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Jeff BEAL (b. 1962)
House of Cards Symphony [83:20]
House of Cards Fantasy for flute and orchestra [3:22]
Six Sixteen for guitar and chamber orchestra [14:28]
Canticle for string orchestra [6:27]
Concerto for Flute and Orchestra [23:23]
Sharon Bezaly (flute), Jason Vieaux (guitar)
Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra/Jeff Beal
rec. Louis De Geer Concert Hall, Norrköpping, Sweden, 2017
BIS BIS2299 SACD [83:20 + 49:03]

At the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, a member of the audience is said to have cried out: “I’d give a kreutzer if it were all over”. After listening to the 83 minutes of Jeff Beal’s House of Cards, I understand how he felt.

As a symphony, the ten movements of this straggling piece strike me as a mess. There are, to be sure, interesting and pleasing moments, and one can understand very well how audiences can enjoy the melodies and the expert instrumentation, but the lack of underlying structure and coherence undermines symphonic claims. Beal is not a Bruckner, Shostakovich or Mahler, capable of maintaining artistic intensity over such a span, but then, very few composers are. Yet, individual movements demonstrate a competence which suggests his talent lies in the shorter forms, an impression reinforced by the more than competent pieces on the – brief – second disc, much the more successful of the two.

Of course, it easy to understand why a composer would want to take the incidental music from a film or play, time- and action-constrained ideas, and develop them in more depth and complexity. Some of the themes are very attractive, if not as memorable as some of the truly great film themes, and they invite elaboration. It is not without precedent to do so, as Vaughan Williams demonstrated in his Sinfonia Antarctica, or Howard Shore in his Lord of the Rings Symphony. But the latter, despite its longer movements and greater development, still struggles to be more than an extended (but quite enjoyable) suite.
The second, and briefer, second CD is much more interesting. The House of Cards Fantasy is brief but technically demanding, based on themes from the TV show. Much more exciting is Six Sixteen, a charming concerto for guitar (6 strings) and chamber orchestra (16 strings). It is a lovely work and a more than useful addition to the guitar repertoire, Spanish-flavoured, easy on the ear, but demanding both attention and enjoyment. This is perhaps the most enjoyable and worthwhile piece in the entire collection.

Canticle works well as a meditative piece for strings. It pushes few boundaries but I found its relative simplicity very appealing. The Flute Concerto, like the Fantasy, demonstrates Sharon Bezaly’s formidable skills. The piece is energetic, eclectic in source material, attractive, but not, I found, particularly memorable, despite the evident craftsmanship.

Recording and productions standards are outstanding – splendidly clear (as one has grown to expect from BIS), whether heard in stereo or SACD.

Michael Wilkinson

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