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Gregory ROSE (b. 1948)
Orchestral Music
Birthday Ode for Aaron Copland (1990) [3:57]
Red Planet (2014, rev 2019) [14:07]
Violin Concerto (2017) [18:44]
Suite pour Cordes (2017) [13:15]
Seven Dances from Danse macabre (2011) [11:49]
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gregory Rose
rec. 2019, Angel Studios, London

I first became aware of Gregory Rose via his contemporary vocal group Singcircle, specifically through their celebrated Hyperion recording of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung from 1983 – it seems scarcely believable that it’s nearly 40 years old. Since then he’s been a conspicuous figure in contemporary and choral circles; this is the third CD devoted to his own music on Toccata. My colleague Jonathan Woolf warmly welcomed the the music-theatre work Danse Macabre, the first of this series, upon its release in 2015 (review). The new issue is the first to concentrate exclusively on Rose’s orchestral music.

The Birthday Ode for Aaron Copland was written specifically for a concert featuring the London Concert Choir on the occasion of the venerable American composer’s 90th birthday in November 1990 (he sadly passed away just a couple of weeks later). Inevitably it’s a fanfare (presumably acknowledging Copland’s most famous signature piece); its saturated textures are dominated by the two-note motif/cipher AC and its derivations. Colourful, restless and really rather uncompromising, it inhabits a sound-world not too far distant from Copland’s seldom played modernist works Connotations and Inscape.

Celebrating yet more distant worlds altogether, Red Planet is a sequence in five movements inspired by Martian cartography, not least by the spellbinding photographs of different features of Mars released by NASA over recent years. Valles Marineris is a huge canyon; Rose informs us that it’s as long as Europe and three times the depth of the Grand Canyon. This music is static and inert, with weightless sustained flute and solo violin lines suspended above twinkling piano and glockenspiel. More angular and gritty is the restless world of Syrtis Major, the largest dark Martian feature visible from Earth (via appropriate magnification, obviously). Threatening drums predominate here in contrast to the awed silences and ethereality of Olympus Mons, the central panel which takes its name from the highest peak on Mars. This is cut from similar sonic cloth as the first movement, with prominent, rather icy piano notes and exposed solo lines for winds and strings; it’s indubitably atmospheric. Sirenum Fossae (a trough about 1200 miles long, supposedly a consequence of ancient tectonic activity) is volatile and unpredictably jazzy, its orchestral textures seem more refulgent. Red Planet concludes with the brief Ascraeus Mons, an impression of the largest Martian volcano. It features scything Stravinskian strings and austere orchestral unisons at its end. These colourful movements certainly convey an astronomical essence which alternately encompasses both stillness and violence. They are excitingly played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, appropriately agile and lissom in music which seems ripe for choreography.

Contemporary violin scion Peter Sheppard Skærved is the soloist in Rose’s Concerto for the instrument, which represents the first time the composer has attempted a work in this form. It incorporates nine brief episodes book-ended by an introduction and a cadenza with coda. The soloist seems to burst into the tiny intro as if in medias res, before subsequent episodes alternate in displaying markedly contrasting characteristics. The faster writing for the soloist is terse and driven; it might also recall Stravinsky but one can certainly detect an overlap in the earthen hues and lines of this work with the topography of Red Planet. Rose’s writing is appealingly craggy throughout, projecting landscape hewn flavours which occasionally hint at the music of John Casken. The chugging urgency at the outset of the fourth episode epitomises Rose’s use of strange repeated textures to generate pace and tension. Surface angularity and brittleness conceal a far more lyrical countenance in this music than seems to be the case at first hearing, another characteristic of Casken’s work. A couple of episodes in this concerto feature an important, spiky horn part (bracingly conveyed by Brendan Thomas). Skærved makes light of the brief but demanding cadenza prior to the work’s explosive denouement. Rose’s Violin Concerto combines leanness in the solo writing with orchestral textures which contrast (and sometimes blend) warmth with austerity. I make no bones about the fact that I really like this kind of aesthetic; I will certainly return to this fine concerto. Performance and sound seem ideal.

The Suite pour Cordes (its Gallic title is due to its commission from a French source) is perhaps the most conventionally accessible of these five works notwithstanding Rose’s edgy melodic and harmonic language. The Prélude is terse and declamatory, whilst the second movement marked Vite is lithe and elastic, seemingly dependent upon regular repeated semiquaver patterns over which broader more lyrical episodes occasionally materialise. Chant is darkly textured and rather brooding though the interplay of its part-writing projects an unmistakeably choral quality. Tres fort mirrors the Tippett-like strains of the second movement- its second half seems to emerge from a rather avian outburst; the panel ends more or less exactly where it started. In the Finale a bare, bleak unison introduction leads to short-lived astringency. In due course the central section conveys a pared down, brooding intensity which evaporates into fragmented, ambiguous gestures.

The disc ends with a suite of seven brief dance fragments abstracted from Rose’s Danse Macabre (to which I alluded earlier) and arranged for larger ensemble. From the medievalisms of the opening dance for fiddle and drum (with a pungent guest turn from bagpipes), listeners will appreciate the jabbering tom-toms and pointillistic off-beats of wind in the second, whilst the third dance is more regular, even courtly. Rose’s use of a xylophone evokes the bones of the grim reaper in a shrill fourth dance before a really characterful movement juxtaposes austere wind and brass drones, a drum tattoo and another rather discomfiting bagpipes solo. Why bagpipes? Apparently the instrument is a central feature of the 15th century painting in St Nicholas Church in Tallinn which inspired the piece. The sixth dance features insistent, motoric tom-toms whilst the last involves a menacing bass drum and long, spare crescendi, music which uncannily resembles the accompaniment some poor victim might be granted en route to the guliiotine.

This brief but entertaining sequence of contemporary arcana makes provides an aptly abrupt conclusion to a disc full of appealingly dark colours and angular inspiration. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia do the composer proud throughout while Toccata’s sound pulls no punches. The booklet features Rose’s helpful introductions and a personal account of his violin concerto’s genesis courtesy of its soloist. Admirers of Toccata’s series dedicated to this composer need not hesitate; other fans of new British music will find plenty to turn their heads.

Richard Hanlon

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