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David BEDFORD (1937-2011)
Alleluia Timpanis (1976) [9:14]
Symphony No. 1 (1984) [16:58]
Recorder Concerto (1994) [15:25]
Twelve Hours of Sunset (1974) [34:25]
Piers Adams (recorders)
Crouch End Festival Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jac van Steen, Martyn Brabbins
rec. 1997, BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London

Remember the Decca Headline label? A landmark in the mid-late 1970s, it had but little purchase on the market. It was esoteric and did not go for any easy jugulars. In that sense it occupied the promontories held by the Decca-Argo label's Gulbenkian-backed releases of the 1960s. The music selected included several recordings later reissued on CD by Explore: Henze, Gerhard, Panufnik and 1970s brass band. Decca Headline LP HEAD 3 came out in 1974 and included David Bedford's Tentacles of the Dark Nebula.  Perhaps it was Peter Pears' voice but I took nothing positive away from that encounter, even in the companion and less avant-garde Ronsard Sonnets by Lennox Berkeley; the other work was Lutosławski's Paroles Tissées: That was then …. Since that time a gradual dawning has been taking place so far as my appreciation of Bedford is concerned: I have greatly appreciated Song of the White Horse and Star Clusters, Nebulae and Places in Devon (review review), Two Poems and Music for Albion Moonlight.

Quite apart from these works, this student of Lennox Berkeley and Luigi Nono moved unselfconsciously between the 'classical' and pop/rock worlds. He wrote educational music for young players as well as for wind band and also benefited from the BBC's attention. The Corporation celebrated his work in various programmes associated with his 'key' birthdays. I discovered some of those broadcasts when transferring recordings off some elderly tape reels onto CDR and these included Of stars, dreams and symbols, Symphony No. 1 and The Valley Sleeper, the Children, the Snakes and the Giant.

NMC's Bedford CD further stirs the interest. Alleluia Timpanis for orchestra is grindingly declamatory, mysterious, spacious and jolly in a very English way. The music then falls apart in a groaning and tramping whirlwind. This was written for Leicestershire Schools S.O. Symphony No. 1 is in three movements and was an RLPO commission. The first movement is turbulent but fades to a distant keening of the violins before collecting itself for a spinning scherzo-like minimalist man-hunt; an ostinato conclusion sounding like Glass out of Sibelius. The first movement, which achieves an air of climactic success but fades once more into that distant keening leads seamlessly into the middle movement. It is longer than the other two movements combined. The middle movement is like a drifting into space and then a momentary glimpse of noisy chaos. The "finale" achieves a dancing pattern rather like the Alleluia. Its finale uses a rhythmic pattern in a way that suggests Elmer Bernstein's The Magnificent Seven. The Symphony was premiered by the RLPO conducted by Andrew Litton. Rather like Giles Swayne's Little Symphony this will speak directly to listeners without academe's diffusing screen.

The Recorder Concerto is in five, continuously played, movements. The chattering first contrasts the chatter with Piers Adams' bubbling and liquid recorder. That irresistible repetition is picked up in Movement 2 with an accelerating anxiety which the cool of the recorder serves to nurse. The instrument's melodic ideas soon take wing and spread a kind of healing. In movement 4 the sprinting flight has less of anxiety about it than exhilaration but at the end this gives way to pensive undulation. The finale starts slow but soon rushes to a heart-warming flight and ultimately an undanceably fast jig. You are left in no doubt that this is a lyrical work which keeps faith with the recorder’s "grain". Astonishing playing by Piers Adams.

Twelve Hours of Sunset is for mixed choir and orchestra to a text by Roy Harper. Its 35 minutes are uninterrupted by a pause or track change. The work starts in a coaxing, almost Delian warmth - a cocooned blanket of warmth - as so often with Bedford and he does it well. From this glow arises the Crouch End Festival Chorus melting comfortingly into the sound-picture. The words are printed in the booklet. These recount the experience of a long flight travelling against the direction of the earth's rotation and where the sun's motion is retarded to the point where it is seen as static. The music seems to snare the sense of immobile time. At about ten minutes in the choir's singing criss-crosses and becomes a complex web rather like the spoken choral intervention in Holst's Hymn of Jesus. This moves into a long pecked-out vocal ascent. Replaced by purely orchestral pages, the music slowly and smilingly rises until a string pizzicato enters. It's rather like one of those conspiratorial Hovhaness dances. The choir appears again and they are borne upwards by concordant contributions from the orchestra. Its temperate oratory takes over the finale in affirmative clamorous triumph which, at peak, is emphasised by the rapturous choir: Howells' Hymnus Paradisi writ large. The choir further assets itself and the music boils away in a gentle Penderecki-like sway into silence.

Quite apart from the substantive merits of Bedford's music, here was a composer who knew how to spin a zany or attention-grabbing title: When I Heard the Learned Astronomer; A Horse, His Name Was Hunry Fencewaver Walkins; Pancakes, with Butter, Maple Syrup and Bacon and the TV Weatherman; Twelve Hours of Sunset; The Golden Wine is Drunk; Of Beares, Foxes and Many, Many Wonders; A Dream of the Seven Lost Stars; That White and Radiant Legend; Nurse's Song with Elephants; With 100 Kazoos and Some Stars Above Magnitude 2.9. I wish I had heard or could hear some or all of these. Does anyone out there have a Bedford collection, I wonder? It's a journey of discovery that I would like to take further and would rather avoid using YouTube.

The NMC essays on the composer and the works themselves are by Bedford himself.

A welcoming and non-intimidating experience and one that monopolises the attention.

Rob Barnett


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