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David Hackbridge JOHNSON (b. 1963)
Orchestral Music – Volume 1
Symphony No. 9 in C sharp minor, Op. 295 (2012) [49:04]
Communion Antiphon No. 14, Op. 359 (2016) [5:33]
Motet No. 2, Op. 257 (2009) [13:17]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul Mann
rec. 2016, The Friary, Everton, Liverpool

Described as ‘one of the best-kept secrets in music’, David Hackbridge Johnson is emerging as a composer of symphonic music after many years as a performer, playing classical violin, jazz piano and drums. Hardly anyone pops out of obscurity without some track record, and David’s music has been performed by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, at numerous performances resulting from being made a short-listed composer for the Society for the Promotion of New Music in 2001 and elsewhere. Having symphonies taken up, performed and recorded is another level however, and this first volume from the Toccata Classics label promises to deliver an entirely new British compositional voice to international recognition.

The Symphony No. 9 in C sharp minor, Op. 295 was written within four months in 2012, “one of those pieces clamouring to get out… I had a blueprint, the properties of which said ‘C sharp minor’, and I had lived with it for many years.” With a clear structure in mind which to a certain extent draws on models from Bax and Shostakovich, this is a remarkable musical edifice that keeps us in its thrall for nearly 50 minutes, which is no mean feat for any composer.

This is music that pulls no punches, but should hold no terrors for enthusiasts already familiar with the symphonies of Sir Michael Tippett, Sir Malcolm Arnold and others. Hints of Holst, Stravinsky and others can be identified, but this is no stylistic pastiche, more a voice that shares a comparable idiom and therefore inevitably throws up moments of quasi-familiarity. The symphony shares with these masters an acute ear for effective and colourful orchestration, but the musical material is also strong enough to stand up without the feeling that chunks could be removed without weakening the work as a whole. Less craggy and unyielding than Robert Simpson, this is by no means ‘easy listening’, but nor does it hide behind obscure abstraction. The first movement is a fifteen-minute span of restless change and intense orchestral interaction, its character broken by moments of quiet magic, but with climaxes in which the brass section is given a true workout.

Both of the following movements end with a passacaglia, the central movement being a set of rather delicious variations. These allow for plenty of compositional muscle-flexing and built in contrast, most of the nine being short but connected musical vignettes, some with a feel of deep affection, others exploring realms of mystery or quiet drama. There is a hint of Messiaen in the block brass chords and persistent winds of Variation 7, and as David mentions in the booklet, the first passacaglia leaves questions unanswered.

The final movement has something of Stravinsky in the rhythms from about two minutes in, the marking vivace energico taking nothing away from the sense of detail in the orchestration, and there are in fact few moments where the entire orchestra is in full cry. The second passacaglia, like the first, opens with low harp notes that call Benjamin Britten to mind. With its Andante dolente marking this becomes a slow procession, building to a powerful climax and a deeply satisfying end to a remarkable symphonic experience.

The Communion Antiphon No. 14, Op. 359 is subtitled ‘St Boniface, Whitechapel’, a place where David gathered early music experiences sitting in the organ loft. A piece that is “one of a series that explores [the] stillness and drama” of the communion antiphon at Mass, the bells a clear feature of a strikingly atmospheric work. The non-liturgical Motet No. 2, Op. 257 is also part of a series, with eleven written so far. There are definite hints of Stravinsky to be heard in the early minutes of this piece, but it is a finely crafted and dramatic close to this first volume of a highly promising project.

Performances and recording for this release are excellent. Reviewing recordings is in general something of a privilege, but the procession of new recordings of old repertoire can become a little disheartening at times, as can the procession of new but, let’s be honest, easily disposable music. All compositional voices have their value to someone, but that of David Hackbridge Johnson will soon join those of an increasingly rare breed – craftsmen of skill and unique ability in the complex genre of orchestral and symphonic work on a large scale. This composer’s canvas is not only big, but is also a trampoline with the artist performing some breathtaking shapes. From here on, as far as I’m concerned, the only way is up.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Nick Barnard



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