Thursday, 28 August 2014

David Dubery: Observations- Seventeen Songs and a String Quartet

A brief thumbnail sketch of the composer may be of interest to listeners who have not come across his music before. David Dubery was born in Durban in South Africa. In 1961 he came to live in the United Kingdom in his mother’s hometown of Manchester. From a very young age Dubery composed music but studied formally at the Northern School of Music in Manchester between 1963 and 1971. He studied piano with Eileen Chadwick and Kendall Taylor. Dubery’s composition teacher was Dorothy Pilling. Much of his musical activity has been in broadcasting and for the stage where he has worked as a solo pianist, accompanist, vocal coach, musical director and teacher of piano and voice.  From a compositional point of view he is quite definitely a miniaturist (however his Quarteto Iberico is certainly no bagatelle) He is particularly interested in writing for the voice and has written many songs over his career. Dubery has contributed music for the theatre including an American-styled musical Love Line. His musical language is immediately approachable but can also be challenging to the listener.

The longest work on this new CD of music by Dubery is the fine above-mentioned Quarteto Iberico (Los fantasmas de los tiempos pasados): ‘Ghosts of Times Past’ which was composed in 2005 and reworked in 2013.  This string quartet is conceived in four movements with each having a ‘picture postcard’ title.  Dubery has noted that his interest in Spanish music began when he was still living in South Africa and witnessed Antonio and his Dancers at the Alhambra Theatre in Durban.  It was not until some years later that he visited the places that his youthful dreams had nurtured. The four movements are entitled (in English) ‘The Dancer in the Square’, ‘In the Maria Luisa Park, Seville’, ‘The Beggar Man in the Gothic Quarter’ (of Barcelona) and ‘Carnival’. The musical language of this work holds no terrors. In fact, it is ‘intentionally accessible, tonal and impressionistic.’  There are nods to a variety of composers that Dubery has come to admire – de Falla, Granados, Albeniz, Piazzolla and Rodrigo.
The liner notes provide a detailed ‘programme’ for each movement which can give a literary and topographical impulse to the listener’s experience of this Quartet. However, this is not necessary: it is sufficient to note that this work is inspired by the sunshine, occasional drama and edginess, and the charismatic characters of the Iberian Peninsula. I tend to regard each of these movements as a kind of aide-memoire that the composer has written for himself. If the listener wishes to share these impressions good and well – if not, just enjoy this vibrant, well constructed, sun-drenched score.  It is one of the most delightful ‘modern’ string quartets I have heard in a while.
The main proportion of this CD is devoted to a number of David Dubery’s songs. Four complete cycles are included as well as the early ‘Full Fathom Five’ from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Interestingly, this lugubrious version won an important composition prize in 1965. I guess that Holst and Britten are the models, but it is a delight in in its own right.

It is good to see the the song-cycle Observations recorded here. These settings of Walter de la Mare’s Rhymes and Verses for Children include some poems which do not appear to have been set before. The cycle was completed in 1979 but was later revised. These songs are composed in a vibrant style that reflects the mood of the text. Poems include ‘The Barber’s’, ‘The Old Sailor’ ‘Esmeralda’, ‘The Window’, ‘Done For’ and ‘The Promenade 1880’.   They cover a wide range of experience and emotion, including ‘noise and bustle’, shopping in the rain and the ‘question’ of hunting.
Dubery has noted that these songs often ‘reveal musical theatre influences’ from a time when he was writing for that medium. However, do not for one moment think that these little works of art are in any way ‘Lloyd-Webberian’ – they are much cleverer. Dubery has managed to balance innocence with subtlety in a very successful ‘song cycle’ that deserves to be in the repertoire. They are beautifully and imaginatively sung by Adrienne Murray.
The poet Douglas Gibson has clearly caught David Dubery’s imagination. Gibson was born in 1912 and wrote much of his best work whilst working in the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford during the Second World War. He had been allocated this position by the courts as he was a conscientious objector.  Many of Gibson’s poems reflect a deep interest in nature and a largely ‘pastoral’ interpretation of the landscape.
The opening song-cycle presents three of Gibson’s poems: ‘Swans in Flight’, ‘Lizard’ and ‘A Memory’. The first and last songs feature a beautifully written flute obligato. One of the characteristics of Dubery’s vocal music is his ability to indulge in some subtle word-painting. In the first song we hear undulating music which depicts the swans in flight. There is a clever musical reference to the Lizard’s darting tongue in the second.  The final song is (as the composer suggests) ‘Schubertian’: the accompaniment conjures up the ‘rhythm of the rails’ as the singer recalls a memory as seen from a carriage window. At the end of this song, the mood changes to an almost Constant Lambert-ian blues riff. Altogether a superb set of songs.
The second song-cycle featuring Douglas Gibson’s poems is the Housman-sounding Time will not Wait. These settings date from 1982.  Dubery suggests that this work is conceived as a ‘sonata for voice and piano in three movements.’  These songs major on the passing of time in a passive landscape where little appears to happen. There is a sense of stasis here that leads the listener into the poet’s dream-world.  Only occasionally does passion break forth – ‘the way the clouds are blown… [clouds] that now slide down the wooded hill’ or the dramatic opening and closing of the eponymous song.
Four other songs are included on this CD. They are grouped here as ‘Nightsongs’: they are all meditations on evenings during the year and also have a flute obligato. ‘One Night in December’ is an exquisite version of the beloved carol ‘Away in a Manger’. The second and third songs are further settings of Douglas Gibson. ‘The Evening in April’ is an enchanting number that perfectly balances flute, singer and soloist. It is dedicated to the author/composer Anthony Hopkins.  ‘June Evening’ is a lugubrious number that explores the beauty of creation in the countryside: ‘there is genius here/In the delicate hand/That traced these exquisite pastels across the sky…’ The flute takes on the persona of birds in flight. The final song in this ad-hoc group is Thomas Hardy’s ‘An August Midnight’. It is dedicated to the composer Peter Hope. The song imagines the great poet and novelist at his desk and the various insects that are attracted to his desk lamp. ‘A Longlegs, a moth, and a Dumbledore (bumble bee)… While ‘mid my page there idly stands/A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands.’ But the thought provoking element of this poem is the realisation that ‘God’s humblest, they!...They know Earth-Secrets that know not I.’ It is an idiomatic setting of what is one of my favourite Hardy poems.
The performance by the singers James Gilchirst and Adrienne Murray are superb. The composer is a remarkably sympathetic pianist and the flautist Michael Cox brings a magic to the two song cycles that include an obligato.  Finally the Cavaleri Quartet gives a well-balanced and convincing performance of David Dubery’s Iberian adventures.  The liner notes by the composer are detailed and include valuable biographies of all the participants.

This is a worthy disc of attractive music that demands to be explored slowly. There is nothing here that is particularly challenging or difficult to grasp on a first hearing. Each song is a perfect example of the composer’s art. The advertising for this CD suggests that the composer is one of the ‘leading exponents of the new lyrical post-modern music in Britain.’ David Dubery writes music that is in the trajectory of all that is best in English song – Ireland, Britten and Finzi. Yet there is an individual element that ensures that his music is never parody or pastiche. 

TrackListing:
Three Songs for voice, flute and piano to poems by Douglas Gibson (2012) [6:53]
‘Full Fathom Five’ for alto voice and piano (Shakespeare) (1965) [4:26]
Time will not wait: Three songs for tenor voice and piano to poems by Douglas Gibson (1981/2) [9:44]
Night Songs: for voice, flute and piano (2010-13) [14:53]
Observations: Six songs for voice and piano to poems by Walter de la Mare (1979) [12:32]
Quarteto Iberico (Ghost of times past) for string quartet (2005, rev.2013) [22:46]
James Gilchrist (tenor) Adrienne Murray (mezzo-soprano) Michael Cox (flute) David Dubery (piano) Cavaleri Quartet: Martyn Jackson (violin) Ciaran McCabe (violin) Ann Beilby (viola) Rowena Calvert (cello)
Carole Nash Recital Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester 6 September 2013 (all vocal tracks) 12 September 2013 (Quartet)
Metier MSV 28548 [71:13]

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