John Woolrich

0 of 5 stars

The Barber’s Timepiece
Oboe Concerto
The Ghost in the Machine
Viola Concerto

Nicholas Daniel (oboe)

Lars Anders Tomter (viola)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: June 2001
CD No: NMC D071
Duration: 78 minutes

A fascination with the ’mechanical’ in music can be traced back to Mozart, if not before, but it is perhaps symptomatic of our times that a recent sub-genre of this tendency has emerged – the dysfunctional machine. Composers including Ligeti, Birtwistle and Sawer have been fascinated by the musical possibilities of setting up a strict regime and infecting it with the germ of chaos.

John Woolrich is a ’twittering machine’ composer par excellence who has mined a rich seam from applying the concepts of order and disorder to musical composition, recognising that music is the supreme medium for articulating these concepts insofar as it can embody rather than merely depict them.

Amongst the generation of British composers who emerged in the 1980s – who one instinctively still thinks of as ’young’, despite the march of time – John Woolrich occupies an oblique position. He is neither at the ’populist’ end of the spectrum (MacMillan, Martland) nor its polar opposite (Dillon, Toovey) nor the middle ground that might be described as the London Sinfonietta ’school’ of composers (Benjamin, Holt).

In his preoccupation with arcane processes and elemental source materials, Woolrich comes closest to Birtwistle, who is a very definite influence on the earlier works, although in the 1990s an increased use of modal/tonal material (often through quotation of other composers’ music) has defined a soundworld which is distinctively his own. What this thrilling disc demonstrates beyond doubt is that Woolrich has emerged as one of the major creative figures working in Britain today.

The influence of Birtwistle is unmistakable in the earliest work here, The Barber’s Timepiece, written in 1986 for the orchestra of the National Centre for Orchestral Studies. It can be heard right from the outset when a clockwork pattern of squeaks and grunts is set in motion against a long melodic cantus on woodwind. The tension between order and disorder is expressed as a battle between logic and intuition, linear and non-linear time, rhythm and melody. At the heart of this music is the paradoxical relationship between music and time. Because music must take place in time, it is non-reversible – a musical phrase played backwards still moves forward in time. Here, the long melody is constantly attacked by rhythmic outbursts from the percussion and eventually cedes to silence. Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time’ is the locus classicus, but Woolrich’s work makes its own mark.

The other purely orchestral work, The Ghost in the Machine, is from the same mould. Dating from 1990, a melody is unfurled throughout the duration of the piece, journeying through a changing landscape scattered with Mahlerian debris and shards of more Birtwistle, expressly Earth Dances. The changes in the landscape impact on the articulation of the melody, creating a symbiosis of foreground and background. The melody begins very assertively on unison horns but loses its confidence as it gets caught up in the relentless acceleration that is the single trajectory of the piece. (Erratum – unison horns except for the occasional semitonal clash. I recall being at the first performance in the Royal Festival Hall and assuming these to be fluffed notes. A retrospective apology to the BBCSO’s horn section.)

With the Viola Concerto of 1993, we find a more complex and subtle approach to musical form. This is a music that is both allusive and elusive – an elusiveness that seems to be the very subject matter of the piece rather than being a cloak around its true subject matter. The allusions are blurred quotations from other composers – Mozart, Monteverdi, Schumann and Wagner (and as if to show that music about music is not merely a contemporary phenomenon, the Schumann quotation is itself a referral – of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte in the Fantasy in C, Op.17). Each of the concerto’s seven movements is built around a different quotation, separated by an archetypal hunting-call played distantly by the horns. These references to other music are not post-modern de-constructions; rather they are a savouring of, and dialogue with, the music of the past. The work emerges as a kind of reverie set in the forest of German Romanticism and its classical and pre-classical origins, the forest gloom flecked by occasional glints of moonlight. The music is ruminative and self-absorbed, as is perhaps pre-determined in the case of a viola concerto. A fleeting climax is reached in the penultimate movement, leading to a final reflection which fades away in what the composer describes as a ’slow, dark rocking’ – a beautiful effect, as if we emerge from the forest to see a tiny boat sailing out onto a vast moonlit sea.

The Oboe Concerto of 1996 is a very different species of concerto. Premiered with great success at that year’s Proms, this is a concerto that pits a fragile single voice against the collective force of the orchestra – a very familiar stratagem, here pursued with a frightening intensity. In fact, the single voice is supported by a small chorus of three oboes and a soprano saxophone – heard either in unison with the oboe to strengthen its sound or as an echo or development of its material. It’s an astonishing work. The response of the orchestra to the soloist is totally confrontational. At the beginning, the oboes establish a voice of plaintive introspection, above orchestral pedal points – like the breathing of a slumbering giant. The giant awakes abruptly with rapid mechanical figurations to compel the oboe to join in; as the work progresses the soloist finds ways of asserting its own quiet agenda. Inevitably, the orchestra is capable of overpowering the oboe by its sheer power; when the orchestra is at its most brutish – as, for example, when a hue and cry of metallic percussion chases in – the soloist simply stops its song. A grinding orchestral passage at the work’s centre releases into a wonderfully obscure long-held string chord which gives the oboe space to resume its cantilena. This provokes the climax of the concerto, a kind of ’Mexican stand-off’ in which the two forces lock horns in a sequence of two-note phrases. After this passage of great rhetorical power, it seems, surprisingly, that the oboe is the victor. The orchestra recedes completely and the oboe has a long unaccompanied cadenza. But with a single act of extreme violence, the orchestra silences the oboe’s song forever. This is a truly shocking gesture, which works not only because of its unexpectedness but because it has a genuinely dramatic rationale. The effect is akin to the principal character of a film – e.g. in The Wages of Fear – being randomly killed in the final frame.

The impact of these pieces is greatly assisted by the strength of the performances. Nicholas Daniel’s performance of the Oboe Concerto is totally authoritative, registering both the assertive and the reflective with equal virtuosity. Lars Anders Tomter captures the poetic essence of the Viola Concerto perfectly – the ’abschied’ of the final fading bars is unforgettable. The BBCSO is completely at home with Woolrich’s language; Martyn Brabbins once again displays that he has a real understanding of a huge range of musical styles. The recording is first-class – as always with NMC.

This release of works for full orchestra continues a very satisfying collection of Woolrich recordings, which started with brief songs and arrangements (NMC D003), then chamber works (NMC D029), followed by works for small orchestra (ASV CD DCA 1049). It would be great if one of Woolrich’s recent stage-pieces could be issued.

This CD seems to me to be one of the very best of NMC’s releases.

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