Sunday, 17 December 2017

Michael Alec Rose: Il Ritorno

The biographical notes on Michael Alec Rose explain that he is a composer of symphonic, chamber, piano, vocal, wind ensemble, ballet and theatre music.  Although he was born, trained and now works in the United States, he has had many performances of music in Europe. As the background notes to the works on this CD explain, he has a strong connection with the United Kingdom.  At present, Rose teaches at the Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, Nashville. As part of his work there, he has co-directed six rounds of an International Exchange Programme with the Royal Academy of Music. 
Stylistically, his music has echoes of Brahms, Copland, Bartok, Crumb, and a touch of minimalism.

I had to take this CD slowly. Having a natural preference for orchestral and piano music I do not instantly warm to works written for solo violin or violin and viola duo. If I choose to listen to chamber music of this type it is always limited to the sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach.  Yet, it is good to come out of my comfort zone and explore music that I would not normally put into the CD player. And the encouraging thing is, I enjoyed these four imaginative compositions. Each work is finely played, and (in my opinion) perfectly interpreted by the two soloists Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Diana Mathews (viola).

I began with Mornington Caprice, which is a duo for violin and viola. It was composed in 2015 and dedicated to the present violist. The work is inspired by the well-known painting by Frank Auerbach: ‘Mornington Crescent-Early Morning’ (1991). Most Londoners will know this part of the world as a station on the Northern Line. Many people will have walked past the Crescent on a stroll along Eversholt Street between Euston and Camden Town. And there are several interesting pubs in the area.
Rose gives a long, detailed 700 odd-word programme note on this work which presents information overload. From my point of view, this is a perfect little piece of suburban musical landscape painting that creates an evocative mood. It is important to keep Auerbach’s painting as an aide-memoire. Bartok may be a clue to the sound experience. Finally, I do not know why Rose feels he needs to be embarrassed (expressed in the liner notes) by his early enjoyment of the film Mary Poppins. For many, this film presents an idealised portrait of the London which need not be limited to childhood.

The first work on this CD is Unturned Stones: duo for violin and viola. This was composed in 2012. Rose points out that the old saying ‘leave no stone unturned’ has explained ‘the virtue of studying a landscape so thoroughly that nothing about it remains unexposed.’ On the other hand, he muses that it may be ‘best to leave things alone, without imposing our own wills upon them’.  I am not quite sure about his philosophical underpinning of this piece (Zen, the Talmud, singing to a stone etc.) but the net result is an impressive concatenation of these two instruments. Sometimes bantering along in a minimalist manner and at other times in a concentrated dialogue, this is an involved but ultimately attractive score. I think his basic assumption is ecological: we are stewards of the Earth, not its Master.
There are three movements: ‘Eppur si muove’ (And yet it moves), ‘A Courtesy Towards Being’ and finally ‘A Coming Home to the World.’

Diaphany takes its inspiration from the Sea Nymphs (Nereids) in the British Museum (Room 17). Rose points out that this marble frieze was sculpted for ‘an obscure Xanthian dynast’ predating Alexander the Great.  He considers that these figures are ‘music in stone.’  The title is derived from the word ‘diaphanous’, which suggests a quality ‘characterized by such fineness of texture as to permit seeing through.’  More convoluted, is Rose’s noting that the word ‘Diaphany’ can be changed into ‘Diaphony’ by the alteration of just one letter. This ‘new’ word, in Greek, refers to the concept of ‘dissonance’ and also ‘a more recent term for two-part medieval organum’ (parallel fourths and fifths, sung or played).  I am not convinced that I would think of ‘Nereids’ if I heard the music without the programme notes, however the entire piece is characterised by luminosity, timelessness and translucent scoring.

The big work on this disc is Il Ritorno: Perambulation for solo violin (2013-2015). This is a huge ‘landscape’ piece inspired by Dartmoor. Rose first visited this enigmatic part of Devon in 1991. The present work was written especially for Peter Sheppard Skærved. He writes that it has taken him quarter of a century ‘to figure out how to translate my experience into a music that reflects every aspect of the moor…’ Fundamentally, the composer regards Dartmoor as his spiritual home. He has visited there eighteen times.
There are six movements, each of which examines a facet of the moor or folks’ relationship to it: ‘Preamble’, ‘Bearings’, ‘Silence’, ‘Water’, ‘Stone’ and ‘Song’. The composer has written in the liner notes a detailed and poetic discussion of the music’s soul, but I guess that it boils down to this: he has portrayed two essential (and antithetical) aspects of Dartmoor’s being: permanence and change.  And look out for the deliberate (I hope) vocalisations from the soloist during this work!  I was not convinced that I was going to enjoy this 33-minute piece. How wrong can one be! It is a magical and deeply-felt exploration of Dartmoor, that reveals new characteristics of the landscape at almost every bar. Quite beautiful.

The programme notes written by the composer are extremely detailed, gnomic and somewhat verbose. I wonder if listeners will read and inwardly digest them from end to end? The insert includes biographical details of the composer and two soloists. There are several photographs including a distant view of Frank Auerbach’s ‘Mornington Crescent-Early Morning’ and the Nereids in the British Museum.

I enjoyed this CD. I have not heard any other works by Michael Alec Rose so have little on which to form a generalised opinion of his musical aesthetic. Based on the four works on this present CD, Rose is a composer who can develop and maintain interest using the slenderest of instrumental resources. He is clearly inspired by many extra-musical subjects which, in my opinion, is a good thing. 

Track Listings:
Michael Alec ROSE (b.1959)
Unturned Stones: Duo for violin and viola (2012)
Il Ritorno: Perambulation for solo violin (2013-2015)
Mornington Caprice: Duo for violin and viola (2015)
Diaphany for solo violin (2016)
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Diana Mathews (viola)
MÉTIER msv28574 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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