These two composers make fascinating and well-contrasted bedfellows. Contemporaries, neither being particularly well known, each ploughed his own furrow through changes of fashion. Each has come up with his own personal language and direction as this CD demonstrates.
The indomitable John Turner – a great promoter, commissioner and performer of contemporary British music – is the mover and shaker behind this project. As ever, the contributors are listed at the back of the useful and pleasing booklet. Turner is more than aided by the Adderbury ensemble from the village in North Oxfordshire with its superb medieval church. There the group have given many outstanding performances and at Oxford’s Baroque Sheldonian Theatre. The recording is also much graced by the lyrical and silky tone and sensitive musicianship of clarinettist Linda Merrick who recently recorded the fine concerto by John McLeod on Chandos.
Robert Crawford was born in Edinburgh. When I heard the first movement of his Elegiac Quintet I immediately detected an influence of Hans Gál only to read that Crawford had studied with him. I also thought of Robin Orr only to read that Crawford not only had written what is now the middle movement of this work for a memorial service to Robin Orr in November 2006, which John Turner had commissioned, but that Crawford’s second wife was Orr’s daughter. I also felt during the piece a few strains of Bartók only to discover that Crawford had a special place for Bartók in his life and that he also studied with the serial composer Benjamin Frankel. These influences are all there subliminally but Crawford is his own man. His lines have an angularity about them and a tonality that is difficult to pin down. He also possesses a true originality. The Elegiac Quintet’s outer movements retain a consistently sombre tone despite an opening Moderato and a finale marked Scherzo.
It is difficult to reconcile oneself to the knowledge that the Three Two-part Inventions for Recorder and Clarinet were not originally designed for those instruments, so uniquely apt they appear. In fact they were first composed for tenor, treble and descant recorders. These are contrapuntal, even canonic pieces: a Comodo, an Andante and a brief Vivace, each fascinating and none outstaying its welcome. The second and third inventions include some multiphonics – that is at least two pitches at once.
The spirit of Bach is none too far away when one writes ‘Inventions’. Bach often used the letters of his name as opening material for a new piece. Crawford, in another work for clarinet, The Quintet , uses selected letters of his own name as a starting point. They are the CAFD and E which as he says in the notes “results in an arpeggio which should be recognisable throughout the work”. Also, as a consequence there is a definite diatonic feel to this material, of which the composer comments that it “is rather less angular than I usually use”. So the work falls into two movements. The first is an Allegro moderato in which the figure is passed clearly around the five players. Crawford admits that he is a contrapuntist so “all of the instruments are treated equally”. The second movement can be thought of as; A (Lento) B (quasi allegro) A B. The main material becomes clearer as it moves through. The overall impression is one of mystery and a pensive rare beauty. These impressions live with you for some time after the last notes have evaporated.
The first time I came across John Veale was when his Violin Concerto was released by Chandos coupled with Britten’s in 2001. He died all too soon in 2006 having spent much of his fruitful composing life in the theatre and film studio. He had been a pupil of two contrasting characters Egon Wellesz and Sir Thomas Armstrong. The booklet is rather misleading because the Triptych is listed inside as for recorder and guitar. The composer made a new version of the piece with string quartet instead of guitar. At less than six minutes it packs in three delightful and brief ‘moods’ all based on the same little theme. There’s a melancholy middle movement and the work ends in a happy little waltz.
John Turner plays Veale’s brief Impromptu for solo recorder most beautifully. It was written for him in memory of that wonderful soprano Tracey Chadwell. The material comes from Veale’s The Song of Radha , which he had hoped Chadwell would perform for him. It falls into four contrasting sections and is all over in less than four elegant minutes.
The major work by Veale and the work which opens the CD is his String Quartet . I found myself being reminded a little of another composer who often wrote for the cinema, William Alwyn in the Triptych. Yet it was of William Walton whose name occurred to me in the Quartet which was written in California when Veale was 28. One shouldn’t be surprised at this because the composer said that he was ‘mesmerised’ when he first heard Walton’s First Symphony. Perhaps you can hear the influence in the scurrying Allegro molto finale with its syncopated activity and cross-rhythms or in the strong unison passages of the first movement or the yearning romantic yet unsentimental middle movement. Walton is certainly there and not Egon Wellesz to whom the work is inscribed. Composer’s opinions of their own music are notoriously wobbly. According to Roy Collins’ excellent booklet notes, Veale found the quartet “unsatisfactory” after its 1953 performance. Hubert Foss of OUP, on the other hand, found it to be “a considerable achievement”, an assessment with which I would wholeheartedly concur especially in this superb and understanding performance. That comment also applies to all of the works on this fascinating and enterprising disc.
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