Four American Choruses
Book of Hours
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins [Eden]
Sakari Oramo [Imagind Corners; Symphony]
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Simon Halsey [Four American Choruses]
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Lamberto Coccioli & Scott Wilson (live electronics)
Oliver Knussen [Book of Hours]
Recorded at various venues in Cheltenham, Birmingham, Lichfield and Manchester between 2003 and 2006
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: October 2006
CD No: NMC D121
Duration: 80 minutes
Coming hard on the heels of Oliver Knussen’s Ondine collection (Alhambra Fantasy) of earlier works by Julian Anderson, this new disc brings the story (almost) up to date, documenting the composer’s successful Birmingham residency of 2001-2005.
As one expects from this source, the programme is enhanced by helpful annotations and is never less than effectively recorded even if the live relays of Eden (composed in 2005) and Symphony (2003) are less lustrous than studio productions might have been. There’s a little bass rumble in Cheltenham and a few audience snuffles in Birmingham. No applause though. In terms of pure sound, the “Four American Choruses” (2002-3) is wholly successful, whereas the very sonic immediacy of Book of Hours (2004) threatens to blunt its glittering discourse a little. Imagin’d Corners (2001-2), for five horns and orchestra, exploits spatial possibilities.
A few presentational tricks are missing. Eden relates to a Brancusi sculpture, Book of Hours pays tribute to tapestries in Paris’s Musée de Cluny, and Symphony takes off from Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s magical “Lake Keitele”, the only Finnish painting in our own National Gallery. Presumably NMC’s budget doesn’t run to multiple reproduction fees so you’ll have to consult the net for an entrée to these sources of inspiration.
It goes without saying that the finished scores, never purely illustrative, are resourceful enough to stand on their own but you shouldn’t expect the kind of fare that reveals its secrets at first hearing. There can be a lot of notes to assimilate and the intellectual underpinning, though unobtrusive, is formidable.
Anderson’s talent – perhaps genius – has been to find ways of reconciling old and new. His surfaces exude a pleasurable radiance, which however never tries to pretend that modernism didn’t happen. The pieces on this CD find him extending this preoccupation, finally incorporating the non-tempered pitches of medieval music and the electronic paraphernalia of our own time into his kind of post-tonal consonance. Knussen. Britten, Tippett, Ives, Reich and Sibelius were among the big figures I sensed lurking behind the notes (which probably says more about me than the composer) yet Anderson’s own expressive voice is always there too. And its range is remarkable.
Symphony begins below the threshold of audibility in a Ligeti-ish haze but embraces a central string threnody of unashamed warmth. According to Anderson himself, “the principal musical notion is that of ‘unfreezing’ … I tried to convey an initial sense of near-immobility which progressively dissolves until the music gathers speed and momentum to such an extent that it reaches the limits of playability.”
While Book of Hours uses electronic sound, again to quote the composer, as “an extra colour … rather as gold-leaf might be applied in a medieval manuscript”, the modern world has erupted with full force by the end. Part Two launches with a reprise of Part One’s opening idea – the first four notes of a major scale – now overlaid with the crackle of a 78 rpm record. Later will come its most ‘controversial’ passage, a barbarically thumping electronic cadenza from which the ensemble emerges shell-shocked, the viola at least still dancing, the memory lingering on.
It would be difficult to improve on any of these indubitably authentic performances – so why hesitate?