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The Nostalgic Recorder: Music for recorder and string quartet
John Turner (recorder)
The Manchester Chamber Ensemble
rec. St. Thomas’s Church, Stockport, 28-30 May 2014
The Proud Recorder: Music for recorder and string quartet
John Turner (recorder)
The Manchester Chamber Ensemble
rec. St. Thomas’s Church, Stockport. 28-30 May 2014

These two well-filled discs on the Prima Facie label celebrate the consummate musicianship of one of Britain’s leading recorder players. John Turner has premiered over 500 works and composers of the calibre of Kenneth Leighton, Arthur Butterworth, Gordon Crosse, John Casken, Stephen Dodgson and John Gardner have written concertante pieces for him. The admirable extent of Turner’s musical sympathies and interests is reflected in the range of music on both CDs.

Chamber forces require a direct and intimate approach in which there is no room for padding and many of the featured pieces constitute a quintessence of their writer. Several of the works are valedictory in that they count among the very last scores penned by their composer and thus represent a summation of a creative life. Yet the overall effect is decidedly life-affirming and the sheer breadth of repertoire ensures interest is maintained throughout the two carefully chosen programmes.

Entitled ‘The Nostalgic Recorder’, the first collection is grouped around the idea of nostalgia, whether for the music of a bygone era or to memories of friendships and places. This satisfying set of works juxtaposes droll imitations of earlier styles with miniature portraits of musical figures past and present.

Methuselah Dances by Anthony Hopkins was written in 1946 for a production of George Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Back to Methuselah’. It was originally scored for recorder with spinet or piano accompaniment. The work is included in the latter incarnation on a Divine Art ‘Portrait of a Composer’ CD (DDA21217 - review). In 2013 Hopkins wrote a new version with string quartet which he dedicated to John Turner. Framed by a courtly Farandole, this sequence of enchanting miniatures treads a graceful measure and in the tiny, poignantly nostalgic ‘Sarabande’ second movement transcends mere pastiche.

Fantasia on John Dowland’s ‘Flow my Tears’ by Peter Hope presents a personal meditation on the original song. Descant, treble and tenor recorders are required in a searching score which explores the full gamut of the instrument’s tessitura. Perhaps its most striking gesture is the incorporation of a blues-like central episode as a modern counterpart to Dowland’s lament.

Continuing the theme of music from the past refracted through a contemporary sensibility, Anima by Alan Brown is a 21st-century response to Dufay’s motet Anima mea liquefacta est and the plainsong antiphon on which Dufay’s piece is based. Concise and cogent, this score is the fruit of decades of study and scholarship by a distinguished editor, teacher and performer of early music. Such is Brown’s familiarity with the source material that Anima, which was premiered in 2006, seems to inhabit and draw strength from a contemporary and early-Renaissance sensibility simultaneously and without artifice.

Elegy for my Lost Friends by Owen Swindale commemorates a number of the composer’s dead friends, specifically the Edinburgh composer and musicologist David Johnson. The piece was premiered at a concert in 2009 dedicated to Johnson’s memory. A measured opening threnody gives way to a more animated central passage, perhaps remembering happier times, before the haunting opening material returns.

Written to mark the renovation of the medieval Staircase House in Stockport, Fred’s Blue Ginger Staircase Music by David Ellis affords a series of crisply evocative mini-portraits with a sophisticated, gently jazzy flavour. Originally written for recorder and guitar, these colourful vignettes evoke the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Dance-a-TriplE Round, for recorder and cello is an intricate and enjoyable round-dance by Anthony Gilbert in which the two instruments take it in turns to occupy the limelight in little variants on a tune that starts by ‘singing’ a birthday wish to David Ellis. According to the composer, ‘there is no limit to the number of times it can be repeated’. Turner and the uncredited cellist - presumably the Manchester Chamber Ensemble’s Barbara Grunthal, who gave the work’s first performance with Turner in February 2013 - content themselves with a nod to the score’s perpetuum mobile aspect before deftly signing off.

John McCabe is represented by his Meditation on a Norfolk Ballad, a characteristically variegated and multi-layered score. It is based on phrases of the folksong ‘The Captain’s Apprentice’, collected by Vaughan Williams in Kings Lynn in the early 20th century. Though the tale it tells is a tragic one, McCabe’s use of the folk material ranges over many moods which adds up to a mini-tone poem of genuine substance.

In the form of a slow introduction and allegro, Capriccio by Philip Wood seeks to capture the enthusiasm of David Ellis and John Turner, in whose joint birthday honour the piece was written. Convincingly structured and judiciously paced, this makes a satisfying tribute.

River Dances by Martin Ellerby presents an attractive set of ten pieces. Especially ear-catching is the delightfully lilting ‘Ross Mill’, though the composer’s considerable melodic gifts are in evidence throughout this collection.

Musical postcards of a different hue are to be found in From Castle Hill (Musical Sketches of Tenby) by Andrew Cusworth. Spicy dissonances in the opening Prelude (‘Tenby Wakes’) are replaced by lyrical melodies in the two central movements but the concluding Nocturne returns to the opening material’s baleful phrases. Cusworth makes highly effective use of his four stringed instruments as well as challenging his soloist.

The suite for recorder and string quartet City Square by Geoffrey Poole contains vivid representations of buildings in Manchester, Bristol, Leeds and London. Icy flutter-tonguing from the recorder in the opening movement is one of arresting expressive devices deployed by Poole and this suite is perhaps the most challenging music on the disc. It channels a number of different styles to capture the eclectic mix of architectural schools in various city squares. John Turner and the quartet players are put through their paces in a rewarding score that repays repeated listening.

Called ‘The Proud Recorder’, Prima Facie’s second collection is designed to demonstrate that composers can write for the instrument in a serious context, exploiting its capacity for depth and emotion, especially when accompanied by strings. To illustrate this point, the disc contains no fewer than three substantial quintets, each revealing very different responses to the individual character of the recorder.

The programme begins impressively with the Quintet by Patric Standford. This, the composer’s last completed work, makes a fine coda to his creative output. Weightiest of the four movements, the tripartite opening piece covers a lot of terrain in less than six minutes and from the slow and richly ornamented framing material to the quirky central jig, the ideas are of the highest calibre. Following an introspective Arietta, the joyful rondo-finale is infused with pealing bells and birdsong effects. This is a polished and skilful score which could win the recorder many new converts.

The Variations on a Ground by Robert Crawford is vigorously expressive. It presents a series of compact and tautly argued variants on a six-bar ground containing all the notes of the chromatic scale. Though less than five minutes in length, this is not a miniature but an imposing and thoroughly worked out utterance for five players, tersely expressed.

Dedicated to John Turner, the Quintet by Karel Janovický exploits the recorder’s lyrical qualities in the first two movements, while the rhythmic and sharp-edged finale takes advantage of the instrument’s quicksilver dexterity. As well as providing a splendid vehicle for its dedicatee, the score offers accomplished and varied writing for string quartet, as may be expected from a former pupil of Mátyás Seiber.

Magellan in Moscow by Stephen Plews is based on the conceit of the great Portuguese explorer of the Renaissance period time-travelling to Moscow in the cold-war era. Stylistically eclectic, with hints of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the broad-based mix, this witty and varied suite gives much pleasure.

The prolific Welsh composer Mervyn Burtch wrote no fewer than 17 string quartets. Unsurprisingly, his Phantasy (2010) is as notable for the command and fluency of the writing for string quartet as the lucidity of the recorder line. At the heart of the piece is an atmospheric, elegy-like passage which contrasts effectively with the more vigorous outer sections.

There follows a Quintet by David Beck, who has written extensively for the recorder. The composer uses different incarnations of the instrument in the five movements, ranging from sopranino to tenor. This simple device lends each movement a distinctive flavour of its own. Another short piece by Beck, Lullaby is a delicate study on the Welsh cradle song ‘Suo Gân’.

Song of the Small White Orchid by Peter Lawson is part of the composer’s projected cycle of musical portraits of the 48 wild orchids of Britain and Ireland. In this brightly-hued single movement the full gamut of the recorder’s expressive range is fully explored from the lowest notes of the bass recorder to the top notes of the sopranino. The string quartet develops the musical argument while the soloist changes instruments. A fastidiously scored celebration of a wondrous manifestation of the living world, it makes a fittingly up-beat finale to the collection.

As a demonstration of John Turner’s consummate musicianship and the recorder’s expressive range, the content of these two CDs could hardly be bettered. There is fun and wit to be savoured here as well as wistfulness and emotional depth. Rather than play the programmes through in their entirety, listeners may well elect to dip in and sample one or two of the considerable highlights. To my ears the works by Standford, Crawford, McCabe and Burtch stand out, but there are styles and moods to suit every taste. The indefatigable John Turner approaches each piece with freshness and spontaneity and the Manchester Chamber Ensemble players provide alert and responsive support. These authentic-sounding readings are captured in superbly natural recorded sound by Prima Facie. Anyone with an interest in this repertory or seeking to expand their musical horizons should lose no time in acquiring both discs.

Paul Conway


Anthony HOPKINS (1921-2014)
Methuselah Dances (2013) [4:48]
Peter HOPE (b.1930)
Fantasia on John Dowland’s ‘Flow my Tears’ (2011) [9:16]
Alan BROWN (b.1941)
Anima (2006) [4:32]
Owen SWINDALE (b.1927)
Elegy for my Lost Friends (2009) [4:05]
David ELLIS (b.1933)
Fred’s Blue Ginger Staircase Music (2011) [5:44]
Anthony GILBERT (b.1934)
Dance-a-TriplE Round, for recorder and cello (2013) [1:41]
John McCABE (1939-2015)
Meditation on a Norfolk Ballad (2013) [3:53]
Philip WOOD (b.1972)
Capriccio (2013) [3:50]
Martin ELLERBY (b.1957)
River Dances (2014) [13:09]
Andrew CUSWORTH (b.1984)
From Castle Hill (2011) [9:37]
Geoffrey POOLE (b.1949)
City Square (2013) [12:32]

Patric STANDFORD (1939-2014)
Quintet (2014) [12:54]
Robert CRAWFORD (1925-2012)
Variations on a Ground (2013) [4:34]
Karel JANOVICKÝ (b.1930)
Quintet (2010) [13:46]
Stephen PLEWS (b.1961)
Magellan in Moscow (2013) [11:11]
Mervyn BURTCH (1929-2015)
Phantasy (2010) [8:42]
David BECK (b.1941)
Quintet (2013) [14:14]
David BECK (b.1941)
Lullaby (2006) [3:14]
Peter LAWSON (b.1964)
Song of the Small White Orchid (2013) [6:31)



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