Saturday 31 October 2015

A new disc from BIS of outstanding concertos and orchestral works by Sally Beamish show a composer who can create wonderful atmosphere and colour

For those who are still not familiar with the British composer, Sally Beamish (b.1956) , she was born in London and initially became a viola player before moving to Scotland where she has since developed a career as a composer.

She is the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow, a Creative Scotland Award, and the Paul Hamlyn Award. With composer Alasdair Nicolson, Sally Beamish co-directs the annual St. Magnus Composers' Course in Orkney.

Jazz and Scottish traditional music in particular are amongst the many influences on her music. Her compositions include chamber, vocal, choral and orchestral music as well as music theatre, film and television.

Sally Beamish’s music is performed and broadcast internationally and since 1999 she has been championed by BIS Records , who have recorded much of her work.

It is BIS that have just released a recording of orchestral works by Beamish, The Singing, Concerto for accordion and orchestra; Trumpet Concerto; Under the Wing of the Rock; A Cage of Doves and Reckless. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra  and National Youth Orchestra of Scotland  are conducted by Martyn Brabbins with soloists James Crabb (accordion) , Branford Marsalis (alto saxophone)  and Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

BIS 2156

The Singing - Concerto for accordion and orchestra (2006) recalls the tragic time of the Highland Clearances that began in the 1760s.  

The first movement, Andante - Allegro – Andante, opens with the beat of a hushed, distant side drum.  Another drum quietly enters as the orchestra join with little twitterings from the accordion of James Crabb, beautifully done. Woodwind add to the myriad of orchestral tapestry before the orchestra brightens and increases in tempo as the accordion re-joins in the livelier allegro section, again with much going on in the orchestra. The music becomes increasingly lively before dropping to a slower section pointed up by the timpani where the soloist brings a kind of accompanied cadenza. There are more woodwind trills and twitters before a distinctly Scottish tune arrives.

The second movement consists of a Lento followed by six variations. In the lento the solo accordion brings a very Scottish tune with a Scotch snap. Slowly, instruments of the orchestra subtly join adding a lovely sonority. Variation I. Più Mosso brings a slow, steady theme where the orchestra weave a fine accompaniment to the accordion before a faster, staccato Variation II. Più Mosso where the side drum re-appears as the energy and passion increases.

Variation III. Ancora Più Mosso continues the rhythmic feel of variation II before running into Variation IV. Adagio, a slow solemn variation with a gloomy orchestra heaving around under the melancholy accordion. The music slowly rises in orchestral power to which the soloist responds with fast scales, picked up momentarily by the orchestra. As the accordion slows and quietens we move into Variation V. Adagio with quizzical little phrases over a quiet orchestral background, a moment of much simplicity yet tremendous atmosphere and effect. Variation VI brings a quiet rush of sound from the accordion and wind instruments who breathe into their instruments in a sustained passage.

The third and final movement, Variation VII Finale. Allegro arrives with the accordion livening the atmosphere, rushing ahead with a lively percussion section and orchestra providing some raucous sounds. Soon the accordion brings another very Scottish tune with some brilliant playing from James Crabb before the music rushes ahead with sounds of the pipes from the accordion and tubular bells chiming to provide an atmospheric lead up to the riotous coda where the orchestra join.

This is a very attractive work that receives a brilliant performance from James Crabb and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins.

The novel Magnus by the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown was the stimulus for A Cage of Doves (2007), dedicated to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies who has been himself greatly affected by this poet and writer. Magnus tells the story of the Martyrdom of Saint Magnus Erlendsson and throughout this piece fragments of the ancient Hymn to St Magnus can be heard.  

The music emerges slowly out of a gloomy depth, deep orchestral instruments swirling around before a clarinet rises out of the orchestra, joined by other woodwind who weave a lovely moment, pointed up by celeste. Brass soon bring a distinctive sonority before a livelier section arrives with some lovely little instrumental details. Timpani and percussion sound out to add drama as the music gains in tempo and dynamics, rising to some dramatic outbursts before quietening to a gentle , lovely atmospheric section with harp and shifting orchestral textures. There are lovely little woodwind flourishes as well as little instrumental motifs that fly out of the orchestral texture. The music rises in strength and power to a terrific climax before tubular bells chime as the music subsides to a quiet section where a muted trumpet intones. There is a repeated note from a flute, around which some fine delicate orchestral textures are woven before a fluttering flute and hushed strings bring the coda.
This is a lovely work, finely played here.

Under the Wing of the Rock (2006/2008) was originally written for viola and strings but is here performed in its later version for alto saxophone and strings, played by Branford Marsalis, for whom this version was written. The idea for this piece was a Gaelic poem concerning a lullaby that was supposed to have been sung by a mother to her child when fleeing the massacre at Glen Coe.

A hushed alto saxophone theme opens alone; Branford Marsalis bringing some lovely varied tones before the orchestra gently join, adding to a glorious melody which is beautifully played. The strings rise over the soloist as he climbs higher with moments of greater passion before falling back for a faster, staccato section with the soloist bringing many fine moments as the strings weave around.  There are some vibrant, flowing passages as the theme is developed before a rhythmic passage with a staccato motif arrives. However, the music later slows for a return of the quieter flowing melody, the saxophone weaving some fine passages around the gentler orchestral accompaniment before finding its way to the gentle coda.

This is a glorious work that receives an exceptionally fine performance from Branford Marsalis and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Reckless (2012) for chamber orchestra was a commission by the Southbank Sinfonia, an orchestra for young professionals. It opens with a fast moving, sparkling theme that rattles ahead full of good humour, sounding very much like a mini concerto for orchestra as the theme is shared around the players. There is a brief quieter moment before the sudden end. What a lovely little work this is.

The last work on this new disc is Beamish’s Trumpet Concerto (2003). It reflects city life from its architecture to the more squalid side. In three movements, Prelude. Adagio - Allegro opens with a chord on low brass, the orchestra slowly fanning out before drooping phrases from the brass are heard. A very atmospheric sound is created before the soloist, Håkan Hardenberger enters, bringing a bright slow paced theme which blends and weaves with the orchestra. Soon a rhythmic, staccato theme starts with woodblock and side drum which the soloist takes ahead with the orchestra. Beamish again brings some lovely instrumental detail. The music eventually takes more of a flow as a dissonance is brought. It increases in drama and dynamics before broadening in a fine moment before finding its way, rhythmically and quietly, to the end.  

There are timpani rolls as the orchestra, with xylophone, quietly open the Andante where there are many lovely colours created. The trumpet enters to bring a languid, jazz influenced theme with a syncopated orchestral accompaniment.  Later there are shifting orchestral harmonies, joined by shimmering xylophone chords before a bass tuba adds to the orchestral texture as the soloist and orchestra gain in dynamics and passion and the coda arrives suddenly.

In the Allegro – Presto percussion sound out flamboyantly before the soloist enters with a strident theme, a march which the orchestra takes forward through some terrific dynamic passages, brightly lit and coloured by percussion. Part way there is a cadenza where Hardenberger brings some terrific, fluent and controlled playing before the orchestra leads on with percussion pointing up the music as the soloist re-enters. Drums, percussion and low orchestra stride ahead before orchestral brass drive the music on. The music scurries to a climactic passage as soloist and orchestra move inexorably forward to a tremendous coda.

As one would expect, Håkan Hardenberger proves to be a terrific soloist. The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland reveals themselves to be a very fine orchestra who bring much to this fine performance. 

Sally Beamish is a composer who can create wonderful atmosphere and colour. The works on this new disc are outstanding as are the performances. The recordings, made at the Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland are first rate and there are excellent booklet notes from the composer. 

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