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Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson offer their personal choice of the latest discs
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The Independent Culture
Herbert Howells: Orchestral Works

Moray Welsh (cello), LSO / Richard Hickox

(Chandos CHAN 9410)

You think Herbert Howells, you think Hymnus Paradisi. And then you wonder why a composer working on that scale with that kind of reach, brilliance, vision, made almost no impression in the sphere of purely orchestral music. And then you listen to these relatively early scores and wonder turns to disbelief. Here is something more than just another West Country composer singing the landscape. Howells was one of nature's mystics. Works like Paradise Rondel (on the surface of it, a wonderful example of the English pastoral style - "a good walking place full of tunes for those who can hear them") and Pastoral Rhapsody temper their folk-inflected reveries with a healthy respect for the power of the elements (the solitudinous still-centre of the latter piece immediately suggests Sibelius).

Space and perspective were most important to Howells. Room to ramble. His music has a Delian feeling for rhapsody - sure sign of a restless soul. Add personal tragedy - the death of his 10-year-old son, Michael - and restless turns to inconsolable. Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra was thought to have been the first movement of a proposed Cello Concerto. Threnody (orchestrated by the late Christopher Palmer) commends itself as the slow movement. And this is where Howells does his grieving. Anger gets the better of him at its climax, but otherwise - like most of this fine music - it's the search for answers that keeps it alive. A highly collectable disc, sumptuously performed and recorded. And in case you're wondering how Howells managed to duck out of paying his English ceremonial dues, King's Herald and Procession (a kind of Walton-meets-Turandot episode) should put you right. ES

This is probably as near to a perfect introduction to Lutoslawski as we're going to get. The Concerto for Orchestra shows him at his most brilliant and approachable: Polish folk-tunes put through amazing timbral and harmonic permutations; thrilling climaxes built on driving rhythms; bright pastoral vistas and spectral nocturnes. Then comes the powerful, Bartokian Funeral Music - simpler, but still more eloquent. Finally, Mi-Parti: recognisably a product of Seventies modernism - serial atonalism alternating with "chance" effects - but one of the finest products of what one critic called Poland's "avant-garde with a human face".

Yan Pascal Tortelier is an outstanding interpreter: he has all the composer's Polish Gallic sensibility without his tendency to pull the music's powerful punches. The BBC Philharmonic plays with energy and precision, and the recording does them justice. Readers uninfected by the current bout of Musical Little Englanderism should give this serious thought. SJ

"Too funky for the Academy, too structured for the club scene"? Bang on a Can were born, we're told, in response to music, to composers, of no particular ideology, music which defied categorisation, which "fell between the cracks". Sounds like the cue for a marketing strategy. Create an ideology, a cult, a trend. How else (why else) would Sony spend money selling an old "new music" radical like Louis Andriessen? A piece like Hoketus is not about to wow the new age pop-pickers and techno freaks. On paper, it's ingenious. You have to understand the geometry to appreciate the virtuosity. But, as a listening experience, it's dead on arrival.

So how about David Lang's Anvil Chorus - a piece about blacksmithing for junk percussion (the alternative Tin Pan Alley)? Tame. Or the title track: Michael Gordon's Industry - a piece of pure sonic "art", the mutation of a solo cello into its own industrial revolution (with a little help from an electrode or two)? Interesting but unrepeatable.

Which leaves Julia Wolfe's Lick. And, yes, you could conceivably sell this one to the techno trendies. There's a collective impatience about it, a kind of schizoid danceability. Uptown and downtown music collide, contemporary abstract meets fashionable funk. I like its sauce, I like its edge. But it's 10 minutes out of one hour. Pass the can-opener. ES

Bang on a Can: Industry. Music by Wolfe, Andriessen, Lang, Gordon

(Sony 66483)

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