Friday, 7 November 2014

Pandora’s Last Gift: Chamber Music by Christopher Wright

My first introduction to the music of Christopher Wright was his Oboe Concerto released on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7249 (review) alongside works by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, Cyril Scott and Elis Pehkonen. I was immediately impressed by this concerto and looked forward to hearing more of his music. In the same year Dutton Epoch issued a strong retrospective of Wright’s orchestral works -Evocation CDLX 7240 (review). They also issued two important pieces: Momentum (2008) and the Violin Concerto (2010) on CDLX 7286 coupled with the revised version of RVWs Symphony No. 5 edited by Dr Peter Horton. In 2007 a CD of chamber and vocal works had been released on Merlin Classics MRFD 070914 (review). I have not heard this last CD.
Christopher Wright (website) was born in Ipswich, Suffolk in 1954. Much of his life has been spent living and working in East Anglia. He studied composition with Richard Arnell and later Alan Bullard. In 1993 he gave up his post as a schoolmaster and turned to full-time composition.  Wright’s music includes a wide variety of genres including colourful orchestral works and concertos for violin, cello and horn. He has contributed to the brass band repertoire as well a selection of anthems, songs and chamber works. Wright’s first performed score was the Kyson Point Suite (a lovely reed-fringed place on the Suffolk coast near Woodbridge) in Ipswich Town Hall in 1971. He is also an accomplished performer, playing the trombone and the piano, as well as being a choral conductor.
I am beholden to the composer’s liner notes for details of the music. As I understand it, all these works are first recordings. The Wind Quintet (1993) gets this CD off to a great start. Perhaps the most edgy piece on this CD, it was composed shortly after Wright experienced two ‘life changing events’ –one unpleasant and the other ‘very beautiful’. He describes it as ‘desolation followed by new life.’ The Quintet reflects the former mood. A verse from W.B. Yeat’s poem ‘The Second Coming’ has given a focus to this music – ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned.’  The composer adds that the progress of the Quintet is based around the interval of an augmented fourth (e.g. c-f#) – the ‘diabolus.’  This derives from the medieval admonition against using the tritone in composition – ‘The Devil in Music’.  The early part of the score is characterised by gloom and despondency, but very slowly and subtly this begins to change. The work ends on a slightly more positive note-the journey is (nearly) complete. Wright makes use of a judicious blend of dissonance and instrumental devices to present the mood of despair.
‘Spring’s Garden’ for viola and piano is a beautiful piece that was written for the composer’s wife in 2006. Tragically, she was to die three years later. The work’s aim is to capture ‘a typical picture viewed from my music room window…of birds scampering amongst wild flowers in spring.’ Nothing could be further in mood from the Wind Quintet.  Although this music has a strange, prophetic sadness in its pages, there is much that is positive and reflects more of a thanksgiving than a memorial. This is a truly lovely piece that is worthy of being in the viola repertoire.
I enjoyed ‘Orfordness’ for flute, violin, cello and piano which was composed around 1997. It is written to explore the paradox between man’s potential for destructiveness and nature’s constantly shifting tidal surges: Orfordness in Suffolk was home to a Cold War military base as well as being a wildlife paradise. The music is almost ‘Messiaenic’ in its exploration of timelessness. The 9½ minutes seems to simultaneously fly by as well as appearing to last for an eternity. The musical language is always interesting, with the composer showing no fear of using dissonance and edgy rhythms.
‘Capriccio’ for clarinet and piano has nothing of the unfathomable dichotomy of good and evil attached to it. As the title implies, this is an exploration of ‘spontaneity and joy.’ The composer states that it is written in a neo-classical style. The harmonies are often acerbic, but a definite lyrical mood pervades much of this music. It is a remarkable piece that balances poetry with hedonism.
The three-movement Spirit of the Dance for recorder, violin, cello and harpsichord (2005) was commissioned by the composer Elis Pehkonen. It is designed to be played by Baroque instrumental forces. It successfully explores a sprightly ‘rejouissance’ followed by a thoughtful ‘air’ and a concluding ‘Adam’s Family’ (remember Lurch’s performance on the harpsichord!) inspired ‘tarantella’, designed to chase the spider or other spooky creatures away. This suite is intended as homage to the Baroque idiom rather than being a pastiche or parody. In this it is entirely successful.
I cannot say that I enjoyed the only vocal piece on this CD. It is entitled The Long Wait and is based on a poem written by the composer: the work was composed after the death of Wright’s father around 2006. I concede that there are some lovely elements to both the vocal line and the piano accompaniment. The recorder does not add value and seems to clash with Lesley-Jane Rogers’s beautiful voice. On the whole The Long Wait is just that: long-winded and a little disjointed and lacking stylistic unity. All that said, I do hope to hear more of Wright’s vocal music in the future.
‘In Celebration’ (2013) was composed for the 70th birthday of the well-known recorderist (and doyen of Manchester Music Making) John Turner. It is written in three short movements for recorder, violin, viola and cello. The first movement is inspired by jazzy rhythms and a ‘lazy suburban Sunday afternoon’ mood.  I agree with the composer that there is a ‘mysticism’ about the ‘misterioso’ movement: it does give a relaxing and thoughtful respite before the concluding riotous syncopations of the ‘presto con forza’. This is altogether a most enjoyable and attractive work that must surely find its way into recorderists’ repertoire.
‘Helter Skelter’ lives up to its title. I imagined swirly music emulating a dizzy turn down the once-loved fairground attraction and that is what the composer delivers in this short ‘character piece’ for cello and piano. However, even a casual hearing of this work will reveal that there is a little more depth to this music. There is a reflective middle-section that is maybe a little scared about making the downward trip on the helter-skelter or of life itself? There are one or two examples of musical ‘word-painting’ in this piece that are quite fun.
The final piece on this disc is the Concertino for violin, viola and piano written in 1985 for the Cheltenham International Violin Course. The composer states that it was written to ‘celebrate’ the tercentenary of Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti (1685). The music, although not being a parody of any of these composers, was written in a neo-baroque style. The first and last movements are full of life and vigour, whereas the middle ‘tranquillo’ is a profound and ageless meditation. The entire work is masterly in its instrumentation and the piano part does add so much interest: I am glad the composer did not choose to use the harpsichord. I wonder if it could successfully be reworked as a Concertino for piano and string orchestra?
The CD is an excellent production that combines a judicious selection of chamber works with an excellent performance by all the players. The sound quality is ideal and gives the best possible opportunity for listeners to approach these unfamiliar works. The liner notes are detailed and useful as well as being legible. Notes on the musicians are given as well as a biographical sketch of the composer. A short list is appended showing how ‘The Gifts of Pandora’ relate to each of these pieces. It is for the listener to discover this relationship when they buy this excellent CD: I will reveal that the opening Wind Quintet displays her gift of ‘Destruction’ and the final Concertino that of ‘Music’.
Christopher Wright’s musical style can easily be categorised as ‘largely tonal with atonal flavourings.’ It is never insipid, always displays interest and clear evidence of controlled development. It is approachable, even if occasionally a little challenging. Naturally, any listener will relate to various pieces to a greater or lesser extent however I have found nothing that is not written with consumate skill and not inconsiderable inspiration.

Christopher WRIGHT (b.1954)
Wind Quintet (1993)
‘Spring’s Garden’ for viola and piano (2006)
‘Orfordness’ for flute, violin, cello and piano (1997)
Capriccio for clarinet and piano (1990)
Spirit of the Dance for recorder, violin, cello and harpsichord (2005)
‘The Long Wait’ for soprano, recorder and piano (2006)
In Celebration for recorder, two violins, viola and cello. (2013)
‘Helter Skelter’ for cello and piano (2013)
Concertino for violin, viola and piano (1985)
Nichola Hunter (flute); Lisa Osborne (oboe) Elizabeth Jordan (clarinet) Naomi Atherton (horn); Sarah Nixon (bassoon); Richard Howarth, Nicholas Ward & Catherine Muncey (violins) Richard Williamson, Michael Dale (viola) Tim Smedley (cello) Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano); John Turner (recorder) Harvey Davies (harpsichord) Jonathan Fisher (piano).

MÉTIER MSV 28547 

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