century relic to be found somewhere among the moors above Delph. Convincing, serious pieces for descant recorder are few and far between. As one who spent a lot of time in my teenage years wandering the Saddleworth hills, I can confirm this little piece effortlessly communicates their spiritual and geographical remoteness as well as the sounds of the avian life that inhabits the area. The affection John Turner clearly has for it is plain in his delivery of every phrase. It’s a magical work which evokes a magical place. Similarly, Emma McGrath plays the solo violin miniature as though it was her own much-loved encore piece. The delightful folk inflections of She took me down to Cayton Bay reflect the joyous feelings that would perhaps be elicited by an imaginary romantic assignation that might occur in that glorious East Yorkshire beauty spot. It concludes a terrific composer portrait.

Collectively these seven works constitute a rounded portrait of a truly multi-faceted composer. It is abundantly clear listening to this disc, and to its orchestral counterpart on Toccata that the time Walker spent developing an eclectic, distinctive style was not wasted. All of his music I have thus far encountered projects a distinctively Northern English (as opposed to Nordic) spirit and light. It conveys in sonic terms characteristics of terrains and places that seem very familiar. Performances by all the contributors on this disc are both committed and convincing. The recording is intimate yet detailed throughout and the relatively old account of I Thirst certainly does not sound out of place. I fervently hope that there is more music by this superb composer in the pipeline.

Richard Hanlon

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