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Rob KEELEY (b. 1960)
Symphony No. 2 (1996) [23:02]
Flute Concerto (2017) [15:20]
Triple Concerto for two oboes, cor anglais and strings (2014) [16:33]
Variations for Orchestra (2019) [23:15]
Sarah Desbruslais (flute), James Turnbull (oboe), Michael Sluman (oboe), Patrick Flanaghan (cor anglais)
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul Mann
rec. 2018/2020, Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia; Sala Beethoven, Sala de Ensayos de Carranque, Plaza Pio XII, Málaga, Spain

The CD presents premiere recordings of four excellent orchestral works by Rob Keeley. In the liner notes, he explains that the music “on this disc [is] atypical, in that the larger part of my output of over 100 pieces is for small forces: solo piano, song and chamber combinations”. For the biographical notes about the composer see my earlier review.

The earliest work here is Symphony No. 2 written in 1996. It remained unperformed until 22 May 2008, when it was played by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra under Russell Keable. The symphony has four movements; the slow movement comes third. The composer has used a Beethoven-size orchestra with harp, but not percussion (except for timpani). He has explained that the principal subject of the opening movement ‘is a paraphrase of the idée fixe from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique’. I am not sure that I would have clocked this. This is balanced by a ‘warm chorale for strings with horn’, which is quite beautiful. The music is vibrant, often edgy, and the scoring and harmonies are piquant. The scherzo uses antiphonal choirs from the string and woodwind section to play off against each other. A lyrical tune tries to establish, but never quite succeeds. The trios are laid back, with delicious flute, string, and harp combinations. This is sultry music. Keeley explains that he rewrote the slow movement for this recording. He felt that the Symphony needed a point of repose. This is a nocturne with one or two little irruptions of activity. The atmosphere is a touch scary, and certainly not romantic. This creepiness is enhanced by the eccentric little dance at the end of the movement. Maybe one day the original third movement may be recorded for comprehensiveness. The finale is a splendid piece that nods towards Stravinsky and Michael Tippett. If anyone suggests that the symphony is an outdated form, just recommend to them this splendid well-constructed and thought-out example.

I fell in love with Keeley’s Flute Concerto (2017) on first hearing. Without falling into the trap of saying it sounds like so and so, it could be categorised as neo-classical. French echoes abound at every turn. For me, it evokes warm summer days on the Riviera. But that is sheer wishful thinking on my part during lockdown. The concerto is presented in two contrasting movements. The first, signed andantino, seems to be conceived as a modified sonata form. The slow music is balanced by lively dance music that shimmers in the sunlight. I am not sure just quite how conventional the development section is, but it does not really matter. The main subjects are reprised with the movement coming to a whimsical conclusion. This is followed by the adagio which is based on a twelve-note theme “identical to that used by Stravinsky in the ‘Surge, aquilo’ setting from Canticum Sacrum”. This is not developed serially but is subject to some delightful decoration. Yet more dance music, a waltz, is introduced to balance the main allegro theme before the waltz wins the day with a wayward flourish. If the listener needs an exemplar to imagine this work against, I guess that it will be Poulenc. That said, the well-controlled dissonances in the second movement are sometimes more acerbic than the Frenchman may have used. The solo part is supported by much notable orchestration throughout the work.

The Triple Concerto (2014) is a remarkable work. The scoring for two oboes and cor anglais was inspired by the “woefully underrated orchestral suites by Georg Phillip Telemann (1681-1767)”. And surely Bach and Handel are influences here too. This is the most eclectic work on this CD. There is nothing here of French neo-classicism. In fact, it seems the composer has fused baroque inspirations with a touch of minimalism. The opening movement swirls around with ostinati (persistently repeated musical figures). But this does not result in ennui. The second movement is a scherzo with internal repeats and ‘buzzing scales’. This music almost, but not quite, gets ‘into the groove’. The finale begins a bit like a saraband but soon develops into a vivacious presto, which brings the concerto to a quiet but mercurial conclusion. Once again the instrumentation is extraordinary.

The composer declares that his Variations for orchestra “were in least in part modelled on the Enigma Variations by my beloved Elgar”. This music, however, seems a long way from this late Victorian masterpiece. For one thing, the title seems a touch misleading. I would have called this a Concerto for Orchestra (clearly written as a theme and variations). The objective of this music seems to showcase various instrumental combinations and conceits. The theme does nod to Elgar’s style with the use of the melodic intervals of the rising 6th and falling 7th. And the composer is clear that he has “long been impatient with ‘variations in name only’”. Each section allows the tune to be recognised, even if it is not always in-your-face. The liner notes present a comprehensive analysis of each variation. Keeley’s Nimrod (12th variation here) shows respect for the master, not a debt. The work concludes with a Passacaglia-Finale which allows the conceit of having a set of variations within a set of variations. From first note to the last, this is a satisfying and enjoyable work. My overall impression is once again of amazing scoring. There is a chamber music feel with much of this music, but every so often the full orchestra blazes forth. There may be nods to Tippett, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, but this is a genuinely original work. It may not sound like Elgar, but certainly has all the competence of composition displayed in the archetype.

I was impressed by the performances of all four works. The Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra, the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and the soloists, directed by Paul Mann, are all top of the form. The recording by the Toccata engineers is ideal. The liner notes by the composer comprise helpful notes about the music as well as a brief autobiography. The usual bios of the performers are included, along with photos.

I have said this before, but it is worth repeating. Rob Keeley is a composer with whom I can do business. It is encouraging to hear contemporary music that is quite definitely modernist, rather than repeating the seemingly popular clichés of Einaudi and his followers. Keeley’s sound-world reflects a wide range of composers including Elliot Carter, Michael Tippett, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, jazz and even nods (as noted above) to Edward Elgar, Hector Berlioz, and Ludwig van Beethoven. It is refreshing to hear music that balances modernity with tradition, is always true to itself and thoroughly entertaining.

John France

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