David Ellis studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music in the 1950s where his fellow students included Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr. This new CD of his works includes pieces written over a period of 50 years and the recordings span 40 years.
For those unfamiliar with Ellis’ music here is an ideal opportunity to discover a contemporary composer whose music, while not as modernist as much of the work of those above, deserves a place in the repertoire with its own focused and distinctive musical voice.
There are six works on the CD, all performed by Manchester-based ensembles, with an emphasis on the sound of the string orchestra. The first piece, Vale Royal Suite , is perfectly pitched at amateur ensembles: if there are echoes of Britten in the practicality and clarity of the writing (although the scurrying pizzicato of the second movement certainly sounds virtuosic) these are secondary to a musical personality that clearly makes its presence felt right from the start.
Ellis has a particular knack for striking openings in his work. The pounding pedal ostinato that starts Diversions for chamber orchestra (1974) allows a clear structure to emerge, where not a note is wasted and an ending of considerable energy complements the opening. Whilst Concert Music in the composer’s words ‘ did not conform to the avant-garde tendencies prevalent elsewhere in the UK at the time of its completion’ (in 1959) it is nevertheless at its outset somewhat grittier in its harmonic language than most of the other pieces on the disc, allowing for a most moving relaxing of tension in its final movement.
The real surprise comes in the final work in this collection, Solus (1973), where a complexity and denseness in the string writing exhilaratingly contextualized shows that the composer was well aware of the sound worlds of Ligeti and Penderecki without in any way following their aesthetics. Perhaps the most moving work of all on the CD is the most recent: September Threnody (2011): written in memory of his wife, four short studies in mod, of which the second, a brief fugato dissolving into something more tranquil, is especially poignant.
The performances are uniformly excellent bringing out the harmonic richness and rhythmic poise and subtlety abundant in all the pieces. All in all this CD is an outstanding portrait of a composer whose works deserve to be known far more widely.