Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Ronald Corp: Guernsey Postcards.

Ronald Corp’s Guernsey Postcards have not been appreciated within the musical press as much as they ought to be. I can find no review of this piece in The Gramophone, the International Record Review or the BBC Music Magazine. However it is represented by two informed reviews on the MusicWeb International site. I guess that one of the reasons may have been the expectation of a work in the form of a ‘light music’ suite from the pen of Eric Coates or Haydn Wood – something a little bit ‘retro’ perhaps.
The work was commissioned in 2004 by the Guernsey Camerata and was written to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the BWCI Group - the largest firm of actuaries and consultants in the Channel Islands and was duly given its premiere in October of that year. The composer conducted this first performance in the St. James Concert Hall on Guernsey.
The composer gives the game away in the sleeve notes for this piece: he writes that this ‘three-movement work is a bright and breezy Sinfonietta (my italics) celebrating the sights and sounds of Guernsey. This compares in scope and context with one online reviewer who praises these ‘delightful miniatures.’ I believe that in spite of the musical topographical associations this work would stand alone as a piece of absolute music.
There are three contrasting movements in this work, all musically portraying aspects of life on Guernsey. The opening ‘postcard’ is entitled The Viaer March (or The Old Market), which is an annual festival running for more than thirty years. It is held on the first Monday of July. The aim of this celebration is to promote local craftsmanship throughout the history of the island. It has displays which explain how the folk ‘used to live.’ Island recipes are usually available for sampling including local breads and ciders. Entertainment is important, with traditional dancing, bands performing and Punch and Judy shows.
Corp has suggested that he wanted to write something ‘sparkling and lively’: certainly this opening movement evokes the hustle and bustle of the festival. However, there is a more serious side this music: the opening material is more solemn and may suggest the enduring ‘spirit’ of the island. However, after a few bars, the mood becomes relaxed and cheerful: certainly reflecting happy-days and the delights of the festival. Rob Barnett has well suggested that this ‘is a bustling minimalist ostinato (Glass out of Nyman), bell carillons and thronged promenades by the sea. It’s a feel-good piece.’
The second movement of this ‘sinfonietta’ is altogether more serious in intent and realisation. Pembroke Bay is one of the largest beaches on the island. It offers a large unbroken expanse of sand: the gentle slope of the bay makes it an ideal spot for bathing and paddling. The music reflects something more tranquil, however, than a typical day at the seaside. The composer has described this movement as an ‘aria’ or a song without words. Certainly this is introverted music that that has its mood set by the opening bassoon solo and delicious string chords. Perhaps it is a middle-aged man reflecting on past holidays and how time flies so quickly? It is a perfect evocation of a very beautiful beach that is timeless in its musical realisation.
The final postcard is quite definitely minimalist in concept. I guess that it would have been easy to musically portray the pizzazz if St Peter’s Port with a complex Malcolm Arnold-ian ‘scherzo’ or perhaps a Rawsthorne-ian Street Corner Overture soundscape. However Ronald Corp has stated that this music is ‘deliberately minimalist’ as he had in mind ‘the sun glistening on the water and the kaleidoscope of colours’ that make up the atmosphere of the island capital. The piece builds up to a moderate climax with counter-melodies and finally an important reference to the opening movement brings the work to a close. It is an impressive movement that is sadly too short: there is much here that is interesting and musically exciting. Ultimately this is short work that straddles the definitions of ‘light’ and ‘serious’ music. There is a sense of purpose and construction that takes this music away from three cameos and moves it into the realm of a ‘small symphony.’
Two other pieces of music that describe the Channel Islands spring to mind – John Ireland’s Sarnia-An Island Sequence and Malcolm Arnold’s delicious score for the British Transport Film, Channel Islands (1952). Guernsey Postcards is a worthy successor and must not be underrated simply because of the title and the association with Ronald Corp’s sterling work in promoting ‘Light Music’ on Hyperion.
Guernsey Postcards was released on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7233 last year and was coupled with the Piano Concerto No.1 and the First Symphony.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree - the Guernsey Postcards are terrific pieces, deserving of a wide audience.