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Anthony RITCHIE (b. 1960)
Symphony No 5 ‘Childhood’ (2020) [41:13]
Christchurch Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Young
rec. June 2020, Christchurch Town Hall, Christchurch, New Zealand
RATTLE RAT-D109 2021 [41:13]

If proof were ever needed that great Art can be born out of disaster and tragedy then Anthony Ritchie’s Symphony No 4 ‘Stations’ was proof of that. Composed in the literal aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck Christchurch New Zealand in 2011, that powerful and impressive work [a disc of the year for me in 2015] is a series of meditations on the Stations of the Cross and I warmly commend the work and recording to all. Some six years later Ritchie has returned to symphonic form with his Symphony No 5 subtitled Childhood. Little could any of us have known in 2015 what was held in store for the world with the covid pandemic creating a global natural disaster. Yet from this, more important Art has sprung and this symphony rather neatly provides both closure for the earthquake – the work was recorded in the newly restored Christchurch Town Hall – and as a product of the pandemic. Ritchie writes that: “Symphony No 5 “Childhood” is ... an optimistic work. Using childhood as a metaphor for renewed hope and optimism for the future, particularly in light of the Covid pandemic engulfing the world,” Practically, the strictly enforced lockdown in New Zealand gave Ritchie the literal time to compose.

I have been given permission by the composer to quote at length from his note for this symphony:

“The first movement [Beginnings] evokes the first years of life, adopting the sound world of a music box. The first sound we hear is the ratchet, as the music box is wound up. The naivety of the main theme is contrasted by more adult thoughts in the second theme, played on solo oboe. An energetic middle section presents new ideas before fading back into the music box theme. The second movement is a scherzo titled ‘Play’ and evokes a child’s world of make-believe and acting out of stories. The word ‘play’ has many meanings: we play music, we perform plays, we just play. The music is rumbustious and changeable in rhythm, although the quiet second theme is more settled and folk music-like in character. The third movement [Hopes and Dreams] reflects on challenges faced in childhood and the fragility of our lives. A plaintive opening idea for woodwind is followed by a lyrical, expressive melody on horn, then violins. The delicate sounds of the glockenspiel and harp, prominent in the 1st movement, return again in the middle and gradually grow to a climax, before a quiet ending. The 4th [Life-force] and 5th [A Future] movements are joined without a break as momentum is built to a rousing climax. This is uncomplicated, energetic and happy music, with motivic ideas intertwining together. It is inspired by the joy of seeing young people growing up and developing their potential, even in the face of considerable challenges. The gentle music box theme from movement 1 is transformed at the start of the 5th movement into a blazing brass chorale. An open-air theme follows on the strings which is then played in counterpoint against the chorale melody. After the climax of the movement the music box theme returns, and we hear the sounds of childhood, kitchen pots included! It is a sonic signifier of childish imagination and pleasure at making music. We take our childhood with us through life.”

I quote that in full because it is a very good succinct description of the motivation behind the work and its musical landscape. What it does not tell the listener is just what an attractive yet sophisticated, impressive and indeed powerful work it is. This Symphony does not strive to address some of the universal themes that were present in Stations. Yet at the same time clearly ‘childhood’ is a universal experience and regardless of the country or society in which it occurs there are common themes of hope and development. Although very different works, the two symphonies exhibit similar facets of Ritchie’s compositional craft. His handling of a full symphony orchestra is exceptionally assured and effective. The opening of the symphony features an instantly memorable yet naive tune using tuned percussion and harp to suggest a musicbox in a disarmingly charming way. But this is not ‘just’ an attractive melody – in true symphonic form, Ritchie crafts much of the material for the entire work technically and indeed emotionally from this germinal musical cell. A recurring feature across Ritchie’s scores is that he manages to write complex yet accessible music – within two or three listenings the ear is able to identify thematic associations. This ensures that these scores engage the listener quickly and compellingly.

Likewise Ritchie’s unforced but impressive handling of the ever-changing rhythmic patterns within the work is another recurring characteristic. Without a score to follow it is almost impossible to anticipate the constantly shifting meter but, whereas some rhythmically complex scores can feel almost chaotic in the rapid metrical alternations, Ritchie manages the smaller units of time very effectively with the resultant pulse comprehensible but unfettered by barlines. The central third movement – Hopes and Dreams – is not only the longest single movement in the work but demonstrates Ritchie’s strong lyrical and atmospheric gift too. Elegiac melodies initially on horn and trumpet are supported by rich chords and skilfully pointed instrumentation.. My one observation with the work as a whole is that the titles of both the entire symphony and the individual movements might lead an incurious listener to dismiss the work before hearing it assuming some kind of simplistic or even slight work. To my mind the key resides in the very last line of Ritchie’s note quoted earlier; “We take our childhood with us through life” In other words this is not just a nostalgic evocation of earlier times but instead it tries to encapsulate the aspirations we have during childhood of what life may bring. In that hope lies the optimism that imbues the work very affectingly. But again there is a wide and compelling emotional journey through this work which gives the closing pages, where the opening melody returns to the sound of – literal – pots and pans, a slightly equivocal ending with the unresolving closing chords perhaps giving a slight hint of a not wholly certain future.

The performance here by Kenneth Young and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra is very fine indeed. All the sections of the orchestra play with brilliance and sensitivity and the buoyant energy which seems to be the cornerstone of the work. Young also acts as the disc’s producer and Ritchie has a credit for mixing the recording. The involvement of both conductor and composer in the post-production process probably explains why the disc sounds so fine as well. The entire performance can be streamed free of charge from Rattle’s website. I have not made a direct comparison in terms of sound quality between the CD and the streamed version but the CD is excellent. The recording is quite close and certainly very detailed. I do not know the exact orchestration but Ritchie writes for an extended percussion section as well as the standard symphony orchestra and certainly the inner complexities of the score are very well defined on the disc. Rather like the proverbial ‘box of delights’ I found that with each new listen more subtleties and refined details of both the music and the scoring revealed themselves. To my mind that is the mark of an impressive piece of music; initial engagement leading to a deeper appreciation.

Completing the appeal of this disc is the very attractive packaging. The CD is presented in a type of miniature book format which echoes the style of children’s books of my own childhood. Ritchie’s straightforward but valuable liner note (in English only) is complimented by a series of original illustrations by Robyn Belton who is one of New Zealand’s most accomplished illustrators of children’s books. This disc was recorded in June 2020 and the work still awaits its first public performance

Each of Ritchie’s symphonies have proved to be an impressive fusion of public utterance and personal journey. The current group of five will be joined by a sixth, also written due/in response to the COVID pandemic but it is clear from the five already performed that this is developing into a powerful cycle of post-modern symphonies the equal of any.

Nick Barnard

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