I heard my first work by Gordon Crosse more than forty years ago. I had found a second-hand review copy of his Changes for chorus and orchestra on the old Argo LP (ZRG-656). It was a piece that I struggled with at the time. In recent years I have been privileged to re-discover this masterly choral work as well as a number of other compositions by Crosse. The recent re-issue of Changes by Lyrita included the stunning Ariadne – Concertante for solo oboe and twelve players Op. 31 (1972). I have not yet heard his major opera Purgatory , also on Lyrita. Dutton Epoch has released his Water Music (CDLX 7191) and his Elegy & Scherzo alla Marcia, Op.47 for string orchestra (CDLX 7207). NMC have his Cello Concerto and Some Marches on a Ground (NMC58).
Gordon Crosse was born in Bury, Lancashire in 1937 and has combined an academic career with composing. His musical education included study with Egon Wellesz and Goffredo Petrassi in Rome . Crosse’s university appointments included Essex, Birmingham and in the United States at Santa Barbara . He was ‘composer in residence’ at King’s College, Cambridge between 1973 and 1975. Over eighteen years ago Crosse largely suspended his compositional activity, but recently he has begun to write music once again. Works that have been issued recently included a trio for oboe, violin and cello, a violin sonata, music for recorder and an anthem for Blackburn Cathedral.
It is difficult to pin-point Crosse’s musical language – but I guess that it is a subtle balance between tonal and serial with excursions to more exotic formats. The music on the present disc is less complex and easier to assimilate than some of his earlier compositions. I would suggest that in Crosse’s music Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Britten are never too far away: the more avant-garde style of Petrassi is also influential.
Brief Encounter (2009) was written at the instigation of the doyen of the recorder – and many other things – John Turner. The music makes a sentimental nod to that great film starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. This present score is not romantic film music in the Rachmaninovian style – but a meditation on farewells. Nevertheless, the music is romantic in its own way; the clever balancing of the oboe d’amore and the recorder giving the work a sense of sadness and regret. The piece is written in straightforward ternary form: the middle section is intense and even anguished, contrasting with the gentler music in the outer sections.
The major Crosse work on this CD is the Concerto for viola and strings, with French horn (2009). The composer writes that this music was a ‘rescue operation’ and utilised some themes and motifs that had been devised during the previous twenty years.
The Viola Concerto is presented in three contrasting movements. The opening Prelude is dominated by two folk-like tunes. However there is nothing of the ‘cow & gate’ about these. The movement is presented in an arch-like structure, with a considerable climax in the middle section. It is energetic, dramatic music that immediately captures the listener’s attention. The second movement is a deeply felt song that is heart-breaking in its effect. The form is once again relatively straightforward with the main melody being played over three times. There is a reference to the first movement towards the conclusion. The Finale, a vivace, is derived from an abandoned Trumpet Concerto written in 1998 – this time it balances ‘machine shop’ rhythms with a Durham miner’s folksong. Amusingly, Crosse suggests that this tune was something that might have appealed to the Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn. Certainly it could be used as a theme tune in sit-com or soap ‘from north o’ the border’. It is exciting stuff with some thoughtful moments. The composer introduces the French horn into the palette of orchestral texture. This movement is cyclic with references to the opening ‘prelude’. The Viola Concerto is impressive and significant and is of huge credit to Gordon Crosse. In many ways its stylistic content is far removed from his early music: the quality, the emotional content and the concentration are complete. It is sympathetic and often moving. I believe that this is one of the most important viola concertos in the catalogue: let us hope that it becomes part of repertoire.
I was impressed with Crosse’s lovely Fantasia on “Ca’ the Yowes” (2009). The composer has suggested that he hoped to write a piece along the lines of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves , but, ‘as usual things got more complicated as I worked, and the wonderful simplicity of RVW eluded me.’
The work is dedicated to Stephanie Rose Irvine, whom the composer had heard singing the folk-song, accompanied by the clarsach. What Crosse has done is to deconstruct the melody of the song and to present it either in sections, as a tune or as fragments. The harp has been substituted for the clarsach and the singing has been presented on the flute – or, for this recording, the recorder. The string orchestra provides the background with some very attractive writing that does seem much closer to the soundscape of RVW than the Gordon Crosse of old. The piece is well-structured, often moving and quite beautiful.
A few notes about Sir John Manduell may be of interest to those who have not yet come across his music. He was born in Johannesburg in 1928, however his family returned to the United Kingdom ten years later. Manduell read Modern Languages at Jesus College Cambridge. He won a Performing Rights Society Scholarship for post-graduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music: his composition tutors at this time were William Alwyn and Lennox Berkeley. Manduell’s career was to embrace a wide variety of musical activities, which must necessarily have limited the amount of time spent on composition. Amongst many appointments were a BBC producer in London, the head of music for the Midlands and East Anglia, the first Director of Music at the University of Lancaster and in 1971 the first principal of the RNCM. He remained in that post until 1996. Other important activities included the first chairman of the European Opera Centre, programme director of the Cheltenham Festival for 25 years and service on the British Arts Council. From a compositional point of view, Manduell’s catalogue is tantalisingly small. He has written in a number of genres, including chamber music and song.
Manduell is represented by comparatively few works on CD. The current Arkiv catalogue gives only one entry – the Rondo for Nine , which is part of the Manduell tribute CD ‘Antiphon’ from Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7207). There is also a disc dedicated to a number of his chamber works including the Trois Chansons de la Renaissance for baritone and piano, the String Trio and a String Quartet. One or two other works are scattered about the catalogues such as the ‘C-H’ Aria and recitative dedicated to Peter Crossley-Holland. The two works presented on this CD are therefore amongst the few orchestral pieces that are available.
The Flutes Concerto dates from a commission from Kent Nagano and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. Its from 2003. The title ‘Flutes’ is not a ‘typo’ but refers to the fact that the soloist is required to use the alto flute and the piccolo as well as the ‘concert flute’. This latter is used exclusively in the opening ‘vivo-lento’, however the slow second movement utilises the alto instrument. The piccolo makes an appearance in the concluding allegro. There is also an involved part for harp – which makes this into another ‘double concerto’. The two percussionists make an important contribution including the effective use of a ‘rain stick’. The work is presented in three longish movements – it last for 26 minutes – and explores a variety of typically reflective motifs and themes.
The musical language is a fine example of an approachable ‘modern’ style that is challenging but never off-putting. Nevertheless, it is well within the tradition of British and French music. It makes use of dissonance, but in a controlled and sensitive manner. The melodies are always clear but never obvious or trite.
If I was seriously impressed by the Flutes Concerto, then the Double Concerto ‘took my breath away’. This work began life as a 1985 BBC commission for the Cardiff Festival of that year. It originally had ‘dizi’ and ‘erhu’ soloists. The former is a Chinese flute and the latter is like a single stringed viol. It was composed in a sabbatical year whilst Manduell was on holiday in Hong Kong . In 2012 the composer substantially revised the work for solo oboe and cor anglais. There were apparently no examples of a double concerto for these forces. In addition to the soloists and string orchestra there is a requirement for multiple percussionists.
Manduell has created a diaphanous sound-world that is strikingly beautiful as well as being musically interesting. There is a fine balance between the soloists who are in conversation, in agreement and in debate with each other. The musical language is designed to give a sense of timelessness to this music. There is no obvious reference to Chinese idioms implied by the work’s genesis. There are three movements: a well structured opening ‘adagio – allegro molto’, followed by a more penetrating and introspective ‘adagio molto’ with a short ‘allegro vivo’ bringing the proceedings to a close with an almost Bernstein-like aplomb.
The performance of all five pieces on this CD is splendid. These are demanding works that are not in the standard repertoire, yet the soloists and the Manchester Sinfonia make them sound second nature. The liner-notes are written by the two composers and make essential reading as there are no other sources of information on these pieces. A little bit more analysis of the Manduell pieces would have been welcome. The CD sound quality is ideal and reflects the typically intimate nature of these works.
Finally I do hope that one day an enterprising CD company (like Métier) will seek to record Sir John Manduell’s Sunderland Point Overture . It is a work that I would love the opportunity to hear. Based on his two master-works presented on this CD, I can only assume that it will be something special. Sunderland Point is one of my favourite places, lying as it does between the estuary of the River Lune and Morecambe Bay .