Lyell Cresswell

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Lyell Cresswell
Whira (for solo violin)
Atta (for solo cello)
Anake (for solo flute)
Acquerello (for solo piano)
Variations on a Theme by Charles Ives (for flute and cello)

The Hebrides Ensemble:

Daniel Bell (violin)
William Conway (cello)
Rosemary Eliot (flute)
Peter Evans (piano)

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: March 2002
CD No: NMC D077
Duration: 74 minutes

Lyell Cresswell is a New Zealander born in 1944 who for the last twenty years or so has made his home in Scotland and is a much respected and indeed popular figure in the musical life of Scottish cities. Despite a couple of Proms performances his profile is not as high in the rest of the UK; hopefully this enterprising release will shine a spotlight on the composer’s compelling, fiercely original soundworld, one both challenging and communicative, which displays remarkably little trace of outside influences.

Cresswell’s music is suffused with an elemental, atavistic quality that is reflected in the choice of titles, often of Maori origin or, in the case of Atta’, Old Norse. If this description suggests Birtwistle or Xenakis, there is not much of either composer apparent in Cresswell’s musical language. The prevailing syntax is a taut, sinewy lyricism with a Gaelic accent and tightly controlled violence stalking between foreground and background. Those qualities impose in Cresswell’s impressive body of orchestral music and are also heard vividly in distilled form in these solo works.

All but one of the works here adopt a more or less traditional suite-like approach to the challenge of solo instrumental writing. A mirror- or arch-like shape can also be discerned, which gives a satisfying contour that binds together the disparate ’character’ pieces. This is readily apparent in Whira (the title is Maori for fiddle). The first and last of the seven movements are bold and ferociously inventive. The extended second and sixth movements are slow and elegiac but no less taut or intense. The three central movements comprise a kind of collective intermezzo, incorporating a quirky pizzicato study and a witty 80th-birthday tribute to Douglas Lilburn, doyen of New Zealand composers. This is a powerful work, borne aloft by the scorching performance of Daniel Bell, whose virtuosity is at the service of not only the pyrotechnics of the music but also of the keening laments which are at the heart of the piece.

Audibly out of the same stable is Atta for solo cello, an eight-movement work based on the paintings of the contemporary Italian artist Maurizio Bottarelli, one of which is reproduced on the CD cover. Bottarelli’s organic approach to form and colour is reflected in Cresswell’s writing, whose stentorian rhetoric is shaped into a Bartok-style arch. The energy of the opening ’Con fuoco’, with its scooping glissandi, is rhymed with the closing ’Con forza’, a wild torrent of invention. In between, there is another study in pizzicato and movements harnessing a range of playing techniques. Like Whira, Atta is a major utterance in the repertoire of its instrument and is realised here in a characteristically committed and articulate performance by William Conway.

Anake for solo flute (Maori for ’alone’) is in three movements and proposes imaginary folk music. This is shaped in a striking fashion, whereby the first movement alternates a long melodic line with a faster, more playful music and the other two movements home in on each element respectively. In particular, the sad song that is the last movement is beautifully written and receives a limpid performance by Rosemary Eliot.

The remaining two items offer an effective contrast to the three big solo pieces. Acquerello is an exquisite miniature for piano which seems to pose the question, at what point does ornamentation take on a harmonic life of its own? (Cresswell’s orchestral Salm asks a similar question in the context of Gaelic psalm-singing.) The Variations on a Theme by Charles Ives is a duet for flute and cello, an attractive combination of instruments with virtually no repertoire. The theme is Ives’s song, Songs My Mother Taught Me, which, as realised at the beginning of Cresswell’s piece, seems to have been transplanted from the clapboard houses of New England to a Scottish parlour. The variations are loosely paired in mirror fashion (1 and 11, 2 and 10, etc) and are very easy to follow. I particularly liked the pairing of variation 3, which hides the theme behind asynchronous pulsing, and variation 9, a flying bumblebee. The last variation is a reprise of the theme that is affectingly revealed to have emerged unscathed from its earlier dissection and scrutiny. Again, a winning piece and performance to match.

It’s probably fair to say that a disc of solo instrumental works by a less-than-familiar contemporary composer will not be a self-recommending proposition to many. However, anyone adding this recording to their collection will be rewarded with a generously-filled disc of music which despite its modest means is gripping, intense and, where it wants to be, quite beautiful. A close-miked recording catches the drama of the music splendidly. This is the first major recording of Cresswell’s music since the two pioneering releases of his orchestral works on Continuum. Hopefully, more recordings of his output will follow – not least the powerful series of concertos.

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