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Douglas KNEHANS (b. 1957)
Tempest – Concerto for Flute and Orchestra [20:40]
Unfinished Earth [32:15]
Gareth Davies (flute)
Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Mikel Toms
recording details not supplied
ABLAZE RECORDS AR00036 [52:58]

Douglas Knehans was born in St Louis, Missouri, but studied extensively in Australia; Wikipedia refers to him as an Australian/American composer. From the same source we learn that he is the Director of ablazeRECORDS, a fact that could lead a cynical or suspicious person to wonder if this disc were not simply a vanity publication. The website, however, reveals that this is not the case. The label is devoted to contemporary composers, providing a precious forum to many who surely would otherwise have none. Knehans’s work, though present, is not particularly prominent.

This disc comes with copious written material, but much of it is repetitive and not particularly enlightening. In addition, information that many of us would like to find is often absent. Writing about Tempest, for instance, Knehans tells us he was asked for a work ‘with utterly no technical restrictions’, but he doesn’t tell us who did the asking. For both works we search in vain to know when they were composed or first performed. What the booklet does tell us – twice – is that in composing a concerto for the flute Knehans found himself thinking about wind. Each of the three movements carries a title that evokes a different wind, not all of them familiar: the Ostro, the Mistral and the Etesian. This is not programme music, however: Knehans writes that his aim is ‘to reflect deeper aspects of the human condition, the human experience, thought, reflection, psychology and emotion.’ Anyone expecting a flute concerto la Mozart is in for a big surprise. The musical language is very advanced, with only momentary forays into tonality. The first movement provides few moments of repose, but those few are extremely beautiful. The music has martial elements from time to time, unlike the second movement which, in keeping with its title, ‘Mistral … Funerailles’, is withdrawn, melancholy, even tragic. This is all swept away by a riotous finale dominated by a repeated motif whose expected final note is frequently missing. The work is scored with great skill, transparent scoring and frequent use of bass instruments ensuring that the solo instrument is never obscured. The performance by Gareth Davies, principal flute of the London Symphony Orchestra, is astonishing. The work was apparently recorded in a single session that the composer describes as ‘embouchure-busting’. The outer movements are particularly taxing, and the closing passage makes extraordinary demands. The composer, a flute player himself, pays fulsome tribute to Gareth Davies, and rightly so; it is an amazing performance. Davies himself, in a ‘taster’ video available on YouTube describes Tempest as ‘a very challenging work but thoroughly worthwhile’. I agree with that assessment.

Tempest is an immediately communicative work. Unfinished Earth, longer – ‘a symphony in all but name’ (Knehans) – and with no solo instrument to lead the ear, reveals less of itself on a first hearing. The first of the work’s three movements is dominated by two elements, a heavy-footed passage with repeated accompanying quaver unisons, which booklet annotator Daniel Albertson refers to, rather strangely, as ‘a passing parade’. This element alternates with contributions from an off-stage trumpet. The music is highly dissonant, an impression strengthened by the composer’s use of quarter-tones, but overall the music seems more closely bound to tonal techniques than the concerto. This movement, indeed, has a minor key feel throughout. Those beating, repeated unisons, as well as many other elements within the music, are undeniably powerful. I find the musical material of the slow movement less memorable than the rest, though the writing, much of it featuring solo winds, is very skilful. A string passage amounts to ‘the orchestral equivalent of plate tectonics’, though quite what that is meant to mean escapes me, I’m afraid. The ending is calm but equivocal. The finale is an astonishing, teeming mass of material. In one idea, whirling figurations soar above a rising unison passage on heavy brass which is then transformed into highly dissonant clusters. The energy barely lets up for its eight-minute length. Albertson writes: ‘The forward pull of music, and of life, and of the planet that we inhabit, cannot ultimately be denied.’

Both these works seek to express philosophical ideas around the relationship between mankind and the earth. The accompanying material explores this extensively. You may or may not be receptive to this kind of thing, but the music is the only thing that really matters in the end, and few listeners will be left indifferent to that.

The recording is stunning, though you probably wouldn’t guess that the solo trumpet in Unfinished Earth is meant to be offstage. Describing the performance of both works by the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Mikel Toms requires a word that goes further than ‘stunning’: the music is played with the utmost virtuosity and total conviction.

William Hedley

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