An Eventful Morning in East London: 21st Century Violin Concertos
Paul PATTERSON (b. 1947)
Allusions, for Two Solo Violins and Strings (2007) [19:17]
Deborah PRITCHARD (b. 1977)
Wall of Water ‒ Violin Concerto (2014) [21:07]
David MATTHEWS (b. 1943)
Romanza for Solo Violin and String Orchestra (2012) [10:49]
Robert FOKKENS (b. 1975)
An Eventful Morning Near East London ‒ Violin Concerto (2006) [13:12]
Emily DOOLITTLE (b. 1972)
falling still for Violin and Strings (2001) [5:09]
Harriet Mackenzie (violin)
Philippa Mo (violin: Patterson)
English String Orchestra
English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods (Fokkens)
rec. LSO St Luke’s, London, October 2014 (Pritchard); Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, January 2017 (other works)
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6295 [69:41]
“In some ways it could be said these works have nothing in common”, Harriet Mackenzie writes, disarmingly, in the booklet accompanying her new disc. That is true in the sense that the compilation does not have an overarching theme of the kind so beloved of modern marketing people. Nevertheless there is nothing incoherent or slapdash about it. All five composers represented are now based in Britain (Robert Fokkens hails from South Africa and Emily Doolittle from Canada); together, their contributions are a valuable conspectus of concertante works for violin composed here since the turn of the millennium; and they all share a mixture of craftsmanship, approachability and ready expressiveness that makes the listener feel decidedly encouraged about the current state of contemporary music. Not least, all five composers ‒ as well as the conductor Kenneth Woods and violinist Philippa Mo ‒ enjoy ongoing, productive collaborations with Mackenzie herself. That surely is justification enough for her wanting to celebrate their works and make them more readily available.
Another link between at least some of the pieces is that they find inspiration in existing, sometimes extra-musical material. The Allusions referred to in the title of Paul Patterson’s work are to Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro; Deborah Pritchard’s Wall of Water “responds to” Maggi Hambling’s identically named sequence of oil paintings; and Robert Fokkens’s Eventful Morning Near East London is based on an idea for a “musical happening” by Christopher Hobbs.
That said, all of these works are more than effective in their own right, as what used to be called “absolute” music. I was unaware of the precise operatic inspirations of Allusions until after I had heard it – though the repeated echoes of the overture to Figaro in its third movement are immediately obvious. Nevertheless I found that the piece worked very well simply as a double violin concerto in the broad tradition of English music for strings. The lively and witty first movement, subtitled ‘False Impressions’, is at least as reminiscent of, say, early Britten as it is of late Verdi, and moreover shows an indebtedness to the concerto grosso genre in its close integration of solo and orchestral parts. The ‘falseness’ of the expectations this movement generates then becomes obvious in the Don Giovanni-inspired slow movement, ‘Mindscape’, whose haunting textures make it plain that the consciousness being depicted is a complex and troubled one. Finally, the world of comic opera returns in spades in the presto finale, which, however, is far from frothily lightweight: the subtitle ‘Beneath the Surface’ points accurately to the fact that, in Patterson’s music also, things are not always what they initially seem.
The other more substantial piece – at least in terms of length – is Deborah Pritchard’s Wall of Water. Initially I felt disappointed that the – in every other respect exemplary – booklet does not reproduce any of the Maggi Hambling pictures which inspired Pritchard (though they are readily accessible online). In time I decided that such frustration was misguided. After all, Wall for Water is also explicitly called a Violin Concerto, and one listens in vain for the very direct representations of H2O found in, say, Debussy’s La Mer or Bridge’s The Sea. Certainly the music recalls water in the general sense of sounding by turns playful, refreshing, stormy, even rainy; but it is also a tripartite concerto capable of holding its place in the repertoire on those more abstract terms. True, its form is unorthodox: it begins with a (lightly) accompanied violin cadenza, from which it develops an agitated central section and to which it eventually returns. But Pritchard’s processes are genuinely symphonic, and this makes her work far more sophisticated and interesting than a more directly pictorial approach would have done.
Meanwhile the distance between the external trigger for the eponymus An Eventful Morning Near East London and Robert Fokkens’s music is, if anything, still greater. Fokkens was inspired by Hobbs’s suggestion, in his Scratch Music, that an event be organized in which “a piano is driven past in a boat… as fast as possible”. He then imagined this event as taking place “on the hazardously cattle-infested stretch of the N2 motorway between East London and Umata in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province”. Well, the music does not feature a piano or come across as particularly African – though it does contain occasional sounds that one could construe as bovine in character. Rather, Fokkens’s piece begins with a markedly original slow section for violin in alt (Harriet Mackenzie describes its violin part as occupying “nose-bleeding territories”), accompanied by a variety of most interesting colours in the percussion section. This latter feature, along with some of Fokkens’s later woodwind writing, is particularly effective in the context of a CD which for the most part contains music written only for strings. When, eventually, his piece develops and expands, it does so by means of a consciously ponderous march which recalls not any form of piano-shifting, but rather a funeral procession ‒ in which the Dies irae chant so beloved of, in particular, Rachmaninov, makes repeated appearances. Overall one could say that Fokkens’s concerto is the strangest, least immediately accessible piece on show here; but it is very far from obscure or rebarbative, and seems likely to me to repay repeated attentive listening.
The two remaining works on the disc are both winningly beautiful. David Matthews’s Romanza is described by Mackenzie as “Mahlerian”, and that is true, at least to the extent that it makes extensive use of a waltz redolent of the somewhat decadent cultural atmosphere of late Romantic Central Europe. Emily Doolittle’s falling still, meanwhile, recalls Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending in using the solo violin to reflect the patterns of bird song, here set against the lower orchestral strings’ representation of “cyclical, inanimate sounds like wind, rain, or waves”. Inevitably, falling still cannot match the sheer radiant loveliness of that great predecessor, but it is an arresting, economical and richly imaginative work of some profundity. It is also a very good piece with which to end the disc, not least because its conclusion comes across as provisional and unexpected – thereby reflecting the listener’s own sense of wanting to hear more, both of these composers and of their interpreters.
Those interpreters are consistently superb. Mackenzie’s playing is virtuosic and assured, and she very obviously believes in these pieces and their ability to communicate powerfully to modern audiences. Kenneth Woods’s accompaniments similarly combine commitment and polish, and the recording quality is vivid. All in all, this entirely excellent issue deserves to attract many
listeners, and one hopes very much that it will do so.