Gordon CROSSE (b. 1937)
On the Shoreline
On the Shoreline for recorder and string septet (2016) [12:52]
Piano Trio (1985/6) [25:40]
Piano Sonata No.1 (2013/14) [15:18]
Ron’s Toyes, for piano (2014/15) [10:34]
Papay Sonata for clarinet and piano (2016) [14:10]
John Turner (recorder)
Annabelle Lawson, Christine Zerafa (piano)
Matthew Scott (clarinet)
Manchester Sinfonia/Richard Howarth
rec. 2017/18, Royal Northern College of Music; Royal Academy of Music
PRIMA FACIE PFCD098 [78:34]
The CD opens with a remarkable work: On the Shoreline for recorder and string septet. This music was composed in 2016 for recorderist John Turner. Over the years, Crosse had a project where he planned to write ‘concerto-like pieces’ for all the woodwind instruments. This began in 1970 with Ariadne: Concertante for solo oboe and twelve players for oboe, op.31 and concluded with Ceili De for French horn and strings (2016). Imagine the composer’s surprise when John Turner said to him, “What about the recorder?” Undaunted, Crosse composed the present work in a matter of weeks. It is inspired by the ‘shoreline’ near his home in Papa Westray, Orkney. The solo instrument is the sopranino recorder which is the second smallest of this instrumental family. On the Shoreline represents a day in the life of the beach. The waves carry little weight here: it is the birds. The composer noted that when he wrote the piece, fulmars and sanderlings were plentiful. The recorder clearly mimics the birdsong, whilst the varied string accompaniment from the septet provides a background of “grey-blue sea and sky”. This accompaniment is typically quite static but every so often it explodes into a flurry of sea-spray. It is a marvellous combination of sound. And what is more, it perfectly creates the mood intended. It is one of the best ‘seascapes’ I have ever heard.
The two-movement Piano Trio is a reworking of a piece composed for the Hartley Piano Trio back in 1986. Some 20 years later, Crosse “drastically” revised the piece for the present Lawson Trio. It was also shortened considerably. The Trio was premiered in this form in 2012. It is a lopsided work structurally, with a very slow movement followed by an extremely fast one. I imagine this piece as a diptych, composed in two widely contrasting panels of sound. The temper of the opening movement (lento) is millstone-grit-grim, with only a folksong-like melody near its conclusion bringing some light and warmth to the proceedings. The long second movement (presto) quickly comes to life with a variety of textures including “loud octaves for the piano” and “whispered arpeggios for the two strings playing close to the bridge”. There is considerable rhythmic irregularity here too. The pace of the music slows down as the movement progresses towards its close.
This is a fascinating Piano Trio. It moves from darkness to some diffused light and back again to dusk. The musical language is approachable, despite much of it being sardonic in tone. The listener’s interest never flags, especially in the quicksilver parts of the second movement. Gripping stuff.
In recent years Gordon Crosse has turned to the piano and produced three sonatas and a set of short pieces, Ron’s Toyes. The Sonata no.1 is written in a ‘classical’ style, at least formally. Unusually for a ‘modern’ composer, Crosse repeats the first thematic exposition of the opening movement, which he says allows the material to be grasped by the listener, thus making its appearance in the development section clearer. The progress of this ‘vivace con fuoco’ is a journey between various degrees of dissonance. It is full of fire and dynamism with a diverse harmonic language. The slow movement is a straightforward song-like piece. This is deliberately restrained music that only really wakens up with some “cadenza-like flourishes”. This is a beautiful ‘Nocturne’ which acts as a perfect foil to the acerbic harmonic discourse of the breakneck speed of the last movement. Bearing in mind the notion of Chopin, the rapid finale reminds the listener of that composer’s Sonata No.2 for piano. Much of this movement is played in unison with the hands two or three octaves apart and typically pianissimo. It is only the coda that breaks away from this sotto voce effect. Based on this work, the other two Sonatas demand our attention.
Ron’s Toyes was written in memory of artist, craftsman and toymaker Ron Fuller who was a family friend of Crosse. He lived in Laxfield, Suffolk. Fuller specialised in wooden toys. This is onomatopoeic music if ever there was. Modernist in style, but thoroughly enjoyable in every way. The listener can picture the gently turning sails of the ‘Puffin Windmill’ on a summer’s day and hear the crash of the battleship’s big guns and imagine a submarine surfacing. The ‘Classic Hen’ clucks about picking at the grain in the farmyard. Here too, is the pastoral mood of ‘Sheep and Shears-man’. The music portrays the sheep shaking itself before being subject to a ‘haircut!’. Finally, two bi-plane aircraft from the First World War: a Sopwith Camel and a Fokker (perhaps) is represented. They rise and fall in the sky, circle each other, looping the loop and diving. There is the rattle of machineguns too. This is not music for children to play: it is music for those of us who are children at heart.
The final work on this CD seriously impressed me. Crosse writes that the Papay Sonata for clarinet and piano was composed on the island of Papa Westray, which is the most northerly Orkney island. The composer has a house on this ‘bleak but beautiful’ island which he feels is on ‘the very edge of things…’ In fact, the CD cover displays a photo of his house.
Gordon Crosse insists that this is “a fairly straightforward three movement sonata”. True, the structure may nod towards a classical form, but the impact is of something more modern. The landscape, as well as the flora and fauna has clearly influenced this music. While maybe not utilising birdsong like Olivier Messiaen, the listener is never left in doubt that the seabird population is never far from these island shores. Think of Arctic Skuas and Terns. The entire piece is an essay in light and shade. It is full of musical images of the sea, the flat, tree-devoid but fertile land and the proclivity of the weather to change at a remarkably rapid rate. I could listen to this evocative, sometimes pointillistic, modern, but immediately accessible sonata ,any number of times. It is a pure joy.
Gordon Crosse was born in Bury, Lancashire on 1 December 1937. Over the years, Crosse has combined music composition with an academic career and computer engineering. He studied with the émigré Austrian composer Egon Wellesz, as well as receiving instruction from Goffredo Petrassi in Rome. Crosse’s university appointments include ones at Essex, Birmingham and in the United States at Santa Barbara. He was ‘composer in residence’ at King’s College Cambridge between 1973 and 1975. In 1990, Crosse largely stopped composing music: during 2007, he started again and is “now writing pretty well non-stop”. His most recent works (2016) include a Sonata for clarinet and piano, an Idyll for clarinet and string quartet and a Concertante ‘Ceili De’ for horn and strings
The playing on this CD is outstanding. Every piece is delivered with care, commitment and obvious enthusiasm. The sound quality is excellent. The liner notes written by the composer are most helpful: I have relied on them heavily in the writing of my review. The font and colour scheme leave a lot to be desired. For example, light orange text on grey background does not make for easy reading. The font size of the text is miniscule. I needed a magnifying glass: which is a pity, as these notes are entertaining and essential to an enjoyment of this music.
I relished this new CD of music by Gordon Crosse from end to end. Every work is full of interest, always listenable and occasionally challenging. I hope that many more recordings of Crosse’s music (he has a considerable back catalogue and is still busily composing) will be issued soon. In the present disc he has ideal interpreters of his unique compositional achievement.