Sunday 2 October 2016

A release from Spaceward Records brings some very impressive works by Andrew Keeling that show a great emotional depth

Andrew Keeling began composing when he was ten years of age but only began formal composition lessons when he was thirty one, studying with Nicola LeFanu, Anthony Gilbert and John Casken. Since then his music has been performed and broadcast throughout the world and has been released on the DGM, Metier, Burning Shed, UHR and Spaceward record labels. It has been published by Faber, Fretwork, Staunch and PRB Editions.

He is equally at home in both contemporary classical and rock music and has written for Dame Evelyn Glennie, Fretwork, the Hilliard Ensemble, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Jacob Heringman, Gemini, Steve Bingham, the Bingham Quartet, Ensemble Epomeo and countless others. He holds a PhD from the University of Manchester.

The latest release of his music from Spaceward Records
is entitled Spiritus and brings together a collection of four pieces taken from Andrew Keeling's recorded classical output stretching from 1993 to 2006.

SRS 109

The disc opens with Keeling’s Unquiet Earth: Piano Trio (2005-06) which is dedicated to the performers here, the Valen Trio and was inspired by the last paragraph of Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights with its powerful sense of grief.
In two movements, the strings of the Valen Trio draw some lovely textures in the opening of Alla Fantasia. The piano joins with a delicate, ripping idea over the strings, slowly developing through ever changing ideas. Soon there is a pause after which the trio pick up a fast moving tempo to race forward with some incisive string phrases gaining a terrific rhythm. The piano rises higher and higher over staccato strings before alone bringing gentle tentative, rippling phrases. The violin adds a lovely melody over the piano to which the cello brings staccato phrases before the strings draw fine textures and harmonies over a slow piano accompaniment, growing quieter all the time, finding a real inward intensity.

The music leaps out in a sparkling opening of Alla Danza dancing ahead through some finely played passages with pizzicato strings and staccato piano phrases. There are occasional quieter moments before finding a more sustained tranquillity where hushed string chords are drawn. The piano enters as the cello brings a quite lovely melody, full of fine textures. Together the trio weave some rather fine moments with quite distinctive harmonies and textures, continuing through the most lovely passages, finding again a quite thoughtful nature. Gentle string chords lead to a piano motif as the music picks up in tempo to race ahead with some brilliantly played passages from this trio before the coda arrives more quietly.

This is a very distinctive and attractive work brilliantly played by the Valen Trio.

O Ignis Spiritus (1993) was written for and performed here by the Hilliard Ensemble and is a setting of mystical texts by the German composer, abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). The Hilliard Ensemble rise out of silence with a solo tenor appearing over a vocal drone from the ensemble in a wonderfully fine theme, soon leaving the soloist alone who fades into a section for the whole choir as they weave the text. There are some striking intervals and harmonies that nevertheless seem to reach back to antiquity. The music moves through a finely wrought slow, hushed section where the Hilliards bring quite superb control. The music rises in strength to an ecstatic, glowing passage before finding a sudden more direct quality that still brings fine harmonies. The music falls again with wordless voices over which the rest of the choir lead forward. There are some wonderful individual voices appearing as the music progresses before arriving at a gentle coda.

This is a most impressive work sung absolutely brilliantly by the Hilliard Ensemble.

Peter Davison tells us in the interesting and informative booklet notes that Reclaiming Eros: Piano Quartet (2000) concerns contacting the spirit through communion with nature, moving ‘in single arch from rage to fragmentation to wholeness and lyrical ecstasy’. There is a sudden vibrant opening from the Stor Quartet as a motif is introduced and developed through the opening bars before a repeated rhythmic theme is overlaid by vibrant staccato piano phrases. Soon a quiet, slower passage with rather quixotic fleeting phrases arrives. The music occasionally works up some passionate rhythmic ideas, between which the more gentle moments lie. There are passages of more complex writing before a mournful tune appears in the strings around which there are gentle piano phrases.

When a hushed section of twittering strings appears there are little bird like piano phrases. Moments of fleeting, rather playful music is heard before a desperate intense, forward moving passage arrives. Eventually the music brings some lovely harmonies and delicate piano notes as the cello brings a solo section soon added to with violin textures. At times there is an almost schizophrenic character to this music. Towards the end the cello leads a sad melody over a piano line; a violin joins the melody before rising through some intense and deeply felt textures, weaving through some absolutely exquisite passages before finding a settled coda with hushed gentle piano phrases.

We are told that in Blue Dawn: Suite for Piano (2005) the composer explores the meaning of a dream in which the god, Wotan led him to a newly dug grave while dawn was breaking. Here Steven Wray plays six of the original seven movements. Tentative piano phrases open Lullaby leading to a simple little theme. The music slowly gains a greater focus, finding little rhythmic sequences and moving through some finely conceived passages of sparkling luminosity. The House of Eros opens gently and slowly, developing a theme with the sparest of textures, subtly increasing in strength before tailing off to a hush. From the opening phrases Kindertotenlied brings a sense of brooding tragedy as it develops through some remarkably fine passages before a broader conclusion.

A gentle motif alternates with a contrasting theme of more strength in Mana, with bell like sprung notes before a little rising motif is quietly developed in Hymn: Blue Dawn, finding a gentle little melody that slowly rises in strength, finding a confidence before falling back to a calm, hushed coda. Forget-me-not brings a two note rising and falling motif out of which a simple, quite lovely melody appears. It gains in texture and breadth, finding a sense of peace and settled contentment though with an unresolved chord at the end.

There are some very impressive works here that show a great emotional depth. The performances are all excellent and they are well recorded at a number of venues. 

There are informative notes but no texts are provided for O Ignis Spiritus that is sung in Latin and English. This is a fine showcase for Keeling’s compositional output.

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