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Christopher Tyler NICKEL (b. 1978)
Symphony No 2 (2016, rev. 2018)
NorthWest Sinfonia/Clyde Mitchell
rec. November 2018, St Thomas Chapel, Bastyr University, Kenmore, USA
AVIE AV2456 [52:59]

Canadian composer Christopher Tyler Nickel completed this symphony between his late thirties and his fortieth year. Wittingly or unwittingly, he sets challenges for himself by opting for a single long movement and a big orchestra. On the other hand, this music of awe, rooted deeply and securely in tonality, carries no hint that Nickel feels intimidated; quite the contrary. Like Christopher Gunning, Nickel is also a practitioner of music for film, television and theatre, and like Gunning, Nickel can draw on revenue from commercial work to support his concert-hall orchestral output. There are also other Nickel works for the concert hall and a small clutch of CDs preceding the present disc: Music for Woodwind Choirs is from Centre-Discs (CMCCD 27019) and there the conductor is the very same Clyde Mitchell who directs this symphony. Avie have a second Nickel disc of concertos for oboe (Oboe Concerto (2012); Oboe d'amore Concerto (2014); Bass Oboe Concerto (2016)). Other works probably unrecorded include a Fanfare for Freedom (2002), a musical on Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and a seven-hour long oratorio The Gospel According to Mark.

The facts of Second Symphony can seem forbidding, but if you are attuned to works such as Allan Pettersson’s Seventh Symphony then the few fears will evaporate. The music is tightly woven and hangs together sturdily. There is no dwindling of vitality across these 53 minutes. A grumbling, groaning and sweetly sable phrase has about it a semblance of Sibelian concentration: a sort of brooding shot through with sweetness (5:03). The music occasionally suggests the Panufnik of the outer movements of Sinfonia Elegiaca and Sinfonia Sacra. The phrasing mentioned earlier is often evidenced in a timpani pulse and it will not release you from its “checkless griff”. It represents a sphinx-like and sure-footed gaze.

Anger surfaces like a harsh tocsin at 8:25, and at 9:57 there is a great landslide of sound which returns at 16:32 like a slow-motion descending behemoth. At 11:46 we experience what feels like a needle-sharp skyline delineated by the violins. The brassy blast of a war-dance is evoked at 20:13. About the midway point Nickel leans towards the examples of Herrmann and Hanson. At 27:57 a legato is tenderly paid out, dusted with melancholy but with an underload of contentment. At 37:39 there is a great sobbing gulp and soon after one senses that angst is tautened, twisted and tightened. This troubled music is twined around with woodwind tendrils. Unlike Pettersson 7 the symphony ends, not in a high whistling requiem of a melody, but with a summation of emphatic triumph. For Nickel, Mitchell and this Seattle-based orchestra this is quite a coup. This looming symphony emerges clothed in a concentration achieved from a germ of a persistent idea that is bleak yet consoling, troubling yet caressing. What is the First Symphony like?

The liner notes are by a well-chosen Julian Haylock. It’s a good note but a pity that we are given nothing about Nickel’s music education or teachers or pupils. As for the audio side, the music is soundly put across without glittering spectacle; it’s not that sort of work.

Rob Barnett

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