Thursday 30 June 2016

I find it hard to imagine any listener not getting caught up in the thrall of Robin Walker’s orchestral works on a new release from Toccata Classics

Robin Walker (b.1953) was a chorister at York Minster before studying with David Lumsdaine (b.1931) at Durham University. He went on to study at Oxford University and the Royal College of Music, before becoming Lecturer in Music at Manchester University.

Walker writes music which acknowledges nature as the paramount creative force, working in a tradition which passes through Beethoven, Brahms, Elgar, Sibelius, Tippett and Birtwistle. 

Toccata Classics has just released a very fine recording featuring a selection of Robin Walker’s orchestral music with the Novaya Rossiya Symphony Orchestra  conducted by Alexander Walker

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Great Rock is Dead: Funeral March (2007) was in the composer’s words ‘a desire to resolve the grief occasioned by my father’s death in 2005.’ It opens quietly with timpani before finding a solemn forward movement, soon building in the brass and woodwind a more anguished feel. The brass add a heavy layer to the music as it heaves itself up through passages of great drama with so many strands shifting through the orchestra. Soon there is a quiet moment as the music falls to a hush out of which new beginnings flourish throughout the orchestra, less heavy, more transparent. Many fine fascinating ideas appear out of the orchestral texture before the music builds again through a section of great grandeur pointed up by timpani, offset by a fine theme for woodwind and brass before heading to the coda where hints of the coda of Sibelius’ fifth symphony appear.

Odysseus on Ogygia: Prelude (2011) is taken from an opera that occupied the composer for a decade up to 2005. It opens with a lone harp motif to which a flute joins in a gentle solitary theme. More woodwind join, finding a rocking motion as well as occasional dissonances as the music develops. Debussian woodwind flourishes appear before the music rises dynamically, horns adding colour, to a grand peak before falling back to a calm section beneath which brass and timpani retain a restrained intensity. There are further outbursts in the brass before the harp re-appears with its gentle motif together with flute and hushed strings as the coda arrives.

The Stone King: Symphonic Poem (2005) marked Walker’s return to abstract orchestral music after his work on Odysseus on Ogygia. The scenario involves tragic loss and consequent infirmity before restitution through confession and self-interrogation.

The orchestra leap in with brass and timpani, full of drama and anger as the music positively boils with barely restrained energy. It slowly heaves itself up, very Sibelian in feel, rising to a glorious climax, full of fine colours and textures in the orchestra, with biting brass interventions. Soon the music simmers more quietly in the brass and woodwind.  The tension slackens for a gentler, flowing passage, slowly and subtly finding its impetus again. The strings take the lead, pulling the music up inexorably with a hint of Walton in the brass before trombones and horns lead the music on to growls from the lower brass. Muted brass shoot out to lighten the mood before a euphonium leads the music forward bringing its own distinctive colour and character to this striking music, over a simmering orchestra. The brass, again, shoot out in a faster, lighter motif but the heavier laden music takes us to the solemn coda that ends on string chords. This is a fabulous work.

Begun in 1987, The Stone Maker: Symphonic Poem (1995) represents the composer’s desire to ‘make something of magnitude’ that he had never attempted before.

A lone pizzicato string chord opens with brass immediately joining to add a melancholy chord. The whole orchestra brings a deeper resonance as the music slowly hauls itself forward with higher brass appearing over the orchestra and deep brass growls. The music slowly gains in dynamics with an orchestra laden with drama and angst. Woodwind sound through adding colour and texture, as do percussion.  The music subtly finds a rhythm in the brass as the music moves ahead before finding a quieter moment with a rhythmic pulse before swirling strings are heard in the background behind intoning brass. There are some magically shimmering moments here in this rather static passage before timpani herald a move forward dramatically as many sections of the orchestra contribute to the texture and colour. There is a momentary slower section where percussion bring almost the sound of a ticking clock but the music soon moves forward again.

There is another gentler, slower passage for woodwind with subtle dissonances before percussion add more colour, texture and rhythm. Longer woodwind and string passages alternate as a contrast, the latter taking the music through a mysterious section with longer phrases before percussion re-appear in a rhythmic theme. The orchestra continues to heave its way forward, full of colour and wild textures, rising in brilliance in the brass. Woodwind join adding a lovely texture as the music subtly reduces in drama though still bubbling under the surface. Brass try to bubble up as a strident, angular variation of the theme emerges with percussion adding to the angularity of the music. The woodwind subtly change the nature of the theme to which brass add colour before the music begins to rise again with timpani adding weight. It eases back with a woodwind passage before the orchestra continues its unstoppable forward momentum, deep brass rasping and woodwind heard over the orchestra. High brass sound out the theme over a pulsating orchestra, growing in strength and power with timpani and percussion adding a terrific sound as the music drives ever more powerfully forward.  Towards the end the music falls back to a hushed orchestra, a harp is heard together with gentle brass sonorities and some beautifully formed textures and sonorities. Brass intone above the gentler orchestral layer as the coda arrives. There is a subtle gentle rhythmic string motif before brass finally sound out, but the gentler orchestra move to a gentle end.

This is a sprawling yet totally engrossing work. Walker seems to have thrown all his experience at the time of its composition into this work which is of symphonic proportions. This is a remarkable work.

Whilst hints of other composers occasionally appear they cannot easily be recognised such has this composer assimilated them. I find it hard to imagine any listener not getting caught up in the thrall of these works that are full of fire and drama and, in the case of the three later works, beautifully constructed. 

The Novaya Rossiya Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Walker brings terrific performances and they are finely recorded in Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company Kultura, Moscow. There are excellent booklet notes that take the form of an interview with Robin Walker and notes on the music by the composer.  

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