I have known the name ‘John Purser’ for much of my ‘musical’ life. When I lived in, or visited Glasgow his name seemed to be always ‘in the air.’ Later when I began to investigate the history of Scottish music I found that his book Scotland’s Music was the obvious place to begin. Yet I do not think that I have consciously heard any of his music until I received these three CDs in the post. The strange thing about Purser is that in spite of being ubiquitous in Scotland there is no entry for him in the current online edition of Grove. (Accessed 24 April 2014)
A few biographical notes for those ‘furth’ of the border will be helpful: however I rely heavily on the composer’s own biography and CV on his webpage. John Purser was born in Glasgow in 1942. After a good education at Lathallan School in Aberdeenshire and Fettes College in Edinburgh (‘alma mater’ of Michael Tippett, Tony Blair, Iain MacLeod et al) he studied cello, singing and composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. His composition teacher there was Frank Speddng (1929-2001). With the benefit of a Caird Scholarship he was able to have further study with the émigré composer Hans Gal and with Michael Tippett.
He was the first manager of the Scottish Music Information Centre from 1985-87 and jointly edited the Stretto magazine with the composer James MacMillan.
Purser has turned his hand to many aspects of music and the arts. As well as being a composer, he is a cellist, a poet, a playwright, a lecturer on classical music at Glasgow University, and a musicologist. Purser was ‘instrumental’ in reconstructing the Iron Age Deskford Carnyx which is like a big Celtic trombone. He has been influential in rediscovering the music of John Clerk of Penicuik (1676-1755) and John Thomson (1805-1841). In recent years Purser has studied Gaelic and has developed an interest in Gaelic arts and folklore. At present he lives on the Isle of Skye where he is a crofter.
It seems to me that John Purser’s music divides into two groups –the ‘indigenous’ music and the ‘art’ music: I know that I will be accused of being simplistic.
The opening piece on the CD ‘Dreaming of Islands’ is The Banks of Corrib and features the ‘bronze age horn’ as well as a fiddle and a cello. Certainly the sound of the Carnyx is impressive. Creagan Beaga for soprano, clarsach and cello is a setting of a poem by the Communist/Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean. This sounds to me like ‘crossover’ music. It is more ‘pop’ than ‘art’. It should find a place on Classic FM.
Two more ‘folk’ pìobaireachd (pipe music) for fiddle (Luis and Bonnie on the Deck) are presented. It is difficult to know if Purser has composed this music or has ‘realised’ it. The mood and sound is timeless.
Not being a dedicated fan of ‘Gaelic music’ I was delighted to get onto more familiar ground with the Clavier Sonata which was composed in 1974 for the larger-than-life Glasgow organist Gordon Frier. This is an attractive work that does not push too hard towards the prevailing ‘modernist’ style of its era. The structure of the music is tight making use of themes which are interrelated and utilises interesting contrapuntal devices. The overall effect of this music is gentle and quite beautiful: it is one of the finest works on this disc.
Back to the bronze age again with Skylines which was composed in 1999 for John Kitchen (organ) and John Kenny (carnyx). It is a strangely effective piece that alludes to the mystery of the ‘dramatic coastal scenery of the Isle of Skye.’ It is an inspired combination of instruments.
I am not so sure about the Maori-Gaelic - Pìobaireachd “Wai Taheke” for solo flute: it is one of those pieces that could be by anyone: the title means ‘Falling Waters.’
‘Tha Thu Air Aigeann M’Inntinn’ – You are at the Bottom of my Mind is a setting of a poem by the Scottish poet Iain Crichton Smith. The poem describes the ‘bottom of the sea.’ I do wonder if the poem has lost something of its effect in the translation from the Gaelic. Two cellos provide a lugubrious accompaniment to the soprano. It is dark, slow, introverted piece that does have considerable magic.
The final piece on ‘Dreaming of Islands’ is the eponymous work for violin and cello. This short but interesting work is a deep meditation. It opens with a violin solo but finally both instruments indulge in a conversation towards the end.
The second CD ‘Circus Suite’ has a greater selection of ‘classically’, as opposed to ‘folk’ inspired pieces. The album’s title piece was composed in 1975 for Purser’s brother Michael and ‘sets out to entertain with the same fun, sentiment and vulgarity as the circus.’ This piano duet is full of interesting rhythms and twists and turns to the melodies. The harmonies are wayward, the tunes obvious, but always having an edge. This is an altogether fine and exciting piece.
I was impressed with the beautiful and intense ‘Suite’ for solo violin. This is a complex, technically difficult piece that tests the skill of the performer. After a quiet opening ‘movement’ the fun starts. Purser is correct in suggesting that this work ‘is placed firmly within classical traditions, and makes due homage to Bach and the traditional dance forms he used’. It is one of the most impressive (and intellectually satisfying) pieces on these three CDs. There are three movements – a Prelude and Fugue, a Pavan and Variation and a Saraband and Gavotte. It is a concentrated work that repays repeated listening.
The oldest work on these discs is the Flute Sonata written in 1965. The music is typical of its time with Shostakovich being a possible model for the opening movement. I do hope that the composer will not be offended if I say that I also detected a hint of Malcolm Arnold in the progress of this sonata. In the liner notes Purser points out that this Sonata is 40 years distant from the Pìobaireachd “Wai Taheke” for solo flute and that he felt he was ‘another person’ when he wrote the Sonata. I know which piece I would rather have in my collection.
The Old Composer Remembers is an attractive set of four short pieces for the lute. These include ‘The Day of the Fanfares’, ‘A Day with a Colleague’, ‘A Day Fishing’ and ‘The Day of the Daft Dance’. They are so short that they are over before they begin. The work was composed in 2002 and is dedicated to ‘Mnemosyne – the goddess of Memory and mother of the Muses.’
Not sure that I get much out of A Message to Hirini Melbourne (2005) which is a poem and not a piece of music . The following In Memoriam Hirini Melbourne (2005) for solo could once again have been composed by anyone. There is nothing distinctive. It is just a nice ‘wee’ tune with a few instrumental effects thrown in for good measure.
Fortunately, this CD ends on a high note. The Cello Sonata was composed in 1987 and is dedicated to the composer’s wife Barbara. This work is in a single movement. The musical language is less ‘populist’ than some of Purser’s other music, and is much better for that. This is a deeply-felt piece that explores a wide range of emotion in eleven short minutes. The work is typically reflective, but there are a few anguished moments. This beautiful Cello Sonata should be much better known and established in the repertoire.
The final CD of this three-disc retrospective is ‘Bannockburn’. It is ‘ow’er’ short with less than 40 minutes of music. Three pieces are presented: Bannockburn, Throat and Carrier Strike. I found this the most difficult of the CDs to come to terms with.
Bannockburn was commissioned by the National Trust back in 1972 to be used as part of an interactive display of the battle at the Heritage Centre at the battlefield itself. (I must have heard this music back then as it was a regular place to visit in my teenage years). In this year of the Independence Referendum (2014) everyone must know by now that the Scots gained an impressive victory over the English in the Wars of Independence in 1314. This date was exactly 700 years ago, and Scottish schoolchildren (even in these days of dumbed down history) have never been allowed to forget it. The music is disjointed: it is quite clearly more ‘film’ music than a ‘concert’ piece. I guess that it does not work well denuded of the audio-visuals. There is plenty of good music in this seventeen minute long ‘string of pearls’ and I believe that with a little rearranging and expansion, and possible dumping of the extra-musical references, it would make a fine symphonic poem or even short one movement symphony.
We are back to the carnyx with Throat. This work was commissioned by United Distillers (who distil, amongst other delightful things, Talisker Malt). The concept of the piece is the military exploits of the Picts against the Romans (not the English this time). The work is scored for the carnyx, a virtually wordless soprano and a battery of percussion instrument. I say wordless: there are lots of untranslatable 'horo’s' and 'horee’s' which I assume must be words from some lost Pictish language (or are they Gaelic?) I found this work difficult, boring and tuneless and wonder what the whiskey drinkers must have made of it.
Carrier Strike loses me altogether. It was meant to ‘commemorate’ the Battle of Midway (4-7 June 1942) and was ‘inspired’ by an ironing board which represented the deck of an aircraft carrier with flat irons depicting destroyers and cruisers. The idea was generated by Ian Hamilton Finlay whose claim to fame is that he was a ‘concrete poet.’ Glancing at some of his works on the internet certainly does not inspire me, though he received a CBE so he must be a genius. The piece is in nineteen sections and is scored for Harpsichord, Piccolo & Timpani. They are meant to be representative of the sailor’s fife and drum with the timpani doubling up for ships’ gunfire. I am sorry Mr. Purser: please dump the ‘programme’ and give this attractive, well-written piece a sensible, musically valid name. The material is far too good to waste on a passé art ‘installation’ that is long forgotten.
There are one or two problems with the presentation of these three CDs. The designers have got themselves carried away by producing an ‘arty’ set of covers and liner notes. The only problem is that the combination of colours makes the text virtually impossible to read. If it had not been for the fact that John Purser has kindly uploaded the PDF files of these notes to his website, I would have been struggling to any give details of these works. I really do not know why design companies do not run their ‘masterpiece’ before the public before going into production. I also dislike the cardboard CD covers (as opposed to jewel cases): they start to look tatty very quickly and the plastic insert starts to peel away from the the backing. I do wonder if Purser’s webpage has been designed by the same outfit – small white text on a charcoal grey background is not particularly good for older eyes.
All in all, this is an interesting retrospective. If any reader has followed me so far, they will realise that I was much more impressed with John Purser’s ‘art’ music than his ‘folk’ or ‘Gaelic’ inspired pieces. The Flute and the Cello Sonatas, the Suite for solo violin, and Carrier Strike (evacuated of its ‘programme’) are amongst the best pieces on this CD and equal to anything written at the same time by other composers. I can take or leave the ‘ethnic’ music although I do find the carnyx both attractive and inspiring in its sound. I have a personal struggle with ‘world’ music and this includes ‘Pìobaireachd’ –in spite of the fact that I am Scottish. I hold the somewhat old-fashioned, ‘misguided’ (and probably elitist) view that Bach Cello sonatas are ‘greater’ music than a fiddle band heard at a Ceilidh in Brigadoon.
I do hope that further CDs will appear of Purser’s music maybe including his String Quartet (1981), the Overture: Clydefair for orchestra and Concerto for viola and string orchestra
The Banks of Corrib (2009)
Creagan Beaga (2004)
Bonnie on the Deck (?)
Clavier Sonata (1974)
Piobaireachd for solo flute ‘Wai Taheke’ (2005)
Tha thu air aigeann m’inntinn (1999)
Dreaming of Islands (?)
Cheyenne Brown (clàrsach) Jean Hutchison (piano) Neil Johnstone (cello) Mary Ann Kennedy (vocal) John Kenny (trombone) John Kitchen (organ) Simon O’Dwyer (Dord Iseal) Naomi Pavri (cello) John Purser (cello) Bonnie Rideout (violin, viola) Alexa Still (flute) Fraya Thomson (clàrsach)
Circus Suite (1975)
Suite for Unaccompanied Violin (1970)
Flute Sonata (1965)
The Old Composer Remembers (2002)
A Message to Hirini Melbourne (2005)
In Memoriam Hirini Melbourne (2005)
Cello Sonata (1987)
Lynda Green (piano) Jean Hutchison (piano) Jack Keaney (piano) Ronn McFarlane (lute) Philip Norris (cello) Rachel Barton Pine (violin) Robert Shannon (piano) Alexa Still (flute)
Carrier Strike (1977)
Glynn Bragg (timpani) Joby Burgess (percussion) Jack Keaney (harpsichord) John Kenny (carnyx) Sarah Leonard (voice) George MacIlwham (piccolo)
The London Session Orchestra/ Christopher Seaman
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published