CLASSICAL MUSIC / Records: Keeping up the momentum: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson exchange views on recent releases of English music both old and new
AT 34, Mark-Anthony Turnage has achieved what many more senior composers are still struggling for. Without turning his back on the modernist past, he has forged a lucid, direct, vibrant style that seems to reach ears other forms of new music can't reach. Playing Spot the Influence isn't hard: Stravinsky is the father figure, modern jazz the liberating influence, and could that be Birtwistle in there too - screaming saxophones, uneasy, thwarted ostinatos, hard-edged brass and percussion? Others offer similar blends, but few command such astonishing aural imaginations, or such a stunning orchestral technique. The other big plus is Turnage's gift for angular or soulfully expressive melodic lines that nag at the memory - perhaps the word really is 'tunes'. Riding the orchestral torrent in Momentum is a marvellous, gritty motif I could imagine blared out by a no-holds-barred big band (the younger Bernstein would have loved it), while the solo cello line in Kai is saturated in the blues, and yet it all feels like authentic Turnage: nothing is merely derivative. Performances are terrific, and once again Birmingham Symphony Hall seems to have transformed itself into the ideal recording environment for the big orchestral pieces. In the age of commercially viable new music, this is one of the rare releases that actually deserves success. SJ
MADE IN Birmingham. Mark-Anthony Turnage's orchestral skills were effectively born and bred there. A handful of pieces and he's ready to take on the world. Drowned Out, the latest of his Brummie commissions, is astonishingly commanding. It starts out like an Isle of the Dead or a Sinfonia da Requiem: imploring string motif, tuba-led processional. The obligatory saxophones lend a new dimension to Mahlerian stridency. A communal wailing. These are elemental sounds - but not in the primeval Birtwistle sense. There's a gloss on the Turnage sound, an impatience in the manner. Each one of these scores is primed for action. Momentum is a good title for a Turnage score; and it's only a matter of time before Drowned Out explodes into one of his ferociously buoyant danses macabres. But it has its own peculiar heartache, turning in on itself with a disconsolate clarinet lament whose lineage stretches all the way from Tchaikovsky's Pathetique to Nielsen's Fifth and beyond.
Turnage's brand of melancholy is acid-sweet. It comes from the elusive language of jazz. Kai, for solo cello and ensemble, is a key work in that development: Turnage, the loner, the seeker. Interior-Turnage. The allusions here cross the spectrum from Mingus to Grappelli. It's a very vociferous, sometimes agitated, even embittered kind of mourning. It runs deep. A special piece. As is the flamboyant Three Screaming Popes. It's lost none of its sting, this acid-induced Vatican rag. The hallucinatory beauty of the writing (where contemplation is a flute, a harp, a tinkling altar bell) still entices the ear. Few composers get to come of age with Rattle and the CBSO. It helps. ES
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Hugh the Drover - Soloists, Corydon Orchestra & Singers / Matthew Best (Hyperion CDA 66901/2; two CDs)
IMAGINE a mixture of Songs of Travel and the English Folksong Suite, plus the occasional pre-echo of The Lark Ascending, and you'd be most of the way towards the sound-world of Hugh the Drover. It may not be the most searching thing he ever wrote, but for sheer tunefulness it is hard to resist. Vaughan Williams drew heavily on his experience of genuine English folk music here, so much so that it's hard to tell the 'real' folk tunes from original VW. If this suggests something narrowly English-nationalist, it's worth remembering that his models here included Smetana's The Bartered Bride and Strauss's Feuersnot - the influences did him no harm at all.
The trouble is that, however well VW may have characterised rural English life, his central characters aren't all so definite. Hugh and Mary's gorgeous love music leaves little room for doubts, but Aunt Jane and the Constable are shadowy in comparison, especially towards the end. John the Butcher is a truly nasty piece of work, but his long-anticipated fall still strikes me as a little too neat. Not that the cast don't work hard to bring all these characters to life: Rebecca Evans and Bonaventura Bottone make a very appealing pair of lovers, and Sarah Walker brings all her expressive and tonal warmth to Aunt Jane's lines - a shame VW didn't make more of her final loneliness. As the constable, Richard van Allan blusters effectively, although in purely lyrical moments he's not quite so effective. No complaints about Alan Opie's John, though - a 'crowing cock' to the life. Fine playing and singing from the Corydon Singers and Orchestra under Matthew Best provide a secure base and plenty of atmosphere. The recording will please those who like to hear voices above all else; I think I'd have liked a little more orchestral depth and presence. No matter, though - in total, an impressive achievement. SJ
PASS the cakes and ale. Hugh the Drover is what it is: 'A Romantic Ballad Opera'. Better yet: a folk musical. Never mind the drama, we're only here for the musical numbers: and they slip by so unassumingly, one charmer after another. You don't have to be English or even Anglophile to fly with some of these tunes. Vaughan Williams' head and heart were full of them. Try separating the traditional from his own. You can't. It's a hard man that won't reach for the repeat-button after Sarah Walker's 'Sweetheart, life must be full of care', or the fresh-voiced Rebecca Evans in Mary's exquisite 'In the night-time', or Bonaventura Bottone in Hugh's reflective 'Gaily I go to die', or 'Dear sun, I crave a boon', the sound of daybreak so deftly scored with various larks ascending. ES
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