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Aylward celestial FCR320
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John AYLWARD (b. 1980)
Celestial Forms and Stories
Daedalus (2016) [9:39]
Mercury (2014) [8:42]
Ephemera (2014) [8:54]
Narcissus (2018) [11:32]
Ananke (2019) [15:10]
Klangforum Wien/Finnegan Downie Dear
rec. 28-30 November 2020, Tonzauber Recording Studio, Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview

There is a passage in the booklet supplied with this excellent new recording that describes John Aylward’s music as sounding like “Elliot Carter dreaming of Debussy” and I think that is an apt description of its immaculate poise between the bracing modernity of the American and the sensual delights of the Frenchman. It gives little idea, however, of just how distinctive Aylward’s own voice is and it speaks eloquently and clearly in this suite of chamber pieces inspired by Ovid.

What Ovid and Aylward share is an irrepressible fecundity of inspiration. The music like both the subject and the poetic form of Ovid’s metamorphosis, is in a constant state of transformation with each twist revealing new delights. If a particular section doesn’t take your fancy never fear because Aylward is not the kind of composer to make the listener sit around enduring something for the sake of a mathematical algorithm. He conceals his art in favour of entrancing sounds and textures. Given this quality what is remarkable is the way he is able to pull this all together into a coherent structure. The question for me with all new music is: does this need to be said? In the case of these pieces, the answer is an enthusiastic Yes!

The scale of Aylward’s vision matters. This may be chamber music but in no way is it limited in terms of scope or colour. I found myself thinking that this is yet another path forward from the pared back orchestration of late Mahler pieces such as Das Lied.
The piece that begins this album, Daedalus, commences with probably the most cliché modernist sounds on the disc and I can imagine some listeners abandoning it with the exclamation’Not more huffing and puffing into a flute!’ This would be an immense pity as the piece quickly settles down and becomes much more distinctive and immensely more interesting. I am not going to indulge in speculation as to the link between music and myth as if this were some kind of musical narrative. What it sets underway is a series of mutations of the material starting with a passage of static music that offers us a very broad horizon indeed. I was put in my mind of looking at photographs of deep space studded with billions of stars. The rest of the work alternates tireless movement in transforming the music in ingenious ways with the recurrence of moments of stasis.

Having set out his stall, Aylward really starts to enjoy himself in the delicate, quizzical textures that open the second piece, appropriately named Mercury. The trickiness that is clearly part of Aylward’s musical personality is given free rein here. If the language is modernist, the mood isn’t that of grim earnestness that sometimes besets contemporary classical. Possibly because the metal Mercury is liquid at room temperature, there is a lot of fluidity to the writing. The music for flute and clarinet flows delightfully. This is music to charm and fascinate as well as to set the mind boggling. The occasional glimpses of something deeper serve to remind us that the god Mercury, in his role as psychopomp, mediated between Hades and the upper worlds.

The central work of this five movement suite is provocatively titled Ephemera. I presume this refers to the transitory nature of music itself, it sounds and is gone, but also to the way in which, despite that transitory nature, music stays with us. In a group of pieces inspired by Ovid and transformations of all sorts, musical and mythological, it also seems to make the point that nothing ever stays the same. Being is becoming. It is the briefest of the sections and the most concentrated. It provides most of generative material for the other movements but this is not something the listener is going to be aware of. I was put in mind of the similarly ‘here one minute, gone the next’ nature of the music of Webern though Aylward’s language is less severe and rarified than the Austrian’s and his approach decidedly less dogmatic. The end of the piece brings a startling and unsettling collapse into silence. The fate of all music?

As befits its title, Narcissus is the most immediately seductive of the sections. Here the Debussy part of Aylward’s voice is most audible. It sounds like music that is enjoying its own loveliness and ingenuity! Whilst I enjoyed all the pieces on this disc, this one is lipsmackingly good.

The final section is entitled Ananke which means Necessity. The sleeve notes relate this to a consistently repeated though transformed musical figure that runs through the piece. The same notes liken this to the role of es muss sein figure in Beethoven’s last quartet. In other words, it enacts the infinite capacity of life to adapt and move forward. The music of this section, therefore, is the most mobile as well as being the most diverse and digressive. In parts it is the most violent but in others places it contains music of exquisite refinement.

A final word about the inexhaustible energy and imagination of Klangforum Wien. In much the same way that we are now grateful to Columbia for their Stravinsky edition, I believe that future generations will be grateful to them for their services, presumably for little thanks or reward, to the music of today. This present recording is a prime example since it is played and recorded with immense care and great joy in making such wonderful music.

David McDade

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