Thursday, 19 May 2011

Gavin Bryars: Piano Concerto etc. on Naxos

Gavin BRYARS (1943- )
After Handel’s Vesper (1995) [11:47]
Ramble on Cortona (2010) [12:34]
Piano Concerto (The Solway Canal) (2010) [28:21]
Ralph van Raat (piano)
Cappella Amsterdam; Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic/Otto Tausk
NAXOS 8.572570

I will put my cards on the table. This is the first time that I have heard any music by the composer Gavin Bryars. It could be argued that this will preclude me from making any criticism of this CD either positive or negative. On the other hand listeners and reviewers have to begin somewhere: there is always going to be a ‘first piece’ from any composer that is consciously listened to. The emphasis here is on ‘consciously’ as I may have picked up some of his music on Classic FM or Radio 3. In some ways this is an advantage: I have no preconceptions of his musical style save what I read in the CD liner notes. So I hear this work with an ‘innocent ear’ and draw my conclusions based on analogy to other works by a variety of composers. And this is important. One of the criticisms levelled against Bryars is his eclecticism. In fact, the liner notes make a very high falutin’, almost sycophantic, claim for the composer – ‘He...absorbs and integrates all the great possibilities in sound and style which mankind has acquired during the course of music history –both from its traditions and from the avant-garde.’ (Surely avant-garde is also a part of musical tradition?) In slightly less ingratiating terms this simply means that such diverse voices as Handel, Cage, Xenakis and Ives can be heard in his music. The test of this eclecticism is whether these influences are parodies or a genuine absorption of styles made into something new and vivid. On this matter, my jury is still out.

Three works are presented on this CD – two solo keyboard pieces and a major ‘piano concerto’ that also makes use of a choir. Any discussion of these works depends heavily on the liner notes accompanying this CD.
The first work, After Handel’s Vesper was composed in 1995 and was originally conceived for solo harpsichord. I find this a little bit of a ‘ramble’ in spite of the fact that the composer has tried to fuse seventeenth-century style with jazz and a higher degree of chromaticism than Handel would have cared to use. It is certainly an interesting work that engages the listener. However, the balance between its ‘baroque ornamentation’ and the ‘lush’ harmonies can be a little overstated. (I always thought that only grass could be lush!). The formal characteristics seem to be predicated on a ‘free and improvisatory playing style’ rather than anything based on a ‘contemporary Handelian ‘sonata’ or ‘suite.’ Yet it works well for piano, possibly better than the original harpsichord: there are some lovely, moving moments in amongst the pseudo -minimalistic note spinning. My only concern is that the great variety of material appears to lack cohesion.

Ramble on Cortona is perhaps an unfortunate title: Grainger-esque maybe in name, but not in concept or sound. Once again this is a ‘fusion’ piece that bases its material on themes from one of the composer’s earlier works, Laudes. This in turn was derived from a thirteenth-century musical manuscript found in Cortona in Italy. The Ramble is a well crafted work that takers the listener on a journey – more a meander than a ‘yomp’. However, like much of Gavin Bryars, the harmonies and pianism are well expressed and sometimes spine-tingling. Not a masterpiece perhaps, but certainly an enjoyable and important essay for the piano.

The major event on this surprisingly ‘economical’ CD (only 52 minutes long) is the Piano Concerto The Solway Canal. Naxos has been unable to give the text to the two sonnets by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan which inspired the work. Fortunately they are quite easy to locate on the internet, so there is no excuse in not perusing them. However, from my point of view I am not quite sure what the ‘makar’ is driving at in these beautifully written poems. Perhaps it does not really matter too much. I (naively perhaps) guess it is some allusion to ‘global warming’ and subsequent flooding.
The best description of this concerto is that it could be regarded as film-music. I guess each listener will provide his or her own screenplay - probably not based on the poet’s words. The piano is not used as a romantically-charged protagonist; rather it takes the role of a guide and leads the band and singers on a journey (Ramble?) through a variety of landscapes. However these landscapes are varied more in colour and mood rather than ‘geological’ structures. I am not sure what the singers actually bring to the party; however Busoni used a choir in his mega-concerto and also Beethoven in his less-than successful Choral Fantasy, so it is not really a novelty.
There is nothing particularly challenging about this music, especially if one likes misty, neo-impressionistic music that blurs harmonies and melodies into a gorgeous wash of sound.

The music is well played on this CD by the soloist Ralph van Raat, who also contributed the laudatory liner notes. The Cappella Amsterdam and Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic under their conductor Otto Tausk provide an excellent and accompaniment in the piano concerto.

This is an interesting CD that will appeal to a wide range of listeners who are comfortable with Gavin Bryars approachable style. However the down-side of this is that it could be argued that there is little to challenge the listener in these three works. Certainly the musical sounds are superb and often deliciously moving; however I do worry a little about the exposition of these pieces. Perhaps the title Ramble on Cortona is in danger of summing up the formal structures of all three works?
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

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