Edward Gregson – Four CD Premieres (Chandos)

0 of 5 stars

Clarinet Concerto
Stepping Out
Violin Concerto

Michael Collins (clarinet)

Olivier Charlier (violin)

BBC Philharmonic
Martyn Brabbins

Recorded February 2002 in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: November 2003

A prolific composer, with compositions for many genres and for amateurs and professionals alike, Edward Gregson, born in 1945, has also carved an influential niche for himself as a composition teacher, most notably at London’s Goldsmiths College. Since 1996, he has been Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music.

The four works on this disc date from the 1990s and share certain characteristics, not the least of which is their quality of instant communication and attraction. The style is essentially eclectic, with a fundamental basis in tonality. Colourful orchestration further heightens the impact of the music, as does a fine sense of proportion and structure.

However, Gregson does not, in these pieces at least, reveal a distinctive composing voice unique – indeed, the perceptive and informative notes by Paul Hindmarsh make this clear. These outline those composers whose style Gregson’s music clearly emulates. If there is one name which stands out, it is not obscure or from the past, but one very much alive and active – John Adams. Gregson shares with Adams a propensity for strong rhythmic writing, sometimes replete with ostinato – though never to the extent of aping minimalism entirely – and creating music which is vividly and immediately accessible.

The pulsation of Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine is a frequent feature in these Gregson pieces. Indeed, towards the end of Stepping Out, Short Ride is almost quoted directly, the chugging strings joined by an insistent woodblock, as per Adams’s orchestral fanfare. For all Gregson’s facility of string writing, its very pointed allusions to Adams render it little more than an efficient pièce d’occasion.

This well-recorded disc begins with Blazon, which Gregson describes as “a miniature concerto for orchestra”. It immediately struck me as being more like an extended fanfare for orchestra, with resplendent brass phrases which are surely indebted to Walton’s Henry V meeting John Williams’s Star Wars. It is an energetic, powerfully optimistic work which one can imagine being ideal for a ceremonial occasion – real or imagined. Whilst there are contrasting sections, most notably some lush string harmonies and a plaintive oboe melody, the overall tone is exultant and triumphant.

More varied moods are explored in the clarinet concerto, divided into two parts, with contrasting episodes, diverse in character and tempos. The flexible qualities of the solo instrument are put to extremely effective use, and one does come away from the piece with a distinct sense of it being a display vehicle for the clarinet – and why not, when a virtuoso soloist such as Michael Collins is at hand – rather than exploring any musical depths. In any event, the conclusion of the concerto (Gregson certainly knows how to give his audience a ’lift’), with its lilting melody gradually taking over the whole orchestra and carrying all before it, is incontestably powerful.

The most profound musical thinking is manifest in the violin concerto, where there is more of a sense of digging below the surface of initial ideas. To be sure, whiffs of other composers’ writing for the same medium emerge, but one feels a greater degree of engagement with the material, and a willingness to explore its thematic implications. Indeed there are moments of emotional release – such as the broad climax of the second movement – which set this music apart from the other works on this CD.

Throughout, Gregson is given sterling performances – fortune indeed for premiere recordings. The orchestra is evidently enjoying itself, as well the musicians might, as Gregson’s orchestration is extremely well-crafted. There are rather too many timpani glissandos and tam-tam splashes for my taste, but I can well imagine that this undeniably attractive music will find a wide and responsive audience.

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