Monday, 3 July 2017

Gordon Crosse: Orchestral Music on Lyrita

I was introduced to the music of Gordon Crosse (b.1937) more than 45 years ago. I found a discarded review copy in a second-hand bookshop in Llandudno of the old Argo LP (ZRG-656, re-released on Lyrita SRCD.259, 2007) featuring his impressive choral work Changes. It is a work I have come to appreciate and enjoy. Since 1972, I have heard a fair number of pieces by Crosse and he is certainly a composer who appeals to me. His music is always absorbing and challenging. The four works on this present CD are all essential additions to the composer’s current discography.

For a detailed biography of Gordon Crosse, I refer the reader to the composer’s informative website. However, a few notes will not go amiss.
Gordon Crosse was born in the Lancashire town of Bury on 1 December 1937 (he is therefore 80 years old this year). Over the years, Crosse has combined music composition with an academic career and computer engineering. He studied with the émigré Austrian composer Egon Wellesz, as well as receiving instruction from Goffredo Petrassi in Rome. Crosse’s university appointments include Essex, Birmingham and in the United States at Santa Barbara. He was ‘composer in residence’ at King’s College Cambridge between 1973 and 1975. In 1990, Crosse stopped composing music: during 2007, he started again and is ‘now writing pretty well non-stop.’ His most recent works (2016) include a Sonata for clarinet and piano, an Idyll for clarinet and string quartet, a Concertante (Ceili De) for horn and strings, and a Concertante (On the Shoreline) for recorder and string septet, dedicated to John Turner.

The opening track on this new Lyrita CD is the Crosse’s ‘official’ op.1. The Elegy was composed in 1965. I wrote extensively about this work, its premiere at the Free Trade Hall by the Hallé Orchestra under Maurice Hanford, and its 1980 recording, on MusicWeb International in 2015.  The present recording (made during the 9 September 1965 Proms concert) by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Norman del Mar is an equally good performance, with just a little bit of crackle and background/audience noise. But that is no real problem (for me): it is good to have another version of this well-written and often lyrical piece.
Paul Conway (liner notes) is correct in citing The Times critic as stating that the Elegy is an ‘excellent introduction to his [Crosse’s] music…’ I hold to my opinion presented in my MWI essay, that ‘listening to this piece fifty years after the Prom performance discloses a piece of music that, despite its serial nature, is approachable, moving and has the nature of a ‘genuine elegy’’. 

On 3 July 1968, Crosse’s Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, op.8 was given its first performance at the Cheltenham Festival. The Budapest Symphony Orchestra was conducted by György Lehel. It is a recording of this concert that is included in this CD. The Concerto, which was composed in 1962, is presented in three short movements. One of the features of this work is the use of a motif derived from the chimes of Magdalen College, Oxford: this can be heard quoted or alluded to throughout the Concerto. The liner notes point out that the piece was originally written for a student orchestra in Oxford. The scoring of this work is lightweight, which allows the Crosse to create an ‘impression of lightness, clarity and precision.’
The Concerto for Chamber Orchestra is an immediately accessible work, even to listeners who eschew modernism in their normal musical itineraries. Paul Conway cites Stephen Walsh’s opinion (Tempo Autumn 1968) that the Concerto’s ‘…structure is so extremely ingenious that its spontaneous, brilliant sound comes as something of a surprise.’

The Concertino, op.15 was composed more than fifty years ago (1965) yet it retains all its freshness. Scored for flute, oboe (and cor anglais), clarinet and viola, it was premiered at the University of Aberdeen on 26 October 1965. It was written in the July and August of that year as a BBC commission. Crosse’s website notes that there was a rather ropey ‘off air’ recording made of this performance. Clearly, (assuming we are talking about the same recording) Lyrita’s sound engineers have done some outstanding work on these tracks. There are some background sounds and noises off, but the clarity of the instrumentation is never in doubt.
The structure of this work is six very short ‘variation’ movements where the opening ‘Chorale I’ presents the musical material which is then developed through a series of two further ‘chorales’ two ‘Sonatinas’ and the middle section, ‘Variations’, which is really a set of variations within a set of variations!  Conway writes that the work is imbued with ‘a distinctly English melancholy’ and suggests that it is one of the most attractive of Crosse’s early scores.  The listener will be impressed by the economy of scoring, the occasional, almost romantic outbursts, and the overall lyricism of this Concertino. The work was dedicated to the Melos Ensemble, who provide an exceptional performance in this recording of the premiere.

The major event on this CD is the Violin Concerto No.2, op.26 which was written in 1969. This is a large, multi-layered work that explores a wide variety of musical styles and soundscapes.
The concerto was a commission from the Oxford Subscription Concerts for their 50th anniversary season. It was premiered on 29 January 1970, by the same artists that play on this present CD. (This present version was recorded at the Proms on 7 September 1970)
I was fascinated to read that the formal structure of this work was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire. In this book (I have not read it) a lyrical poem ‘is subjected to an elaborate and grotesque misreading by its editor, whose notes [commentary] provide the narrative vehicle of the book.’ Apart from this formal structure, the Concerto derives no programme from the book. Some of the music in this work was culled from an opera Crosse was composing at that time: The Story of Vasco.
Two important things to note about this work. Firstly, although Crosse uses a large orchestra, there is a chamber music texture to much of the concerto. There is a huge battery of percussion. The composer uses his resources with great variety but in a sparing manner. Typically, the soloist is not pitted against the orchestra, but is ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals.
Secondly, Leslie East (British Music Now, ed. Foreman, Lewis, 1975) has summed up the overall effect of the work: ‘the bipartite Concerto presents dramatic opposition of different elements or styles on various levels: unassertive first part against aggressive second…’ Other ‘oppositions’ include ‘lyrical’ versus ‘bravura’, ‘balance of expounded themes’ against ‘motivic manipulation’ and ‘stasis’ as opposed to ‘dynamism.’ For example, in the last movement, there is a ‘romantic’ outburst from the full orchestra that seems to nod to Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony.
Paul Conway provides a detailed analysis of the work which bears reading: I will not repeat it here. However, one important event occurs in the dynamic and largely violent second movement. After a ‘savage, bitter climax’ an ‘epilogue’ follows. This is evolved from a chanson by the Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (1410?/25-1497). At one point this is quoted in its original harmonisation. It makes a striking contrast, which seems to sum up the diversity of this work that explores both serial extravagance with medieval ‘parody.’
I could understand some listeners not enjoying this powerful, modernist work, yet, it seems to me that it is approachable within the context of its time. Criticism has been made of the work’s lack of direction and the exaggerated ‘stylistic diversity.’ This did not appear to me a problem. I particularly enjoyed the huge disparity of styles, the colourful orchestration and the general ability of the composer to hold my attention over a half hour period. It is, I believe, one of Gordon Crosse’s great works.

This CD is another splendid example of Lyrita Recorded Edition’s partnership with the BBC. Three important works by Gordon Crosse are presented here for the first time on CD.  The Elegy was released (1980) on the Oxford University Press record label (OUP203) by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Roderick Brydon. Other works on this deleted LP include Crosse’s Symphony No. 1, op.13a and Dreamsongs, op.43. 

The liner notes are written by Paul Conway and include an essay length biography and appreciation of the composer. The programme notes are up to Conway’s usual high standard and make essential reading before and after hearing Crosse’s music. 

There is much of Gordon Crosse’s catalogue of music to explore. I imagine that there plenty recordings in the BBC archives that can be exhumed. I look forward to many more offerings form Lyrita of this composer and many others who have been neglected for so long.

Track Listing:
Gordon CROSSE (b.1937)
Elegy for small orchestra, op.1 (1960)
Concerto for chamber orchestra, op.8 (1962)
Concertino, op.16 (1965)
Violin Concerto No.2, op.26 (1969)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Norman Del Mar (Elegy, op.1); Budapest Symphony Orchestra/György Lehel (Concerto, op.8); Melos Ensemble: Richard Adeney (flute), Peter Graeme (oboe), Gervase de Peyer (clarinet) and Cecil Aronowitz (viola) (Concertino, op.16); Manoug Parikian (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis (Violin Concerto, op.26)
Rec. BBC Broadcast 9 September 1965 (Elegy, op.1); BBC Broadcast 3 July 1968 (Concerto, op.8); BBC Broadcast 26 October 1965 (Concertino, op.16); BBC Broadcast 7 September 1970 (Violin Concerto, op.26)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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