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Face to Face
Stephen PLEWS (b. 1961)
The Future of an Illusion [18:11]
Geoffrey KIMPTON (b. 1927)
Concerto for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (2000)a [23:02]
Kevin MALONE (b. 1958)
Eighteen Minutes (2002)b [19:42]
Andy Long (violin)a; David Heyes; Dan Styffe (double bass)b;
New World Ensemble/Alan Cuckston, Kevin Malone
rec. United Reformed Church, Macclesfield, May 2006
CAMPION CAMEO 2049 [62:55]

Experience Classicsonline

Hubert Culot's review elsewhere on these pages had me eager with anticipation, having described the slow movement of Stephen Plews' The Future of an Illusion as "one of the most moving musical elegies that I have ever heard." Having heard some of his other compositions, I was less surprised than I might have been by the colourful jazz chords which punctuate the first movement of this piece, which in some ways can be heard as a highly extended prelude to that central elegy. Indeed, the entire piece has an intended chronological pathway - that of "an existential biography of an imaginary soul, from birth to death through a terminal illness." I can't say I was particularly moved by the work, even with this added associational narrative. While the idea of 'a life' in music is an interesting one, my mind tends to jump around too much, asking if, in fact, it was an imaginary life worth living - so much melancholy, so little solid engagement with worldly emotions - too much self-involved moping around. It might have been more convincing if the more energetic material had appeared as the central movement, the 'elegy' being representative of the final resignation of old age and spiritual discovery. This might have worked, in place of the more imposed 'Possibility of hope' aspect we're encouraged to hear in the music. Don't get me wrong, I don't actively dislike this piece, but I do believe programmatic content of an existential nature has either to be dealt with on a different plane, or preferably be left to the listener's imagination.

The solo violin really has very little to do in The Future of an Illusion, but opens Geoffrey Kimpton's Concerto for Violin and Chamber Orchestra with a fine solo cadenza. Inspired by the poems of Kathleen Raine, this is another work with at least some extra-musical associations, and these the composer hints at through the titles of each movement, unfortunately not given in the booklet or liner. Like Plews, Kimpton's idiom is essentially romantic, though while his language is less involved with lush added notes both works seem to share a stop-start difficulty with really getting 'off the ground' in some way. There are some cinematic, illustrative passages which clearly have some programmatic content, but nothing hangs around long enough to develop into a 'big tune', or something upon which you can hang your hat and say, 'ah, this is good.' But, I hear you say, Janacek did similar things and he's one of your favourite composers. Yes, I answer, but with a rhythmic verve and quirkiness of language which plants other worlds onto your psyche like a rich but itchy robe, rather than just occasionally wafting it in your general direction like an incense stick hidden at the back of an exotic restaurant. Much of this piece is like a pleasant walk in a well manicured rose garden: a lovely experience with one or two prickles, but essentially something which is no more likely to remain with you in the longer term than the bus ride home afterwards.

Kevin Malone's Eighteen Minutes comes in at 19:42 in this recording, highlighting the risks of giving works durational titles, unless it's 4:33. In fact, the piece is a dramatic commentary on the events of September 11th 2001, with the vocal patterns of some of the recorded statements of witnesses at the time. To labour a reference, Janacek was one to use the rhythms of voices and language in his work, but in this case I was reminded more of Steve Reich's work in this area, though his voices tend to appear as explicit samples as well as musical shapes. Literal references like the wails of sirens appear, and the double-bass has an extended solo closely following the rise and fall of voice patterns. A quote from Tchaikovsky's 'Elegy for Strings' is cleverly incorporated, and while some of the more heart-on-sleeve musical statements can sit a little less easily against some of those of a more powerful origin this is a fair technique to be applied - especially when those melodies are strained through the unnatural and always uneasy 'singing voice' of the double-bass. From Penderecki's Threnody to Bartók's Divertimento and many others, the string orchestra seems eminently suited to expressing human anguish and emotion. While as previously mentioned, Malone's work has more of the strange disembodiment of Different Trains than the sheer jaw-grinding grip of something like Martinü's Double Concerto, it is in my opinion very much the strongest piece on this disc.

The New World Ensemble plays well enough in these pieces, maintaining an intimate, chamber-music feel to the music, more often than not bringing off some of the more tricky corners and keeping intonation as tight as can be with reduced forces of strings. Andy Long's solo violin is very capable, and the recorded balance is good, if not, I suspect, entirely free of a little acoustic manipulation somewhere along the line. Double-bass intonation is always a hit and miss affair when it comes to solos, but both David Heyes and Dan Styffe do very well with the speech-pattern shapes of Eighteen Minutes. If you are looking to go beyond the well beaten paths of more commonly recorded material than this is an interesting cul-de-sac to delve into: I doubt much of it will be appearing anywhere else soon.

Dominy Clements

see also review by Hubert Culot





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