Friday, 19 January 2018

Marcus Blunt: Orchestral Works on Metier

Marcus Blunt is an English composer, born in Birmingham in 1947. After piano lessons from his father, he began his first tentative steps at composition. He writes that his interest in music did not ‘take off’ until he was fourteen years old. He went up to University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, graduating in 1970. His biographical notes suggest that regularly moved to a new house, with residences in Warwickshire, Manchester, York and London. His career was not limited to music: he had several occupations including warehouse packer, photographic processor and a department manager at a music publisher. In 1976 he settled in Derby and taught pupils to play woodwind instruments. In 1990 Blunt, and his wife Maureen, headed just north of the Scottish border where they now live. In 1997 the Dumfries Music Club appointed him as their Honorary Composer-in-Residence.
Marcus Blunt’s musical style is hard to pin down which is great, as it means that he is not derivative.  His music is immediately approachable, but never simplistic or naïve. Composers that may have provided some influence may include Michael Tippett and Olivier Messiaen. The general mood of his music is romantic, tinged with a contemporary flavour, but never overtly modernistic.

I liked Marcus Blunt’s well-thought out and pleasing Piano Concerto. This was composed between 1992 and 1995. Surprisingly, Blunt found some difficulty in gaining this Concerto a premiere. It was not until 2005, when Murray McLachlan took an interest in the composer’s piano music, that the possibility of a performance began to become a reality. In 2006, McLachlan issued a recording of Blunt’s piano works on Dunelm Records DRD 0269. This was reviewed by Jonathan Woolf on MusicWeb International. It was reissued on the Divine Art Label in 2014. I have not heard this CD. But, based on the reviews, it is hardly surprising that McLachlan finally turned his attention to the Piano Concerto.
To my mind, this three-movement work is more of a chamber concerto. It is typically restrained, often reflective and only relatively occasionally does it erupt into something more dramatic, such as the conclusion of the opening ‘molto moderato’. Yet this is all to the good. I found the entire concerto deeply moving and completely satisfying. The balance of soloist and orchestra is first-rate, with some beautifully executed piano technique and stimulating orchestration. I hope that it can become established as a concert-hall favourite, but his seems highly unlikely when concert promoters have Rach. 2 and Tchaik. 1 to select for the umpteenth time…

I moved on to the tone-poem, Aspects of Saturn for string orchestra. The work is prefaced by two passages: one from Keats’ Hyperion and the other from Virgil’s Eclogues. Both quotations explore the contradiction of the god Saturn’s nature. He is the deity of agriculture, the founder of civilisation and world order: his nature exemplifies self-discipline and limitation, but also manifests ‘perseverance, ambition and inspiration.’ It seems a lot of attributes to work up into a musical composition lasting just under seven minutes. Yet this is a beautiful work that seems to grow organically from the opening material. Perfectly formed and quite simply gorgeous. 

The captivating Bassoon Concerto began life as a four-movement Sonata for bassoon and piano, entitled Lorenzo the Much-Travelled Clown composed in 1989. It was premiered by the present soloist in 2001 and was latterly included on her album A Much-Travell’d Clown in 2017. At some undisclosed time, Blunt reworked the piano part for string orchestra. He also took the opportunity of including an extra movement, based on his 1984 Scotch Song for solo bassoon, now given a string accompaniment.
There is always a danger with any work composed for the bassoon, that it deteriorates into a study for a clown or a drunk. Blunt has avoided this temptation by writing much deeply-felt music that explores the ruminative and introverted aspect of the instrument’s character. This is especially apparent in the ‘Elegy’. Naturally, the vibrant and humorous aspect of the solo instrument is not ignored. The finale, which reprises earlier themes, is both jaunty and cheeky. Altogether, this an important and thoroughly enjoyable work for bassoon and orchestra which ought to be in the repertoire of all bassoonists.

I am always interested by a new (at least to me) symphony. I happily admit to it being one of my two favourite ‘forms’ - the other being the piano concerto.
Blunt’s Symphony No.2 has its origins in a substantial work composed for the same forces as Schubert’s Octet (1824). This was a five-movement work, The Throstle-Nest in Spring which was first performed at the Wigton (Cumberland) Festival in 1991. Blunt explains that he came to regard this score as being appropriate for orchestral treatment. It subsequently ‘metamorphosed’ into a four-movement Symphony scored for ‘a modest sized orchestra’ with no trombones, tuba or percussion, except timpani.
This is not a long work, lasting for just over 16 minutes. However, there is considerable diversity of mood, with a ‘bright and cheerful’ opening movement, followed by a ‘nocturnal’ andante. The ‘scherzo’ is more profound than is often the case with this form, especially in the trio section, which is ‘deeply tranquil’ in mood. The finale is a summing up of what has preceded: this is one of Blunt’s common structural traits. The work ends enthusiastically.

The liner notes written by the composer offer a good insight into these works. ‘Final’ dates of works would have been helpful. Notes on Marcus Blunt and the performers are included. The quality of the recording is ideal. 

This is a fascinating retrospective of Marcus Blunt’s orchestral music. The four works are well-chosen to provide an excellent introduction to his musical idiom. I look forward to hearing more from this composer, possibly including the Sinfonietta and the tone-poem (?) Once in a Western Island. Finally, I wonder what happened to Symphony No.1?

Track Listing:
Marcus BLUNT (b.1947)
Piano Concerto (1992/95)
Aspects of Saturn for string orchestra (?)
Concertino for Bassoon and string orchestra (?)
Symphony No.2 (?)
Murray McLachlan (piano), Lesley Wilson (bassoon) Manchester Camerata/Stephen Threlfall
METIER msv 28570 

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