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Mark-Anthony TURNAGE (b.1969)
A Constant Obsession [22:01]
Three for Two [10:20]
Four Chants [6:01]
A Slow Pavane [7:34]
Grazioso! [9:03]
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Chamber Domaine/Thomas Kemp
rec. 2011, Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford; St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London
RESONUS RES10106 [59:27]

The spirit of Benjamin Britten haunts Turnage’s 2007 song cycle, A Constant Obsession, in which each of the five songs sets words by five different English writers from different periods: Keats, Hardy, Thomas, Graves and Tennyson. And with Nicky Spence very much vocally stepping into the shoes of the great Britten interpreters of the past – Pears (at his prime), Tear and Langridge – as well as those of Mark Padmore (for whom Turnage originally wrote the work), the Britten connection is further reinforced. Turnage’s brilliant use of limited orchestral resources is superbly conveyed by Thomas Kemp, who balances his Chamber Domaine players with unerring perfection. The “Constant Obsession” of the title is the issue of unrequited love, and we might have, perhaps, expected a little more warmth and affection in some aspects of the performance, but there is also much to commend Spence’s sense of detachment from the emotional turmoil found in these texts.

Originally released as a download in 2011, Resonus have now issued this as a hard-copy CD release and for those who, like me, prefer their recorded music in solid, tangible form, this is a welcome addition to the Turnage discography, not least because, other than A Constant Obsession, we get to hear a number of his chamber works composed between 2004 and 2010. Three for Two dates is the most recent and was written to mark the 70th birthdays of both Steven Schaefer and Christoph Eschenbach. Among the “subtle musical reminders that this is a birthday piece” referred to in Kemp’s booklet note, is a heavily disguised reference to the “Happy Birthday” song in the piano theme of “Wish Two” (the second of the work’s three movements), and in the very opening of the Tango-infused “Wish Three”. Scored for piano quartet (Andrew West piano, Thomas Kemp violin, Nick Barr viola and Adrian Bradbury cello) the writing is both subtle and affectionate, and the players bring it very vividly to life in this exquisite recording.

Four Chants for violin and piano is an altogether more remote and, at times, desolate piece written in 2008. Interestingly, throughout the piece while Kemp expounds dark lyricism and moments of almost aggressive posturing on the violin, West brings out the conflicting humour of the piano part (Kemp writes that it “would not be out of place in a burlesque club” – although his idea of such an establishment is obviously very different from mine!). This dichotomy between the seriousness of the violin and the comic piano gives the work an unusual feeling of emotional ambiguity which is well conveyed in this decidedly laconic performance

The earliest piece on the disc was also written for a birthday – the 50th birthday of the Beaux Arts Trio - although A Slow Pavane might seem an inappropriate musical title for such a notable milestone. But, cleverly, Turnage’s music seems to chart an evolution which begins in darkness and builds to a fine climax. The writing is clearly aimed at highlighting the unique character of the Beaux Arts players, but this performance by members of Chamber Domaine offers an entirely convincing and persuasive interpretation on its own terms.

Grazioso! is an altogether more hard-edged, rhythmically-impelled and harmonically extreme work than the others, and at times it brings to mind Turnage’s early interest in Led Zeppelin. Grazioso! was written for an American contemporary music sextet, Eighth Blackbird, and employs many of the devices familiar from late Stravinsky as well as hints of contemporary jazz and rock music. The title, as its obligatory exclamation mark implies, is ironic, for this music is so full of nervous energy and driving momentum that in no way can it be described as “Grazioso”. The performance from Chamber Domaine is gloriously forthright and vivid, and while when he reviewed the download in 2012 Brian Wilson confessed that he was “a little slow to take new music on board”, those with less resistance to the music of our time will find that this piece provides a magnificent climax to a disc of real musical treasures.

Marc Rochester

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