Turnage
Another Set To
Four-Horned Fandango
Fractured Lines
Silent Cities
Peter Erskine & Evelyn Glennie (percussion)

Christian Lindberg (trombone)

Timothy Brown, Michael Murray, Andrew Antcliff & Christopher Larkin (horns)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Recorded 2 & 3 July 2002 in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10018
Duration: 56 minutes
Reviewed: November 2002
One of the hazards of writing a full-length opera is a certain loss of public profile while the composer locks himself away for the couple of years it takes to write. Whether because of The Silver Tassie, or undue caution on the part of record companies, Mark-Anthony Turnage appeared locked out of recording studios for a few years until a recent flurry of releases have returned him to the limelight. Firstly Black Box’s valuable collection of chamber works (BBM1065), then ENO’s magnificent recording of Tassie (ENO ALIVE 001), and now this superb round-up of recent orchestral works all receiving their first recordings. Anyone who has yet to experience Turnage’s uniquely pungent soundworld could do no better than to start here.
Violent skirmishes, keening laments, neon-tinged blues and kaleidoscopic colourings – these are the hallmarks of Turnage’s orchestral writing and they abound in these four works. Another Set To features a solo trombone. It’s a firecracker of a piece and makes a great starter. The cut of the trombone’s opening statement – a brazen blues line intercut with rapid, jagged figuration – is purest Turnage. The remainder of the work is a punchy, combative exploration of these two elements. Written for the present forces, Christian Lindberg delivers a blistering performance that stamps his ownership on the music.
Silent Cities was inspired by a visit to a World War One battlefield and, being based on a related subject matter, is an orchestral companion to The Silver Tassie. Indeed, two interludes from the opera are folded into the work’s structure. The landscape and history of the battleground provide Turnage with the defining image of the music – an eruptive surface of chopping and scything set into the frame of a frozen, timeless soundscape. Toward the end the violence recedes and issues into a bleak elegy, Turnage here displaying the versatility of his musical language, which can invoke English pastoral just as vividly as the mean streets of the inner city. Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time is a palpable influence but I also detect Britten’s leaden-grey North Sea skies somewhere in the background (likewise the second act of the opera). Slatkin’s account is beautifully shaped and controlled.
The earliest work is Four-Horned Fandango which dates from Turnage’s CBSO days, although latterly revised. The eponymous four horns are treated predominantly as a single meta-instrument, sometimes playing in pitch unison, at other times separating into four-part harmony which results in textures inevitably recalling the rich horn sonorities of Tippett. The Spanish dance element is latent rather than explicit, in a manner similar to the hints of tango in Three Screaming Popes. The original Fandango received a muted response from critics. Hearing it for the first time, admittedly in its revised form, I am inclined to agree with Colin Anderson’s assessment of the work (in an informative interview with the composer in the booklet notes) as one of Turnage’s finest. The textures and shapes are altogether distinctive, if unusual for this composer, and might profitably suggest a future direction for his music. The coda is particularly striking, a recurrent string figure above distantly chattering horns.
The Double Percussion Concerto, Fractured Lines, is also recorded in its substantially revised form (the first public performance of this version will be at the BBC’s Turnage weekend at the Barbican next January). Hearing the original at its Proms premiere, the concerto struck me as one of Turnage’s less successful efforts. Despite many passing attractions, the work’s form seemed strangely perfunctory. This has now been tightened up. Nevertheless I still feel that it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its conception, primarily because some of the material is not especially memorable, by Turnage’s standards at least.
It was a bold idea to conceive a concerto for leading percussionists in the classical and jazz worlds. Meshing the two together for most of the time and allotting them separate cadenzas dissipates the potential for productive conflict between them. The high spot for me is the orchestral passage after the second cadenza (Erskine) when a high, slow melody emerges over glowing harmonies that seem to come straight out of a Miles Davis/Gil Evans orchestration. Both soloists rise to their challenges but it is the wonderfully supple playing of Peter Erskine (who also supplied the theme that the work is based on) in his largely improvised cadenza that leaves the strongest impression.
The contribution of the BBCSO, for which much of this music was written, adds greatly to the pieces’ impact. Sometimes Leonard Slatkin does not give the impression of fully believing in the contemporary music that he gets to conduct. Turnage is clearly Slatkin’s kind of composer, and his twin enthusiasms for, shall we say, Bernstein and Elgar make him well-suited to the music. These are audibly sympathetic performances and it says a lot about Turnage that his music works equally well in ’mainstream’ interpretations as well as those of new-music specialists. The recorded sound is warm, resonant and vivid. Now, can we please have a CD of Dark Crossing and Bass Inventions?

 

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