Saturday 22 November 2014

Very fine works by David Ellis show an inner strength and vitality on a very welcome new release from Divine Art

David Ellis (b.1933) was born in Liverpool, England and studied at the Liverpool Institute before going on to the Royal Manchester College of Music where his fellow students included Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Elgar Howarth, Alexander Goehr and John Ogdon.

It was whilst studying at the Royal Manchester College of Music that his compositions first received attention with performances and commissions and awards including the Royal Philharmonic Prize, the Royal College of Music Patrons' Award, the Theodore Holland Award, the Royal Manchester Institution Silver Medal, the Ricordi Prize and a Gulbenkian Award.

From 1964 he worked as a music producer at the BBC, later becoming Head of Music, BBC North only leaving to take up the post of Artistic Director and Composer-in-Residence to the Northern Chamber Orchestra. He later moved to Portugal working with the Orquestra Sinfonica Portuguesa in Lisbon as Assistant to the Director of Music and Chief Conductor, Alvaro Cassuto.

Ellis returned to the UK in order to devote himself exclusively to composition. His compositions have been performed in the U.K and have been played and broadcast in Canada, the U.S.A., Israel, Portugal, Denmark, Brazil, Australia, China, and throughout Europe. His sizeable output includes choral and vocal works, orchestral works including concertos and three symphonies, instrumental and chamber works, works for brass band and piano works.

Divine Art Recordings  have now brought together a number of recordings of David Ellis’ music on a new release entitled Concert Music.

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Vale Royal Suite for string orchestra, Op.77 was written for Richard Howarth and the Vale Royal Orchestra and first performed by them on 17 May 2009. Here Richard Howarth conducts the Manchester Sinfonia . The work is in five movements commencing with A leisurely morning that opens in the basses before a fine melody rises up through the orchestra bringing many fine sonorities as the music freely weaves its way. Pizzicato strings open Afternoon activity, a lovely vibrant movement where a fine melody flows over the rhythmic pizzicato theme.

Early evening rest brings a solo violin theme that flows over a more hesitant orchestral accompaniment with a melancholy feel. A midnight waltz has a dark opening with rich deep sounds in the bass before the music lightens and finds its waltz rhythm that is much varied.

Tomorrow’s sunrise has a hushed, still opening with some exquisite playing from the strings of the Manchester Sinfonia that slowly rise in dynamics as well as emotional thrust. Towards the end the solo violin intones a lovely theme before the music sinks to a hushed coda.

This is heart-warming music beautifully played.

Diversions, Op.39 for chamber orchestra (1974) was commissioned by the Warrington New Town Development Corporation in North West England. The Northern Chamber Orchestra is conducted by Nicholas Ward  in this performance. 

Diversions opens with a steady, slow beat in the orchestra over which a theme winds its way, shared by various sections of the orchestra, slowly building in strength. Soon a sprightly wind theme is heard leading to a more animated section. David Ellis’ use of the orchestra is extremely skilful as the music moves quickly ahead, many sections of the orchestra having their say. Later the music slows with a punctuated counterpoint to a more flowing theme. There are many little surges of energy as well as fine wind passages before the music heads to its decisive coda.

This is a particularly fine work. This is a very fine performance as one would expect from this fine chamber orchestra under their accomplished conductor.

Concert Music for strings, op.24 (1959) was first performed in 1972 in a radio broadcast by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Bryden Thomson. Here it is performed by the Manchester Sinfonia under Richard Howarth.

Movement I brings a rising melody underpinned by pizzicato basses, before easing back to a quiet flowing section. However, the music soon rises up again full of energy with some very fine incisive string playing before easing back in the coda.

Movement II opens with incisive playing before more flowing melody appears. Soon a quiet, slower theme appears giving a chamber quality to the music before rising in dynamics and moving to the coda.  

Movement III is a slow, thoughtful movement with some beautifully free tonal harmonies. There are increases in drama during the work, the second rising to more of a pitch before suddenly sinking to a hush in a particularly lovely moment. A final rise in drama occurs before a solo cello appears and the orchestra leads to the hushed coda.  

Movement IV moves forward fluently swirling, rising and falling with a lovely ebb and flow adding to the drama in this bright and breezy conclusion, expertly written for strings

There is nothing lightweight about this music. It has an inner strength and vitality, well brought out by Richard Howarth and the Manchester Sinfonia.

Celebration was commissioned by Sir John Manduell for the Royal Northern College of Music as part of a 1980’s initiative involving an 18th century sized classical orchestra for post graduate student players. It was first performed at the orchestra’s inaugural concert conducted by Michel Brandt and later recorded by the BBC with Sir Edward Downes conducting the RNCM Sinfonia. It is this recording that is featured here.

Celebration opens with the woodwind leading a rising theme before the music falls and slows only for it to pick up again in a dramatic, weighty passage. The music soon speeds up in a lithe, faster section that really skips along. Brass points up the music before arriving at a short, quiet pause. The music then surges ahead with occasional little quiet moments. Centrally there is a fine passage when the theme is slowly built to a passionate crescendo before falling just as slowly with quiet timpani joining as the strings gently swirl around. Soon the music rises again, skipping along before eventually rising in dynamics to a terrific peak. The music falls again before leading to a dynamic coda.

There is always an interest and depth to Ellis’ compositions and no less here in this fine performance.

September Threnody, Op.91 for string orchestra (2011) was premiered on 9 March 2013 by the Northern Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Ward.

A solo violin with a wistful melody opens Movement I immediately joined by the orchestra revealing some lovely harmonies, gently played. The music slowly builds in weight and volume before falling back to a quiet end. Movement II has an animated theme that moves with agility, underpinned by the lower strings before a hushed coda.

Movement III has a purposeful opening as the music quickly and gently moves ahead before picking up in dynamics with some beautifully free flowing, rich string sounds. The opening quieter music returns before rising up for the coda. The lower strings of the orchestra open Movement IV before the music rises through the orchestra with a lovely, heartfelt theme before a gentle conclusion.

This is finely constructed music full of captivating ideas expertly orchestrated and, indeed, performed.

16 Solus, for string orchestra Op.37 was commissioned by BBC Radio Manchester and first performed in 1973 at the Royal Northern College of Music with the Manchester Camerata conducted by Frank Cliff. It is that performance that is included here.

The music rises slowly through the orchestra, building in dynamics before a quiet and gentle theme is introduced. The music slowly rises in dynamics again with a rather insistent quality soon becoming more incisive with some terrific string passages. There are strange string sounds out of which sudden flourishes appear before fast and furious strings lead the music on before fading to a hushed coda.

The 1973 recording is showing its age a little giving a rather veiled quality, though perfectly acceptable. The performance, however, is excellent.

This is a very enjoyable disc of music from a composer whose music should be more widely recorded. The recordings overall are extremely good and there are excellent booklet notes by the composer.


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