Musical Opinion, Guy Rickards
Joint works by a number of composers are nothing new, ranging from any number of collections from the sixteenth century to the piano Hexameron – containing pieces by Chopin, Czerny and Liszt, amongst others – to the epic post-war Genesis Suite, the contributors to which included Schoenberg, Milhaud and Stravinsky. Variation-sets are the most common format these days, but what marks out the Variations on ‘Lovely Joan’ (2017) is that, to the ‘innocent ear’, the work could almost be by a single hand despite the great variety of texture and expressivity of each of the seven variations. (I should say eight, really, since the opening Prelude by Thomas Hyde contains a Tema elaborata that is tantamount to an initial variant). Lovely Joan itself is an English folk tune, best-known (possibly) as the counter-melody in Vaughan Williams’ lovely Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’, and there is a marvellous allusion to that composer’s Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis at the start of the Adagio molto second variation by Adrian Williams. The faster (odd-numbered) variations – by, respectively, David Matthews, Michael Berkeley (a vivacious ‘Frolic for Lovely Joan’), Huw Watkins and Matthew Taylor –drive the set along with irresistible energy, but it is the softer, even-numbered variations that enchant the ear, not least Christopher Gunning’s Andante (variation 4) and Sally Beamish’s Adagio; very still (variation 6). There is another fascinating connection between all the composers and Vaughan Williams: they are all noted symphonists (recordings of some of whom I have reviewed in earlier issues), albeit that Hyde’s and Watkins’ well-received essays in the form are of fairly recent provenance. It is fascinating to hear these composers working in miniature forms. The commission marked both the 35th anniversary of the Festival and artistic director George Vass’ sixtieth birthday and are wonderfully played here.
The rest of the disc is no less fascinating and performed with equal verve.
Martin Butler’s Concerto for soprano saxophone and strings was composed in 2009 for the brilliant saxophonist Amy Dickson and was inspired as much by Dickson’s virtuosity as that John Coltrane (particularly the song My Favourite Things) and a small piece of Butler’s from 1994 entitled Hootenanny which has a bagpipe-like resonance. Butler draws a variety of unusual timbres from the saxophone such that the unguarded ear might struggle to place the instrument at first. Amy Dickson returned to record this vibrant piece last year (when all these works were set down), as did flautist Katherine Baker and harpist Suzy Willison-Kawalec in Joe Duddell’s Mnemonic (2004). Duddell has since moved into crossover music, working with pop producers as well as electronic media, but Mnemonic shows just what a fine acoustic composer he is. This mini, single-movement concerto cleverly uses a complex structure to explore several musical ideas in different tempi while sounding appealingly euphonious at the same time. So, too, in very different ways, do Hugh Wood’s re-workings in 2010 of three songs from the late 1950s, Beginnings, united more strongly now by a sense of lost innocence and childhood wonder, and the brief Divertimento for string orchestra, written for Vass’ fiftieth birthday in 2007. Both works deserve to be far better known and this recording, sadly, stands as a memorial to Wood who died earlier this year at the age of 89. Resonus’ sound is exquisite, clear and natural.