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David ELLIS (b. 1933)
Concertante for violin, horn and harp, op. 78 (2004) [10:48]
Fipple-Baguette: Three Encores for solo recorder, op. 76 (2003/4) [6:37]
Concerto Corto e Dolce for recorder, viola and harp, op. 80 (2006) [10:14]
Four Songs (of Hope and Desire), for high voice and piano, op. 57 (1996) [12:51]
Divertimento Elegiaco (In memoriam Ida Carroll), for recorder, harpsichord and cello, op. 54 (1996) [9:51]
Berceuse, for clarinet and piano, op. 47 No. 1 (1981) [3:40]
A Little Cantata, for soprano and recorder (1998) [2:18]
An Image of Truth, for soprano, recorder and piano, op. 35a (1971/2) [4:01]
Dewpoint, for soprano, clarinet and piano, op.10 (1955) [10:44]
Keith Elcombe (harpsichord), Rebecca Goldberg (horn), Richard Howarth (violin), Joanna Patton (clarinet), Jonathan Price (cello), Keith Swallow (piano), Louise Thomson (harp), John Turner (recorder), Alison Wells (soprano), Richard Williamson (cello)
rec. 16 September 1998, ASC Studio Macclesfield; 30 October 1998, ASC Studio Macclesfield (A Little Cantata) St. Thomas’s Church, Stockport, 16 September 2008, (Concertante, Fipple-Baguette, and Concerto Corte e Dolce)

I started my review of this CD with Fipple-Baguette: Three Encores for solo recorder, op. 76 (2003/4). The liner notes give no clue as to what this delicacy is. I understand the word ‘baguette’, and a ‘fipple’ is a mouthpiece common to recorders and pennywhistles - but together? These delightful pieces were dedicated to the present soloist John Turner as a 60th birthday treat. The first is a lively ‘Round Dance’ which is followed by a lugubrious ‘Sarabande’ constructed as a set of variations. The last number is titled ‘End-Piece.’ This is a ‘romp’, but rather unusually it ends with the performer walking off the stage. There are some interesting sounds from the descant recorder, including a bit of over-blowing. These three ‘bagatelles’ do make a great encore - and it allows the soloist an early arrival at the pub for a well-earned refreshment!

The opening work on this CD is the substantial Concertante for violin, horn and harp, op. 78 (2004). The balance between the three instruments is well maintained as the music progresses through its three contrasted movements.  The opening ‘Cortege’ is serious without being too depressing. This is followed by an extrovert ‘Courante’ that displays the horn to good effect, with braying fanfares. The final ‘Chaconne ‘is based on a twelve-note row heard on the harp, but there is nothing here to be afraid of! This section of the Concertante is a masterclass in instrumentation for this relatively unusual combination. David Ellis has created a magical score here, that for me, has a Ravelian feel to it - a splendid piece of chamber music.

Equally interesting is the Concerto Corto e Dolce for recorder, viola and harp, op. 80.  Readers who have Italian will realise that the title of this work means ‘short and sweet’ but at just over ten minutes it is not too short. The liner notes explain that the concerto ‘follows instrumentally in the tradition of Debussy, Bax, Rawsthorne and Mathias.’ The big difference is that the flute has been substituted by three sizes of recorder.

Three movements explore a wide variety of material which is sometimes darker and more introverted than the Concerto’s soubriquet would imply. The first is serious, not the leisurely amble implied by the notes. The ‘elegy’ is autumnal, sad and reticent. Even the finale has a ‘sinister’ feeling. This is no jocular ‘rondo’ but something quite disturbing. There is little that is ‘sweet’ in any sense of the word in the concerto. That said, it is an outstanding piece that is well-constructed and instrumentally subtle. 

David Ellis wrote the text for his Four Songs (of Hope and Desire) for soprano and piano, op.57. They were completed in 1996. The liner notes explain that these poetic ‘fragments [outline] a fantasy-relationship which may have existed in the author's imagination’. As in all dreams, the incidents jump from [the] bizarre to commonplace without warning or logic’. Occasionally there are hints of Edith Sitwell in these well-crafted verses.  All told, this is a superb little song-cycle that deserves a place in the repertoire. The mood ranges from the ironically amusing to the sarcastic and back to melancholy by way of passion. It is beautifully sung here by Alison Wells.

The Divertimento Elegiaco (In memoriam Ida Carroll), for recorder, harpsichord and cello, op. 54 was composed in 1996, the year after the dedicatee’s death. Ida was the last surviving member of the influential Manchester-based Carroll family (what pianist has not played some of her father Walter’s attractive ‘educational’ piano music?).  She had a long and influential career in music education in Manchester. The Divertimento successfully balances modern melodic and harmonic colouring with a satisfying nod to the baroque character of the recorder. The three movements are a sombre ‘adagio’, a vibrant and sparkling ‘impromptu’ and concluding with a thoughtful chaconne. A medieval bell tolls at the end of the work, which is a nice touch.

One of the loveliest pieces here is the Berceuse, for clarinet and piano, op. 47 No. 1 (1981). It was included in a volume of advanced clarinet music, published by Forsyth’s Music in Manchester. Bearing in mind that ‘berceuse’ means a ‘lullaby’, the child would have been wakened with the intense middle section digression, but ultimately soothed by the initial statement and final restatement of the long-breathed clarinet tune. It is perfectly played by Joanna Patton.

A Little Cantata for soprano, recorder and bell was dedicated to Sir John Manduell (1928-2017) on his 70th birthday in 1998. The text was devised by David Ellis, and summarises Manduell’s musical achievement at the BBC, the Cheltenham Festival, the Royal Northern College of Music and Lancaster University - a tall order for any composer. For me the piece does not come off; I am not sure the bell adds value, though there will be an aesthetic reason for its inclusion.

An Image of Truth, op.35a was composed back in 1971/2. Later, (1975) it formed the basis of a much larger cantata for bass solo, chorus and instrumental ensemble. The text is taken from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  The present miniature is scored for soprano, recorder and piano.  Blake’s text is presented as a set of aphorisms of varying intensity and there are some superb moments in this episodic music.

Dewpoint, for soprano, clarinet and piano, op.10 was completed in 1955 while the composer was still at the Royal Manchester College of Music. This music must have sounded ‘modern’ at its premiere during the 1969 Cheltenham Festival, yet it is an eminently accessible work which is strangely beautiful. Ellis has set some gnomic verse by his longstanding friend Douglas Rawlinson. The burden of this often-melancholy music is. I think, lost love. Despite the obvious pessimism of this score, Ellis has created some wonderfully lyrical passages. I understand that it was originally scored for a string orchestra in lieu of the piano and I wonder if this has ever been played.  Alison Wells gives an ideal performance of this demanding, haunting music. Alas, I was unable to find further details of the poet on the Internet.

David Ellis was born in Liverpool in 1933 and studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music (1953-57). His fellow students included Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Elgar Howarth, Alexander Goehr and John Ogdon. In 1964, he was employed by the BBC as a music producer latterly becoming Head of Music, BBC North in 1977. In 1986, he was appointed Artistic Director and Composer-in-Residence to the Northern Chamber Orchestra. After a period of working in Portugal he returned to the United Kingdom to devote himself to composition and work on CD production. His catalogue includes three symphonies, concertos for violin and piano, and a wide variety of chamber and instrumental music.

The liner notes give all the relevant information about the music on this disc, the composer and the performers. Some of these works were previously issued in 1999 on An Image of Truth: Music by David Ellis ASC CS CD6. It is reviewed here by Hubert Culot.

This is an excellent CD of chamber music by David Ellis. His work is accessible, typically enjoyable and always well written. Hopefully, one day some equally enterprising CD company will release his three symphonies; meanwhile, this present disc offers several interesting and satisfying works, all of which are played and sung to perfection.

John France

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