Evening Songs **
When I Woke **
Yet Another Set To ***
Gerald Finley (baritone) [When I Woke]
Christian Lindberg (trombone) [Yet Another Set To]
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Nott *
Vladimir Jurowski **
Marin Alsop ***
All recorded in the Royal Festival Hall, London between December 2004 and March 2005
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: November 2005
CD No: LPO – 0007
Duration: 66 minutes
The London Philharmonic is the latest UK orchestra to release recordings under the imprint of its own label, a path already successfully trodden by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Hallé amongst others. The trend can only be applauded, especially as the cutting out of the ‘middle man’ evidently enables recordings to be released at bargain or middle range prices. Overall the repertory has tended to stay firmly in the centre (Shostakovich and Elgar being particularly favoured) but the LPO has stolen a lead on its rivals in releasing this outstanding collection of recent works by its Composer-in-Residence Mark-Anthony Turnage, a role he has already discharged to general acclaim with the City of Birmingham Symphony, English National Opera and the BBC Symphony. All four works on this CD/SACD Hybrid were recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall, at world premieres in the case of “When I Woke” and Yet Another Set To. There is a palpable sense of immediacy in all of the performances, aided by spectacular recorded sound (of which more later).
Scherzoid (2004) was a co-commission by the LPO and New York Philharmonic, evidence if it were needed of Turnage’s stature in the musical world these days. The source of inspiration was the Beethovenian scherzo, specifically that of the Ninth Symphony, and the very familiar ‘gallumphing’ motion of its source is evident throughout the work. Scherzoid is an unstoppable 13-minute roller-coaster of a piece, even the ‘trios’ propel the music onward rather than providing contrast of pace as in a traditional role. The soundworld is instantly recognisable as Turnage – the swaggering rhythms, the blues modality, the bass clarinet- and saxophone-reinforced melodic lines, and the neon-coloured orchestration. You just know that Turnage is going to cap the rushing momentum with some spectacular final gesture – sure enough, the last minute of the piece starts up a thrilling game whereby each successive musical image appears to be the clincher – until the next one arrives! Perhaps Turnage was thinking of another Beethoven symphony here, the ending of the Eighth.
Evening Songs, for orchestra, dates from 1998 and is by some way the earliest work on the disc. It is also the most distinctive. Cast in three movements, the last one of these, ‘Still Sleeping’, reworks (as Turnage is often wont) the epilogue of his chamber opera “Country of the Blind”, itself so effective in its context that I can still recall the music despite not having heard that work since its first performance. All three movements operate in a state of ruminative flux, with detail (frequently string solos) thrown to the surface from the ebb and flow of troubled depths. The final movement incorporates hand-bells (if memory serves correctly, hand-bells were a feature of the discarded orchestral piece Gross Intrusion) to great effect and the final chord has a harmonic spacing which suggests bell overtone phenomena. The overall mood of Evening Songs is something Turnage has not attempted before or since – the composer calls it “saturated” – and as with Four-Horned Fandango it represents a stylistic cul-de-sac that he might profitably revisit in the future.
Given the profile of Dylan Thomas one might expect more musical settings of his poetry than there in fact is (not counting Daniel Jones!). What seems to be the deterrence is the extreme musicality of the word patterns. Turnage’s solution in “When I Woke” – a setting of three poems for baritone and orchestra – is to keep the vocal line very simple and restrict musical proliferation to the orchestral commentary (Stravinsky did something similar in his canonic setting of “Do Not Go Gentle”). Indeed the first setting “The Turn of Time” is almost entirely unaccompanied, the orchestra joining in toward the end and providing a coda. The eponymous second song is framed with a lullaby-like humming. The vocal lines sound highly gratifying. Longstanding Turnage collaborator Gerald Finley (who took the lead role in the first performances and recording of “The Silver Tassie” delivers them flawlessly – in fact Finley’s handsome tone and burning delivery have by now etched themselves into my mental image of the Turnage soundworld. “When I Woke” is a modest offering in the Turnage canon but a delectable one.
Rum titles are a reliable part of Turnage’s stock-in-trade and no doubt contributed to the patronising ‘Essex lad’ persona the classical musical establishment invented for him in the 1980s (another feature of which was the regular name-checking of influences such as Prince and Miles Davis by commentators who one could almost swear had never heard so much as a note of their music, an omission that has always struck me as bordering on the ethnocentric). Thus, a work for brass entitled Set To yielded a work for trombone and orchestra called Another Set To, which when preceded by another two movements becomes Yet Another Set To (2005). In this incarnation, two joyously pugnacious outer movements enclose a tender and vulnerable cantilena.
Some of the first movement, ‘Cut Up’, had previously done service as one of the pieces that comprise the evening-long Blood on the Floor. The title may refer to William Burrough’s cut-up writing technique, at any rate it results in a wild jumble of garish images that build to a hair-raising climax. The descending chromatic ‘laughter’, once heard, can never be forgotten. The second movement ‘A Soothing Interlude’ positively invites the assertion that it does just what it says on the tin. It is in fact a little gem. With its muted soloist, walking bass lines and sinuous harmony, it comes across as a Bach aria reinterpreted by Miles Davis. The final movement opens with a trombone solo that alternates blues-inflected material with more disjunct elements and the piece as a whole explores these two facets in explosive fashion. We can tell that it brings the house down because the recording leaves the applause in – ear-jarringly.
Christian Lindberg is in competition with himself in this movement. If anything his performance in the Chandos recording of Another Set To is even more barnstorming than here, but the present performance is as visceral as could be asked for yet also possessed of a wonderful lyrical impulse where required. And Turnage is much more ‘lyrical’ than he is generally given credit for. The LPO is the great unsung hero here, as throughout the disc – virtuosic, enthusiastic and lethally focused.
This and other releases on the LPO’s label are in the SACD/CD Hybrid format. As an SACD recording I would say that this is one of the very best I have heard, a veritable demonstration disc for the medium. It is often overlooked in commentary on the relative merits of SACD and DVD-A as compared to CD that individual recordings within the new formats vary in quality as much as CDs do. For instance, Chandos have yet to get the hang of SACD, its recordings – the ones I have heard at any rate, such as Hickox’s Vaughan Williams symphony cycle – seeming to hang a euphonic veil over the orchestra that makes string-tone in particular strangely unfocussed. This LPO recording goes in completely the other direction. Every instrumental sound is positively holographic in its imaging and – unloved as it is, or I should say, was – the RFH acoustic becomes synonymous with your own listening-room’s acoustic as the music hangs in the air. The CD layer sounds hollow by comparison, although the recording quality still shines through. Rear speakers are used with discretion, just a slight bleed of ambience. The recording is credited as 5.1, although I prefer to listen using a high-line connection to the subwoofer rather than the LFE connection. I can report that the Mahler 10-like bass drum in the third movement of Evening Songs (at 4’26” and 4’42”) made me an Olympic contender for vertical jumping from a sedentary position!