BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: May 2002
CD No: NMC D072
Duration: 53 minutes
“A composer’s composer” is how Roger Marsh describes Vic Hoyland (born 1945) in his perceptive introduction in the CD booklet. Marsh’s comment is new-music shorthand for ’he’d never get an orchestral piece performed if it weren’t for the BBC or the Cheltenham Festival’. Sure enough these two remarkable scores owe their existence to those enlightened organisations. In Transit was commissioned for the 1987 Proms, while Vixen was commissioned by the BBC for performance during the 1997 Cheltenham International Festival of Music. This pairing of these challenging but immensely rewarding works amounts to Hoyland’s first major exposure on CD (although not his first recording – the striking piano piece, The Other Side of the Air, has been recorded by Rolf Hind on NMC D020S). The abiding preoccupation of all three pieces might be described as forging continuity out of adjunct material, to paraphrase the composer. This yields the central aural image of the music – a long, proliferating melodic line pushing its way through a maze of clipped, staccato chords, a tendril moving across a bed of nails.
Hoyland describes In Transit as “a journey, three times undertaken” and that journey amounts to the trajectory of a constantly evolving melody moving through an ever-changing landscape. This structure of a journey thrice undertaken is a common one in contemporary music. Colin Matthews’s orchestral Fifth Sonata (subtitled ’Landscape’) is only one example of a template which may ultimately be traced back to some of the symphonic movements of Mahler, e.g. the ’Finale’ of the Sixth Symphony. The image of a journey through a landscape is also central to the work of Birtwistle, whose influence can be detected in the surface detail of In Transit, which is scored for two orchestral groups, as can be heard immediately in the bold antiphonal exchange which opens the work. Thereafter, on CD at any rate, the separate identity of the two groups becomes blurred. There is a pivotal, mediating role for a percussionist who sits between the two; however, without the visual component, his contribution is subordinate to the overall texture.
The melody being taken for a walk over a choppy undertow is not the whole story. There are three points where the music rests and enjoys the view before setting off again. These are passages for flute duet, solo flute and solo cor anglais respectively, each accompanied by strings. These exquisite interruptions serve to point up the increasingly forceful nature of the work’s main thrust. By the time we have reached the final leg of the journey, the music has become a turbulent clamour with taut muscular rhythm to the fore. The ending is abrupt, almost too abrupt – seemingly cutting off on an inhalation rather then an exhalation. It may be what the composer intended but I felt a need for a more sustained plateau before the final cut-off. Nevertheless, In Transit is a thrilling ride.
Written ten years later, Vixen, at 35 minutes, is twice the length of In Transit, and is one of the most ambitious orchestral works written by a British composer in recent years. Although the language and preoccupations are familiar from In Transit, there is a more expansive lyrical element throughout Vixen that was confined to the interludes in the earlier work. There is an altogether lighter touch here, notwithstanding the work’s basis in arcane mathematical and architectural principles.
There are five distinct sections, although elements in one section reappear in others and these elements have a sufficiently distinctive profile that this can be noticed, not always the case with ’reappearance’ in contemporary music. The first section features a beautifully crafted clarinet solo and ends with a magical sequence of twelve string chords. The second begins with tentative, fragmented textures and ostinati that gradually coalesce as a melodic line emerges. The ending of the section, another chord sequence, rhymes with the first. About this point, one begins to feel the need for faster, more focussed music and the third section arrives in time to supply this, as a dance-like element enters and builds to another sonorous chorale. This dissolves into the fourth and inversely climactic section, a bewitching soundworld of gently drifting strings, vibraphone and tinkling percussion, slowly turning until reaching a complete standstill. Out of this emerges a high, frozen melody on violins. If the work as a whole has the ghost of a symphonic structure lurking in the background, this is its rapt, entranced slow movement. The final section takes up and expands the dance-like material from the third and effects a fusion of this with the prevailing lyrical element. A gentle chiming forms a coda to the work (Hoyland was remembering the church-bells of Como where the work was completed). The final gesture, a kind of dominant seventh chord underpinning a rising scale, is as affecting as it is unexpected.
One hopes that being the work of a composer’s composer, Vixen will not be restricted from receiving the performances by other orchestras in mainstream programmes that it deserves. It is a powerful, intense piece, one that does not implode under the weight of its own aspirations. It might very productively share a concert with a Mahler symphony and would not be overwhelmed in such company. The strong impact of both works is reinforced by virtuoso performances by the BBCSO. The indefatigable Martyn Brabbins has evidently worked painstakingly on the shaping of the music; the fiendishly difficult rhythmic writing is articulated with razor-sharp precision aided by excellent recorded sound. At the risk of sounding repetitive, this is yet another essential release from NMC.