Monday 8 July 2013

Terrific performances of works by Gordon Crosse and Sir John Manduell on a new release from Metier

Having only just reviewed a new recording from Toccata Classics of Matthew Taylor’s magnificent second symphony, along comes a fine recording from Metier of works by Gordon Crosse and John Manduell, giving further proof of the number of fine composers Britain has.

Gordon Crosse was born in 1937 in Bury, Lancashire, England.  After gaining a first class honours degree at Oxford, he undertook two years’ research on early fifteenth-century music. He has since held various appointments at the Universities of Birmingham and Essex, and was for two years Composer-in-Residence at King’s College, Cambridge. In 1976 he returned to his home in Suffolk to devote all his time to composition. He did, however, spend 1977 as Visiting Professor in Composition at the University of California. Much of Crosse’s work reflects his interest in the dramatic and literary arts.

Crosse’s works include four operas (of which The Story of Vasco was premièred at the London Coliseum, and Purgatory recorded by Argo), choral works, music theatre, orchestral works and chamber works. In 1986 he was commissioned to write a work for trumpet and strings for the BBC Proms and in 1990 a large-scale choral and orchestral piece for the Scottish National Chorus and Orchestra was premièred in Glasgow.

This new release, entitled Mixed Doubles, from Metier  features three of Gordon Crosse’s works, Brief Encounter, for oboe d’amore, recorder and strings, his Concerto for viola and strings with French horn and his Fantasia on Ca’ the Yowes, for recorder, harp and strings. Together with Sir John Manduell’s Flutes concerto for flautist, harp, strings and percussion and Double concerto, for oboe, cor anglais, strings and percussion.

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The Manchester Sinfonia conducted by Timothy Reynish  is joined by Michael Cox (flute) , Richard Simpson (oboe) , Alison Teale (cor anglais) , John Turner (recorder) , Matthew Jones (viola) and Anna Christensen (harp)

Brief Encounter for oboe d’amore, recorder and strings (2009) opens beautifully with the lovely sound of the oboe d’amore blending exquisitely with the recorder. There is a distinctive two note motif that seems to reflect the word ‘goodbye’ and the two solo instruments often seem to have a conversation, at times talking over each other. The music grows slightly more agitated in the faster central section but the music is never less than melancholy, eventually returning to the slow, opening melody.  This is a lovely work, really quite unusual and beautifully played by Richard Simpson and John Turner.

Crosse’s Concerto for viola and strings with French horn (2009) is not a double concerto, the horn only appearing in the last movement to reinforce the strings. The Prelude: Andante calmo – più mosso – vivace opens with the rich sound of the viola before the orchestra joins developing this somewhat timeless sounding melody, a modern take on a traditional English modal theme. There is fine playing from Matthew Jones in some of the more taxing writing that later develops. The second movement, Song: lento semplice – più mosso – lento, brings a glorious melody, apparently salvaged from an earlier trumpet concerto. Here the viola brings an earnestness to the music, the viola playing an anguished motif against the static orchestra. The Finale: Vivace has strongly rhythmic music that brings a grittier feel to the finale, though the music retains a softer underlying melody. After a broader passage the rhythmic opening theme re-appears. As the music moves towards the coda, a passionate viola melody is heard against ethereal strings, reinforced by a horn.

This is a particularly strong work that contains some glorious music with distinctive textures and colours.

Crosse’s Fantasia on Ca’ the Yowes for recorder, harp and strings further indicates this composer’s ability to provide many lovely, unusual sonorities and textures. He gives us this strikingly beautiful work for the unusual combination of recorder, harp and strings, a somewhat magical piece conjuring up the feeling of ancient times, finely played by John Turner and Anna Christensen with the strings of the Manchester Sinfonia.

The music rises to a brief central climax that precedes a livelier section developing to a brooding, weightier, slow section that gives way to a gentle coda.

Sir John Manduell, born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1928, studied at the University of Strasbourg, Jesus College, Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Music with Lennox Berkeley. He joined the BBC in 1956 as a producer, becoming Head of Music for the Midlands and East Anglia in 1961 before returning to London in 1964. In 1968 he left the BBC to become Programme Director of the Cheltenham Festival, a position he held for 25 years. Manduell has held several positions of prestige at leading institutions including Director of Music at University of Lancaster and Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music. Other appointments have included President of the European Association of Conservatoires, President of the British Arts Festival Association and President of the National Association of Youth Orchestra His compositions consist mainly of chamber and orchestral works. The String Quartet, ‘Prayers from the Ark’ and Double Concerto were all commissioned by the Cardiff Festival and his ‘Vistas’ was commissioned by the Halle Orchestra and Kent Nagano.

Manduell’s Flutes concerto for flautist, harp, strings and percussion (2000) is so titled due to the three flutes used in the work, a normal concert flute, an alto flute and a piccolo. Again, this is not a double concerto, as such, despite the harp having a prominent role. A swaying string theme opens the Vivo – lento before the harp enters against pizzicato strings. Quietly and gently the flute can be heard behind the strings in the distance before moving to a more prominent position with the orchestra. As the music becomes livelier there is percussion to add colour and interest. There are some lovely sparkling passages for flute and, as the music slows, some beautifully effective timbres. I like the way Manduell uses the harp to decorate the music between the flute passages. Eventually there is a short solo section for flute, almost a mini cadenza and, towards the end, percussion join before a lively, flowing coda where the harp makes another appearance before short notes on the flute bring an end.

The Quasi adagio has a gently flowing opening with celeste and harp appearing before the alto flute enters in this strangely dark meditative movement. There is some really lovely playing from Malcolm Cox and Anna Christensen.

In the Adagio – allegretto – languido low strings, the rainstick and rippling harp arpeggios open the movement before the piccolo enters leading to a delicate solo passage. The orchestra enters, followed by the harp, leading to a livelier section with flute and drums. As the music returns to a slower, quieter section, the alto flute enters.  The harp enters before the flute and orchestra return in this lovely passage. The magical coda arrives quietly with the return of the opening sound of the rainstick.

Manduell’s Double concerto, for oboe, cor anglais, strings and percussion (1985/2012) has the rare combination of oboe and cor anglais. The Quasi adagio – allegro molto opens with quiet orchestral string sounds and a marimba before the oboe enters before being joined by the cor anglais to weave a faster flowing melody. As the music progresses the oboe and cor anglais weave around each other. There is a brief percussion section with marimba before the oboe enters, followed by the cor anglais, weaving around each other in a lovely section. This leads to a vigorous orchestral passage which, together with the solo instruments brings the movement to an end.

Adagio molto. Passionate strings open before the oboe enters. There is a repeat of the opening with glissandi strings before the cor anglais, then the oboe, take the melody. There are some lovely string and percussion sounds in a delicate, quiet section before the music becomes more flowing as both instruments enter. The quiet reflective mood returns, though a louder percussive section interrupts a number of times before the strange and delicate string and percussion sounds return to accompany the oboe and cor anglais to the coda.

The Allegro vivo has a percussive opening with the two instrumentalists entering against this percussiveness. Throughout, the percussive nature of the music breaks out even though there is a quiet, more delicate passage part way through. Eventually the music makes its way to a frantic coda ending a work that gets a terrific performance from Richard Simpson and Alison Teale.

The Manchester Sinfonia under Timothy Reynish gives wonderful performances throughout and the recordings made at St Thomas’ Church, Stockport, England are excellent. All the recordings were made in the presence of the composers.

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