Thursday 23 January 2014

Three exceptionally fine chamber works by Michael Berkeley, John McCabe and Adrian Williams in superb performances by the Carducci Quartet on a new release from Signum Classics

A new release from Signum Classics entitled Into the Ravine features the Carducci String Quartet  and Nicholas Daniel (oboe)  in chamber works by three British composers, Michael Berkeley, John McCabe and Adrian Williams.

Michael Berkeley (b.1948), the eldest son of the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley and a godson of Benjamin Britten, after being a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, was educated at The Oratory School in Oxfordshire before studying composition, singing and piano at the Royal Academy of Music, later studying with Richard Rodney Bennett.  In 1979 he was appointed Associate Composer to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, then became Artistic Director of the Cheltenham Music Festival from 1995 to 2004 and Composer-in-Association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales from 2000 until 2009. He is also Visiting Professor in Composition at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. Michael Berkley is also known as a television and radio broadcaster and presents BBC Radio 3's ‘Private Passions.’ His works include opera, choral works, orchestral works, concertos, instrumental works and piano works.

While writing his Oboe Quintet, ‘Into the Ravine’ (2012), Michael Berkeley had in mind the paintings of John Craxton and Mark Rothko and the way in which paint can vibrate as colours collide. It was co-commissioned by the 2012 Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts. The work opens with a plaintive theme for the oboe with pizzicato phrases from the strings. The strings alternate, commenting on the melody before they provide little rushes of tempo to push the music forward as it becomes more intense. There is much fine detail amongst the elegiac theme. Soon there develops insistent rhythmic motif before the music rises to an intense pitch. As the music loses its intensity, falling back to a quieter, thoughtful nature, there is some exceptionally beautiful and effective writing. The music builds in intensity again leading to staccato phrases before dropping to quiet elegiac music, often quite bittersweet in feel. Eventually an intensive peak is reached with searing strings before calming and again regaining its intensity.  Finally, all becomes tranquil in the glorious coda where an upward motif for the oboe suddenly ends the work.

This is a wonderful, intensely passionate work superbly played by these musicians.

John McCabe (b. 1939) was born in Huyton, Liverpool, in 1939 and trained as a musician at Manchester University and the Royal Manchester College of Music (now Northern College of Music) He was a piano pupil of Gordon Green and a composition student with Thomas B Pitfield.  After his time at the RMCM, he attended the Munich Hochschule für Musik, where he heard the music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, before spending three years as resident pianist at University College, Cardiff. McCabe’s First Violin Concerto was performed in 1959 by the Halle Orchestra and soloist Martin Milner and two years later Maurice Handford conducted the Variations on a Theme of Hartmann. This led to the Hallé commissioning a symphony which Sir John Barbirolli conducted at the Cheltenham Festival of 1966. Although fully in touch with the major trends of 20th century music, including jazz, McCabe was not drawn to the avant-garde.

John McCabe – String Quartet No.7, ‘Summer Eves’ (2012) was also commissioned by the Presteigne Festival. The lyrical opening theme of the Allegro sanguine is full of a sense of anticipation, alternated with a forward drive and, occasionally, some incisive, strident chords that add grit to the music. The Scherzo – Giocoso opens with a fairly gentle, rhythmic motif. There is a lovely lightening of texture in this appealing little scherzo. The brief Perpetuum Mobile – Wild und rasch is a frantic, wild movement played with terrific agility by these fine artists. Odd little harmonies and gritty, incisive textures appear before the movement falls away to end. Repeated unison chords open the darker Adagio. The music seems agitated and uncertain, at times laboured as it slowly moves towards a more settled and tranquil coda - in the composers own words ‘a gentle summer sky at dusk’. The Finale – Allegro moderato e flessibile flows beautifully forward, interrupted by a more dynamic upward rising motif. The music becomes more rhythmic and almost dance-like halfway through. The forward flow eventually continues becoming more animated before a quiet, gentle coda.

This is another beautifully written work, with the Carducci Quartet giving a terrific performance.

Adrian Williams (b. 1956)  was born in Hertfordshire and showed precocious talent at the piano as a young child.  He began composing at the age of eleven, later studying composition and piano at the Royal College of Music where his teachers included Bernard Stevens, Alan Ridout and John Lill. During his RCM studies Williams’ first mature orchestral work, the Symphonic Studies, was conducted by the RCM director Sir David Willcocks. During a period as Composer in Residence at Charterhouse School, his music underwent a stylistic reassessment resulting in a tougher harmonic language that, although more adventurous in its range and scope, retained an underlying melodic vein that has always remained central to his music.
During the eighties a move to the Welsh Borders saw Williams find his spiritual home, along with the peace of mind and creative impetus for many of his most vital works including the cantata after Louis MacNeice, Not Yet Born, Images of a Mind for cello and piano, the Cantata after Alun Lewis, The Ways of Going, and Dies Irae.  It was during his early years in the Welsh borders that Williams became the founding light of the Presteigne Festival. He has also built a successful career in music for film and television. Williams' recent scores, including Maelienydd (2008) for Chamber Orchestra, the Cello Concerto (2009) and the String Quartet no 4, premiered at the 2009 Presteigne Festival, exhibit a deeply felt emotional core, conjuring with the atmosphere and wild, open spaces of the composer's Welsh Borderland.  

It is Adrian Williams’ String Quartet No.4, first performed at the 2009 Presteigne Festival, which is recorded here. The cello opens the first movement Moderato flessibile, vivace with some rich, deep sounds before other players quickly enter in a passionate and forceful opening. There are sharp interjections before the music quietens to a more lyrical section. A hushed section suddenly leads into the vivace where there is some particularly fine playing from the Carducci Quartet with sensitively controlled dynamics. The music rushes forward only to be momentarily quietened by the gentler theme before rising up to rush to the end. The Lento e calmo opens quietly and thoughtfully. The upper strings try to raise the spirits and eventually succeed as a flowing melody, quiet haunting, develops in a glorious section, with a wistful theme for the first violin.
This is a wonderfully evocative creation inspired by Welsh borderland that, living where I do, I also know so well. There is some inspired playing from the Carducci String Quartet in this superb movement. We are awakened from our reverie by the Allegro moderato, allegro molto that, nevertheless, arises naturally after the Lento, slowly gaining in tempo and animation. The Lento theme returns with all its haunting feel, yet underlined by the edginess of the allegro which, when it returns, echoes the first movement passionate theme before a decisive coda.

Anyone who has walked the hills of the Welsh border country will feel they know this music. This is a strikingly beautiful and evocative quartet, superbly played by the Carducci Quartet.

The recording, made in St Michael’s Church, Summertown, Oxford is first rate as are the booklet notes by the composers.

This is a highly desirable disc that I will return to again and again.

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