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Gary CARPENTER (b. 1951)
Fred and Ginger (2011) [4:29]
SET, concerto for tenor saxophone and orchestra (2013) [23:00]
Willie Stock (2016) [11:12]
Love’s Eternity (1992) [12:11]
Dadaville (2015) [7:10]
Iain Ballamy (tenor saxophone)
Sophie Hastings (drumkit)
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
RLPO/ Clark Rundell; Andrew Manze
rec. 2018, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK
Full texts for Love’s Eternity included

For an individual who was effectively the musical director (at the age of 21) on the fabled movie The Wicker Man (a film that is arguably celebrated these days as much for its music as anything else) Gary Carpenter’s representation in the catalogue is meagre to say the least. NMC released a fine portrait disc of ensemble works (and a piece for solo clavichord) a decade or so ago (Die Flimmerkiste, on NMCD 111) but this is the first disc to focus exclusively on his orchestral music.

I very much enjoyed reading Carpenter’s own wry introductions to these five very diverse pieces. His words project great warmth and humility, and these qualities are abundant throughout this album. As befits someone who has found success in a host of different genres, including opera, musical theatre, radio drama, film music and ballet, there is a true craftsman’s confidence and precision at the heart of his work. His assimilation of the stylistic features of so many different forms of expression is certainly impressive, but what will be most attractive to the listener will be Carpenters’s skill as an orchestrator; it is utterly natural and is projected in every bar of these five works. Carpenter has compositional flair to burn, but at no stage is there a suggestion of ‘showing off’. If his orchestrations are colourful, unusual and atmospheric, he also has a fine ear for a tune, and conveys a lightness of touch which consistently filters out the potentially ‘cheesy’. At the same time the sounds he conjures gently hint at contexts or moods without ever descending into the obvious.

Thus in the brief opener Fred and Ginger, a brilliant synthesis of Hollywood glitz and serial abstraction, the spirit of 1930s RKO musicals (Carpenter specifically references Top Hat in the notes) is skilfully evoked with velvet textures that are touched by the essence of dance on the one hand and by Schoenberg (one of Hollywood’s most famous, if unlikely residents) on the other. It conveys svelte confidence and swagger alongside something darker, even sinister – perhaps pointing to the tears and tantrums that allegedly punctuated the fractious relationship between Astaire and Rogers. Carpenter writes wonderfully for muted brass, and Fred and Ginger fizzes along with a breeziness that is by turn fluent and tentative. It is delightfully ambiguous.

As an unashamed nostalgist, I was especially taken with the longest work on this disc, the tenor saxophone concerto SET which Carpenter wrote for the eminent jazz master Iain Ballamy, a practitioner renowned for his improvisational skills which are put to optimum use here– as Carpenter eloquently puts it “…you don’t get a Lamborghini to do the weekly shop!”. The titles of each of its five movements refer to 1950s British television, although they act merely as creative triggers, rather than literal subject matter. Thus SET is not ‘about’ television nostalgia per se. While he doesn’t mention it in his notes I wonder if the depths of Carpenter’s buried childhood memories are at work here, especially in the playful dance moves of the third movement Footso, which refers to the gawkily-pawed feline companion of Twizzle, the eponymous hero of a long forgotten Gerry Anderson animated puppet show of the time. Ballamy conjures a suitably damp, smoky vibe in the second movement You’re Never Alone…which nods to the ancient ad for Strand fags (3s 2d for 20!), a TV moment which is the epitome of Noir. His playing approaches romantic and wistful in the fourth panel Love and Kisses, which concludes with a be-bop infused improvised cadenza which segues into the rather sleazy groove of In Blue Fox. Carpenter’s orchestration is masterly and engaging throughout as is the sense of propulsion and drive in the faster movements. Quite apart from Ballamy’s outstanding playing there is a superb turn on the drums from Sophie Hastings.

Willie Stock was Carpenter’s uncle, a rifleman who perished in his twenties at the second Battle of the Somme. He is commemorated in this World War 1 memorial piece which takes his name, in which the composer handles a huge orchestra with the utmost delicacy and restraint. It also pays oblique reference to Alban Berg in terms of the use of coded motifs, and in its number of bars, (a multiple of Berg’s ‘unlucky’ number, 23) but all of that is clever technical detail and ultimately unnecessary for an appreciation of the music. Willie Stock is a fascinatingly complex, moving tribute which builds inexorably from its quiet opening bugle calls into something more restless, questioning and disturbing. If its textures and flavours evoke Berg, its melodic and harmonic material is more recognisably Carpenter’s. The sinuous woodwind and brass lines that haunt the work are recognisably elegiac yet oddly sun-dappled. It is a touching, atmospheric tribute.

Equally affecting is the song cycle Love’s Eternity, which was originally written for a 1992 radio monologue about the demise of the poet Robert Browning and features five settings of love poems by his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Carpenter orchestrated the original piano versions for the golden-voiced Liverpool-born mezzo Kathryn Rudge especially for this disc; she performs them here with her local orchestra. I last heard this intelligent, probing singer on a fine Hyperion collection of songs by Donald Swann. Her communication of the English language is exemplary–Barrett Browning’s words aren’t exactly tailored for the modern singer - and Carpenter is fortunate indeed to have found another perfect advocate for his art. Robert Browning was a huge admirer of Schumann and the latter’s spirit somehow hovers around these five numbers- the concluding song Reunion is a Barrett Browning translation of Schumann’s beloved Heine. As the composer asserts, these poems are as much haunted by the trappings of Death as they are fascinated by the essence of Love, and they reveal Carpenter to be as expert in his sensitive treatment of language as one might expect from a composer of six operas and five musicals. He also draws a bewildering variety of sounds from the reduced orchestra.

The disc concludes with another short orchestral showpiece Dadaville, inspired by Carpenter’s personal impressions of Max Ernst’s relief of the same name and premiered at the First Night of the Proms in 2015. While it begins in a quiet, eerie place, it swiftly becomes perky (highlighting the two notes that begin Mahler’s First?), even agitated, and at times Carpenter’s arrangement is searingly visceral with thrilling brass and percussion. The baritone sax makes a telling contribution in its last couple of minutes before a denouement whereby the two ‘Mahler’ notes that open the work seem to briefly ‘become’ the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth. Like all the pieces here it is performed with gimlet precision and palpable enthusiasm by a fastidiously drilled RLPO, conducted by Clark Rundell, who also conducted the Ensemble 10/10 on the NMC Carpenter portrait I mentioned earlier.

Given that the disc is less than an hour long there is a dizzying amount to take in here. The Nimbus Alliance engineers (Richard Scott, Phil Hardman and Yufeng Zhang) have provided a warm, natural ambience for these richly detailed pieces. It is to be hoped that the disc triggers more interest in a composer who is something of a hidden treasure of the English scene, another native master who is arguably (and perplexingly) more celebrated abroad than at home. His appealing and deeply communicative music deserves the widest currency.

Richard Hanlon

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