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Wandering Pathways - Variations for Recorder and Strings
John Turner (recorders)
Jonathan Price (cello)
Richard Tunnicliffe (gamba)
Harvey Davies (harpsichord)
Camerata Ensemble & The Manchester Chamber Ensemble/Richard Howarth
New World Ensemble/Andy Long
All tracks previously released; dates not given

This CD is a celebration of the centenary of the American conductor, composer and author Leonard Bernstein. Prima Facie has reissued his Variations on an Octatonic Scale for recorder and cello (1988/1989) along with an interesting selection of music by other composers, including John McCabe, Alun Hoddinott, Robert Crawford and David Ellis. I note the source CD of each work aAt the end of my review .

The opening track features one of the last works composed by Bernstein. The piece was written as a gift for Helena, daughter of the film and television director Humphrey Burton, a competent recorderist. The world premiere of the Variations on an Octatonic Scale was given at St. Catherine's Church, Port Erin, Isle of Man on 2 July 1997. The soloists were John Turner, recorder and Jonathan Price, cello. The theme was derived from Bernstein’s 1974 ballet score Dybbuk (the same ‘tune’ was later used in the composer’s 1989 Concerto for Orchestra: Jubilee Games). It is a fascinating little piece that explores some of the furthest reaches of recorder technique, including flutter-tonguing, low registers and overblowing.

Peter Hope’s Fantasia on John Dowland’s ‘Flow my Tears’ (2011) is interesting. It is a timeless work that is well-able to counterpoint the original instrumental sound of Dowland with something more astringent from the 21st century – and points between. There is even a rapturous jig. But the surprise twist is the introduction of a blues-inspired middle section. Somehow all this stylistic diversity holds together and creates a memorable piece of music that is faithful to Dowland’s original lament and the vicissitudes of our own day. Instrumentally, the work makes use of descant, treble and tenor recorders which test the soloist to the extreme. A little masterpiece.

I did wish that Robert Crawford’s Variations on a Ground for recorder and string quartet went on longer that its four and a half minutes. Based on a six-bar ‘ground-bass’ formed from all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, this is a work that exudes invention and is a masterclass in the musical development of his ‘theme’. These Variations, originally written in 1993 for recorder and piano, were dedicated to John Turner and Peter Lawson. The piece was reworked in 2012 in the present arrangement, and premiered at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh on 29 October 2013. This is a challenging work, both intense in its working-out and deeply lyrical. It was to be Crawford’s last completed piece.

Every year John Turner sends a ‘musical’ Christmas card to his friends and colleagues: it is an event that I always look forward to. And Xmas treat is literally the score of a carol printed on the card, with Seasonal Greetings! In fact, a CD from Divine Art (dda 25161) issued last year features many of these remarkable carols. David Beck took the tune of one of these, and reinvented it as Carol Variations for recorder and harpsichord. This was soon followed by the present version featuring string quartet. It is a lovely little piece that begins and ends with the composer’s harmonisation of the tune. In-between, there are five charming variations including a beautiful ‘siciliano’. The work was completed in 2011.

Alun Hoddinott’s Lizard Variants was inspired by a poem of Gwyn Thomas. It is written for solo recorder. This piece, written in a complex arch form, explores a wide variety of instrumental techniques and effects from the soloist. It was composed in 1998 in honour of Sir John Manduell’s 70th birthday. It is a demanding tour de force. The poem was the inspiration for three further works by Hoddinott: Lizard for piano (1997), the song cycle Tymhorau (Seasons) op. 155b and Lizard: concerto for orchestra, op. 181 (2003).

David Ellis is a composer who deserves more recognition. The few works that I have heard, including Symphony No. 1, are impressive and interesting. The Elegiac Variations, op.66 for recorder, viola and cello, written in 2001, is a case in point. This is a set of highly contrasting variations that exhibit intensity and depth of feeling. Written in ternary form, its middle section is vivacious whilst the opening and closing music is true to the title. They were written for John Turner.

A few months ago, I reviewed Peter Dickinson’s imaginative ‘Translations’ for recorder, gamba and harpsichord (1971) (review). This is a challenging piece devised specifically for David Munrow. Most often associated with early music, Munrow was keen to promote contemporary works for early instruments. I noted in my review that I am not a passionate early music enthusiast – I like my Bach played on the piano, rather than the clavichord or harpsichord! On the other hand, Dickinson’s eclectic take on the medium is right up my street. Look out for the avant-garde tropes of the late sixties and seventies lining up with pop melodies, jazz and even rock riffs. It is my favourite piece of ‘early music’!

I would not normally associate John McCabe with the ‘cow and gate’ movement in music. Certainly, I would not have expected a Meditation on a Norfolk Ballad. Yet, all is not quite as pastoral as the title would suggest. True, the music is based on deconstructed phrases from the folksong The Captain’s Apprentice which was collected in Norfolk by Vaughan Williams in the early years of the 20th century and used effectively in that composer’s Norfolk Rhapsody. McCabe has created a penetrating score that underlies the tragedy of the death of the apprentice, the subsequent mutiny of the crew and the inevitable justice to the ship’s captain. This is not just a setting of the folk-tune, but a complex representation of the musical material: it creates a deeply felt miniature tone-poem. The work deserves to be better known.

The oldest piece on this disc is Richard Arnell’s Quintet ‘The Gambian’. It dates from around the time that The Gambia gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. Apparently, the Reverend John Faye, High Commissioner, sang a tune which was written down by Arnell and then entered in a competition for a new national anthem. They lost. The Quintet uses this ‘improvised’ tune as the theme. The Quintet (recorder and string quartet) opens with a rhapsodic introduction, followed by a set of variations and concluding with a chorale. It is a particularly attractive work that belies its prosaic genesis.

The most remarkable work on this CD is the final track: David Forshaw’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird for recorder and string quartet. I understand that it was originally written in 1996 for recorder and piano and was subsequently transcribed for recorder and string quartet around 2000. Poetry aficionados will guess that the inspiration for the work is derived from American poet Wallace Stevens’s (spelt Stephens in the liner notes) poem of the same title. The liner notes explain that the music is not an ‘attempt to imitate the song of the blackbird’ nor is it divided into 13 sections. The composer has not totted up the songs to ensure a baker’s dozen have been sung. The title is merely ‘a catalyst to the development of the music’. This is an ebullient work which explores a ‘random placement of differing musical cells’ evoking, rather than creating, a scientific recording of birdsong.

As always, John Turner plays this music with enthusiasm, sensitivity and technical brilliance. The members of the Camerata Ensemble and The Manchester Chamber Ensemble (both directed by Richard Howarth) and New World Ensemble (led by Andy Long) make a splendid contribution to these works. The recording is ideal. The most helpful liner notes are assembled by John Turner, presumably from the original CD releases. They provide a brief note on each composer and their contribution to this disc. The only downside to this CD is the track-listing on the rear cover. This is very difficult to read, due to the use of white text on a variegated background.

John Turner is dedicated to promoting recorder music of all eras, but he is specially to be commended for his sterling achievement in introducing many modern works to the repertoire. Wandering Pathways is a splendid collection of music that will interest, amuse, move and satisfy listeners who enjoy this unique instrument.

John France

Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990) Variations on an Octatonic Scale for recorder and cello (1988/1989) [5:37]
Peter HOPE (b. 1930) Fantasia on John Dowland’s ‘Flow my Tears’ for recorder and string quartet (2011) [9:22]
Robert CRAWFORD (1925-2012): Variations on a Ground for recorder and string quartet (1993/2012) [4:34]
David BECK (b. 1941) Carol Variations for recorder and string quartet (2011) [7:37]
Alun HODDINOTT (1929-2008) Lizard: Variants, op. 166 no. 2 for solo recorder (1998) [5:42]
David ELLIS (b. 1933) Elegiac Variations, op. 66 for recorder, viola and cello (2001) [3:25]
Peter DICKINSON (b. 1934) Translations for recorder, gamba and harpsichord (1971) [11:56]
John MCCABE (1939-2015) Meditation on a Norfolk Ballad for recorder and string quartet (2013) [3:59]
Richard ARNELL (1917-2009) Quintet (The Gambian), op. 107 for recorder and string quartet (1966) [8:28]
David FORSHAW (b. 1938) Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird for recorder and string quartet (1996/2000) [8:47]
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Olympia OCD710: Bernstein, Ellis, Arnell and Forshaw.
The Nostalgic Recorder, PFCD037: Hope and McCabe.
The Proud Recorder, PFCD038: Crawford.
Flights of Fancy, PFCD011: Beck.
Fantasising, Campion Cameo 2038: Hoddinott.
Translations, PFCD077: Dickinson.
The exact dates of the recordings are not included in the present CD packaging.


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