Stephen MCNEFF (b.1951)
Orchestral Music
Sinfonia (2007) [15:33]
Heiligenstadt (2005) [13:34]
Weathers (2007) [16:26]
Secret Destinations (2005) [18:48]
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Dominic Wheeler
rec. Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, 24-25 July 2012
World premiere recordings
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7301 [64:48]
The name and music of Stephen McNeff was new to me. He was born in Belfast and grew up in South Wales. A product of the Royal Academy of Music, he won his spurs with his music for theatre – a line he pursued both in the UK and in Canada. He was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Composer in the House from 2005-2008. During this time he wrote some 25 works for the orchestra and its progeny ensembles. These four works derive from the clearly blessed period.
The Sinfonia is all fine pointillistic lyricism. It’s McNeff’s meaty response to a request for a concert-opener. What he delivered was a fifteen minute symphony in three movements. This sits lightly on the listener’s mind – a diaphanously lacy, singing endearment. It is in some measure a sort of companion to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony.
Heiligenstadt is made of sterner stuff and traces its origins to a request from Marin Alsop – who, this year, will become the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms – for a work to precede Beethoven’s Fifth. It has elements of collage with Beethovenian slivers and shrapnel inbuilt in collegiate synergy with McNeff’s often slowly evolving cantilena. While not as densely intricate I was reminded at times of Valentin Silvestrov’s Fifth Symphony.
Weathers is slightly longer than Sinfonia. It is scored for choir and orchestra and is in five segments – one for each of five Hardy poems. Its often jangling freshness, exuberant hail-rattled and gloriously large-scale writing for massed voices suggests links with William Mathias (This Worlde’s Joie), Geoffrey Bush (A Summer Serenade) and a little with Britten’s Spring Symphony. At Day Close in November comes as a caressing emollient after the rush and rasp of She Hears the Storm. The final poem Domicilium operates as a valedictory sigh rather than as a great exclamation. The words are to be had as a download from the Dutton site.
The final triptychal work is Secret Destinations - a tombeau for the Cornish poet Charles Causley (1917-2003). The last time I encountered Causley’s words in a musical context was with Michael Head’s Cornish song-cycle, As I went down Zig-Zag. This McNeff work is not a setting of the words but an evocation of the poet written by a friend. Rushing the Stone Horizon is unruly with vitality and hoarse with grandeur. It is riven with jazzy upheavals which also carry over into the middle movement, Sfumato. Eden Rock is the finale – it closes as in an unhurriedly unfolding phantasmal dream with Causley touchingly reunited in death with his parents in their ripe twenties picnicking beside the river. You can read the poem here.
The complementary notes are by Andrew Burn and supply us with useful information to enrich the experience.
These world première recordings of McNeff’s bejewelled music are conducted by Dominic Wheeler - a staunch advocate of McNeff’s music. The sound is superbly put across by the Dutton engineers. 

Rob Barnett

Pointillistic lyricism, jangling freshness, hail-rattled and gloriously large-scale music.

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