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Brian ELIAS The House that Jack Built Hugh WOOD Scenes from Comus (Susan Gritton & Daniel Norman) DEBUSSY La Mer MOZART Violin Concerto No 2 (James Ehnes) BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis The Barbican 22 March 2002
Hugh WOOD Scenes from Comus and Symphony NMC D070 (PGW)

This was one of those programmes sure to keep away concertgoers of different persuasions and predictably it did not fill even the stalls. The concerto, with a reduced orchestra, introduced an excellent young violinist who had been heard in last year's Proms, and also confirmed that the improved Barbican acoustics, with silent background now, are fine for small scale orchestral and chamber music. La Mer had a run-of-the-mill outing, unsurprising with two demanding contemporary works to prepare.

Hugh Wood (b.1932) is a slow worker with a relatively small output. An opportunity to reconsider his early Scenes from Comus (1965) was welcome. It is a strange fantasia about a Lady abducted by a witch's son and an orgy, with passages for two singers, mostly carried by the large orchestra. Daniel Norman (substituting at short notice) sounded strained and dry in tone and was less attractive to listen to than Susan Gritton. The text (from a 17 C. Masque by Milton for the Earl of Bridgewater, originally with music by Henry Lawes) was difficult to hear and almost impossible to comprehend from the concert programme (you needed to absorb Calum MacDonald's introduction at the front as well as Nicholas Williams' note in the middle). It all came together however on the CD received subsequently, and I found Scenes from Comus better for home listening, helped by Stephen Walsh's explanatory notes in front of you, together with the Milton words. It is a splendid recording made at the BBC Maida Vale studio with nearly the same forces, apart from Geraldine McGreevy as 'The Lady' (the Earl's young daughter) and Daniel Norman in better voice than when I heard him in competition. 'Honest' balancing, with the soloists not artificially spotlit. Coupled with a fine account of Wood's trenchant and compact Symphony, this is a CD to acquire (NMC D070).

The chief attraction of the concert was the new work by Brian Elias (b.1948), another fastidious and meticulous composer, an intricate composition planned to be fast throughout, reflecting the 'rumbustiousness' of a children's playground and using the additive construction of the well known poem to create a substantial 20 mins piece. New music is often criticised for being slow and Elias set himself this challenge, which brought to mind a similar tour de vitesse, Colin Matthews' Suns Dance for London Sinfonietta. The House that Jack Built is both accessible and complex, with sparkling orchestration and rhythms which must tax the players' concentration. It should better have been given twice - repeated instead of La Mer. Perhaps Matthews, founder and Executive Producer of NMC Recordings, will consider recording it on that label?

Peter Grahame Woolf

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