Notes and Editorial Reviews
ENGLISH RECORDER MUSIC
John Turner (rec); Gavin Sutherland, Edward Gregson
, cond; Royal Ballet Sinfonia
NAXOS 8.572503 (73:37)
Concerto for Recorder, Strings and Percussion.
3 Nautical Sketches.
3 Matisse Impressions.
Prelude and Waltz.
Except for the Malcolm Arnold Concertino, written in 1953, all the works featured here were composed in the last two decades of the previous century, and are scored for soprano recorder and string orchestra. (The pieces by Thomas Pitfield and Edward Gregson add some percussion, and Gregson throws in a harp for good measure.) Despite their recent vintage, they are without exception written in an unapologetically tonal and tuneful vein, with nothing more dissonant than one of the more conservative scores of Vaughan Williams. Most are laid out in the traditional three-movement fast-slow-fast structure, though Philip Lane’s
the only one cast in a neobaroque style—is a four-movement dance suite instead, and the Ian Parrott work has only two movements. The other exception, Alan Bullard’s
is a whimsical five-course aural degustation, with movements titled “Coffee and Croissants” (cast as a French-style waltz), “Barbecue Blues”(penned in a decidedly jazzy vein, with a good deal of flutter-tonguing for the soloist), “Prawn Paella” (using a
) “Special Chop Suey” (based on a pentatonic scale), and “Fish and Chips” (offering a “veddy” British circus gallop). Everything here is elegantly crafted, and generally light-hearted, graceful, and ingratiating; only the Parrott Prelude begins with a surprising (and effective) dramatic starkness. Soloist John Turner (for whom all the works except the Arnold Concertino and Pitfield
were composed), conductor Gavin Sutherland (and composer Gregson in his own work), and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia all turn in handsome and delightful performances. The recorded sound and booklet notes are both up to the usual Naxos standard. If, like me, you love recorder music, you will snap up this delectable bonbon without delay.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Another straight reissue from Naxos. This time of an Olympia-sourced disc recorded just over a decade ago. All of the performers and production team are hugely experienced so this disc wears its quality lightly like a favourite coat. Of the seven composers represented five are still alive but this is very much the friendly face of contemporary music. Authenticity in performance is further guaranteed by the fact that six of the eight works were premiered by the soloist here – John Turner – in their recorder form. All are in multi-movement suite or concerto/concertino form and in turn the majority of the movements could be termed miniatures. With the exception of the Gregson Three Matisse Impressions, which adds a harp and percussion, and the Pitfield Concerto which adds percussion, the accompaniment is for strings alone. The strings are drawn from the excellent Royal Ballet Sinfonia and are deftly directed – again with exception of the Gregson which the composer conducts – by their long-term associate, Gavin Sutherland.
A not wholly unreasonable charge of ‘sameness’ could be levelled at this disc. Indeed it is a programme which I feel benefits from dipping into rather than a concentrated seventy-three minute listen. One thing that did strike me though is how certain of the composers here were able to write in an instantly identifiable manner even with such specific, even limited, instrumental resources. Philip Lane’s Suite Ancienne opens the disc. Lane appears elsewhere on the disc as the arranger of the Malcolm Arnold work and as the disc’s producer. This - and the Bullard Recipes - are the most overtly ‘light’ pieces of music; here the former belying its origin as incidental music for an open-air pageant in Bath. Deliberately written in a pastiche style this is a pleasant if rather inconsequential curtain-raiser. I liked the second movement [track 2] Courtly Dance the most. Lane has made something of a speciality of arranging Malcolm Arnold’s music and his version of the Arnold 1953 Sonatina is very successful. This is a perfect example of a composer being able to be true to his very personal voice while writing for an instrument that was by definition outside his normal experience. As with so much Arnold there is an uneasy subtext to the superficially lyrical music. The accompanying string parts are relatively sparse and the harmonic shifts – although far from radical – are far less predictable than in some of the works offered here. As elsewhere, John Turner plays with a coolly chaste tone and fluent technique. Lane’s orchestration throughout is thoroughly idiomatic and totally convincing to the point you forget it is not an original piece of work. In this version it harks back to the same composer’s Sinfoniettas or perhaps most closely – literally given its opus number of 39 – the little played Oboe Concerto. I never cease to marvel at the emotional weight that Arnold is able to invest in music of even the slightest form.
Naxos have been pretty good to Thomas Pitfield. Aside from the two works featured here – the only composer with more than a single representation – they have recorded a disc of his two piano concertos. Likewise the Sutherland/Royal Ballet Sinfonia/ Lane alliance have recorded a Concert Overture originally on ASV. The concerto here constitutes the longest single work and is a model of craftsmanship and it shows up the quality of the orchestral playing – it offers some lovely nimble and deft playing. Apologies if that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise but it strikes me that for all the fluent and appealing writing it simply lacks the musical personality of the works that sit either side of it. For me the discovery of the disc is the Gregson Three Matisse Impressions. This is a work where each of the three movements feel ‘bigger’ than their brief time-frames. Gregson uses the extra colour of the harp and percussion sparingly but to telling effect. Listen to the very opening Pastoral [track 11] where hanging string chords over harp arpeggios instantly create an atmosphere that has been absent from all the other music on the disc to this point. The use of percussion adds to the archaic, slightly mysterious landscape. Turner plays beautifully expressively here as well. The whole work has a limpid sense of aptness in terms of scale and content and style. Apparently it was originally written for recorder with just piano accompaniment. However this version sounds so very right I cannot imagine the composer does not now see this as the preferable form for the work. David Lyon’s disc in the Marco Polo ‘British Light Music Series’ was one of the unexpected highlights of that collection of recordings with the horn concerto there a real find. His Concertino recorded here contains many of the same virtues of that disc. He is a composer who is able to write music which syncopates and swings without artifice or affectation. Rhythmic side-slips are a natural part of his musical vocabulary as is a slightly jazz-inflected bluesy harmony. The central nonchalant Rêverie [track 15] is a delightful example of the latter and it benefits hugely from a perfectly judged performance from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia – cool and classy without lacking engagement. Thomas Pitfield’s second contribution to the disc are the three brief Nautical Sketches. My favourite movement here is the central Meditation on Tom Bowling [track 18] if only to hear this very beautiful tune in a context that is anything except the Last Night of the Proms. Here, the counter-melodies weave around the recorder’s rendition of the famous tune giving a distinctly modern twist. The closing Keel Reel is another excellent example of the neat and tidy distinction of all the playing – great fun.
Ian Parrott’s Prelude and Waltz was written when the composer was eighty-one and again is a weightier work than the title alone might imply. The Prelude has an angularity and a terseness that sets it apart – and makes a welcome differentiation from the lyrical good humour of much of the rest of the programme. The main theme of the following Waltz came to the composer’s wife in a dream. Parrott is able to let the melody and harmony slyly slip away from the obvious just enough to ensure individuality and character. For much of the time the recorder part ornaments the main musical argument which is carried by the strings. That said, this is the only work to contain a series of mini recorder cadenzas before the opening prelude material returns. I can only assume that the work represents a fairly minor chip off a greater block that consists of some five symphonies and four operas but it does encourage me to seek out more substantial works from this composer’s pen.
The CD closes with Alan Bullard’s Recipes. Another very well crafted work it takes the neat – albeit not original – conceit of giving each movement culinary titles which leads to each brief piece assuming a ‘national’ character. I feel rather churlish for not rising to the good humoured wit of the work. I guess I find the ‘joke’ of a blues on recorder sounds stilted rather than funny and even if it were funny would I want to return to it repeatedly – probably not. That being said the closing movement Fish and Chips provides the performers with an excellent encore crowd-pleaser rounding the disc off in scintillating manner and reminds us once more of the quality of the players involved.
A quick word about the understatedly excellent engineering and production which keeps Turner’s recorder(s) in a realistic perspective without overly recessing the accompanying strings. It is much harder to achieve this kind of natural balance than it might first appear. Add Turner’s illuminating notes and a couple of lovely pen and ink illustrations from Thomas Pitfield and you have a thoroughly engaging CD. If you have collected the other series of English concertos on ASV or the Marco Polo Light Music Series mentioned above this disc neatly complements either.
So a very warm welcome back to this disc – which is a gently life-enhancing potter through the less demanding pathways of the repertoire for recorder and strings.
-- Nick Barnard, MusicWeb International