Raymond YIU (b. 1973)
The World Was Once All Miracle
The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured. Symphonic game for orchestra. (2012) [18:24]
The World Was Once All Miracle (2016-17) [21:34]
Symphony (2014-15) [27:43]
Andrew Watts (countertenor); Roderick Williams (baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/David Robertson, Sir Andrew Davis, Edward Gardner
rec. live, April 2018 (The World); May 2019 (Citizen), Barbican Hall, London; August 2015, Royal Albert Hall, London (Symphony).
DELPHIAN DCD34225 [67:44]
Raymond Yiu is a composer who, I gather, has been attracting quite a bit of attention in recent years, though I have to confess that I haven’t heard his music before. John Fallas tells us in his valuable booklet essay that Yiu was born in Hong Kong and came to the UK in 1990. After A-level studies in Canterbury he enrolled at Imperial College, London to read engineering. Initially self-taught as a composer, he sought out for himself opportunities to have his music performed. In recent years, Yiu has pursued doctoral studies at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, studying with Julian Anderson.
Before going any further, I think it’s appropriate to hand out one or two plaudits. The first should go, obviously, to Delphian for having the faith in Yiu to issue these recordings. The second plaudit goes to the BBC. The Corporation is often criticised on many fronts – and, often, justifiably so. However, these three recordings stem from important BBC performances. BBC forces gave the first performance of The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured in January 2013. That success led to a commission for the Proms: Yiu’s Symphony was the result (and it’s the first performance we hear on this disc). Fallas goes on to note other important performances of Yiu’s works staged by the BBC, of which The World Was Once All Miracle was one. Raymond Yiu is by no means the only contemporary composer whose music has benefitted from the oxygen of BBC performance and, surely, encouragement of this nature is a great demonstration of what public service broadcasting is all about.
I suppose I ought to begin with a note of caution. I honestly can’t say that I properly understand all the music on this disc. The fault is mine, I’m sure, but I haven’t really got fully to grips yet with Raymond Yiu’s music. As a consequence, I need to be cautious in my judgements. I will attempt to describe what I have heard and my reactions to it, and I hope thereby to prompt readers to investigate for themselves.
The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured is the only purely orchestral work on the disc. I’m indebted to John Fallas for an explanation of the unusual title. The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured is the title of a pamphlet written in 1738 by a Scottish-born, London-based bookseller and editor by the name of Alexander Cruden (1699-1770). It would appear that Cruden was mentally unstable and led a somewhat colourful life. Fallas tells us that Cruden “had on several occasions become unhinged in his dealings with women, and was subjected to more than one period of incarceration in asylums”. It was after the second of these periods of confinement that Cruden penned the pamphlet in question, protesting at his treatment. Lest you should be expecting that Raymond Yiu has used Cruden’s experiences as the basis for a programme piece, that is not the case. Instead, the title of the pamphlet has been used, John Fallas says, as the starting point for “a fabric of London-related inspirations both literary and musical”. So, I guess it’s best to approach The London Citizen as a kind of tone poem inspired by London.
Yiu’s music is laid out for what sounds like a very large orchestra which he uses colourfully and with no little imagination. John Fallas identifies a few things for us to look out for along the way. He mentions that Yiu has included a number of references to the big nobilmente melody from Elgar’s Cockaigne. I know Elgar’s score pretty well but I have to say that the references were well-hidden: I couldn’t discern them. The familiar nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ is pressed into service too – that’s much easier to pick out. Fallas says there’s a ‘Chinatown’ episode: I wonder if this is the passage starting at around 8:52 where we hear big, imposing oriental-style chords and percussion. A somewhat sleazy waltz is heard around 10:24 and there’s a cheeky fox-trot episode too, which I loved (14:52). I mention these episodes in support of John Fallas’s suggestion that the work is “a landscape constructed by memory as much as by geography”. In the closing pages there’s a prominent role for a nostalgic solo trumpet and, when the rest of the orchestra has ceased to play, it’s the trumpet that rounds off the work. The London Citizen is an accessible, colourful score, resourcefully imagined for the orchestra. The BBCSO’s performance, under David Robertson is virtuosic and highly accomplished.
The World Was Once All Miracle is a set of six songs for baritone and orchestra. The texts are by Anthony Burgess (1917-1993); all are taken from a posthumously published volume, Revolutionary Sonnets and Other Poems. The collection was compiled, I understand, by Kevin Jackson and was published in 2002. However, it seems that there’s rather more to Raymond Yiu’s work than ‘just’ a set of songs. Fallas describes it as a “complicatedly biographical sound portrait of a complicated, elusive man”. I must confess that I’ve never got into Burgess’s writings and one problem that I have with The World Was Once All Miracle is that I find the selected poems very hard to grasp – I’m sure other listeners won’t have that problem. One other point that John Fallas makes is that by the time he came to compose The World Was Once All Miracle not only had Raymond Yiu had the benefit of working with Julian Anderson but also, thanks to his studies at the Guildhall, he’d been exposed to the influence of a number of other, very varied composers.
The songs are most interesting – and not a little challenging – to hear. Yiu benefits greatly from the fact that the soloist is Roderick Williams. He sings with his customary excellence and with great care for the words. Delphian print all the texts but, trust me, so clear is Williams’ diction that you won’t need to refer to the booklet. I liked very much the slow second song, which begins ‘For we were all caught in the shame of sleep’. The accompaniment is for strings, harp and, at the end, bells; Yiu’s lovely instrumental textures provide a beguiling cushion for Roderick Williams’ expressive singing. The following poem (‘You were there, and nothing was said’) is scored for woodwind and percussion; here, Yiu uses some exotic percussion instruments to excellent effect. This is another slow song, eloquently delivered by Roderick Williams.
The text of the fourth poem (‘I have raised and poised a fiddle’) contains references to Henry Purcell and Thomas Arne. We’re told that Yiu alludes to their music – and to Beethoven and Debussy – but the references eluded me. The final song (‘Useless to hope to hold off’) is a stylistic surprise. Yiu’s music is in the style of a mid-twentieth century popular song but the carefree, ‘feel good’ music is at odds with the gritty sentiments of the poem.
Roderick Williams is a splendid advocate for these songs and the BBCSO under Sir Andrew Davis deliver Yiu’s highly inventive scoring with panache. Incidentally, I should perhaps say that while I’ve quoted the first lines of several of the poems, Yiu doesn’t entitle any of the songs; the booklet just carries the tempo marking for each.
The Symphony was commissioned for the 2015 BBC Proms and this performance, conducted by Edward Gardner, was the world premiere. The work is in five sections which play continuously. Four of the five sections set poems by divers authors; these are sung by the countertenor, Andrew Watts.
The first section is a Whitman setting (‘Song of Myself’ from Leaves of Grass). I struggle with this setting, not least because Yiu sets the first three words as if the singer were stammering, unsure of himself; though I understand that this is a deliberate device, it takes quite a while to get the poem launched. As the section unfolded, I couldn’t really grasp the connection between the words and the music to which they were set. The second section, which is for orchestra alone, bears the strange title ‘Strong with Cadence Multiply Song’. Paul Griffiths’ illuminating notes offer no clue as to what the title might mean. We hear a scherzo which is really virtuosic, the music full of rhythmic energy and the scoring packed with vibrant colour. An oboe solo heralds a slower section (2:08 – 3:09); apparently, this is inspired by music from a Scarlatti sonata. The scherzo then resumes its way, vanishing almost into thin air at the end. This is a highly impressive section.
There follows a setting of lines by Constantine P Cavafy (1863-1933). Paul Griffiths aptly describes this as “a dream landscape”. Yiu’s music is slow and sensuous. The landscape identified by Griffiths is populated by bewitching woodwind solos, above which the expressive vocal solo line rises and falls. The next section is analogous, I think, to the last section of The World Was Once All Miracle. Yiu’s music is in the style of what he himself describes as “a flamboyant, seventies-style disco song whose overt cheerfulness is in total contrast with the seedy proceedings [described in the poem] and the narrator’s anxiety”. The chosen poem is ‘In Time of Plague’ by Thom Gunn (1929-2004). Written in 1988 during the AIDS pandemic, the uncompromising, jagged poem also addresses drug use. Yiu’s approach to the poem is very original and the use of a plangent countertenor voice heightens the originality.
After confronting us with the challenging issues raised in Gunn’s poem, Yiu concludes in a very different vein with a setting of lines by John Donne, taken from his poem ‘The Anniversarie’. The poem is lovingly addressed to Donne’s wife and Paul Griffith nails it when he says that the words are here set to “music of eternity and, at the end, blazing light”. The music is calm and very beautiful; it’s also slow and reassuring. There’s great warmth to this music and the vocal line is very eloquent, especially as sung by Andrew Watts. I would very mildly take issue with Paul Griffiths’ description which I quoted: his phrase might lead you to expect a loud end. In fact, the blaze occurs just before the end, after which the symphony achieves a soft, dreamy conclusion. Mercifully, there’s no applause to break the spell. I have one or two reservations about Raymond Yiu’s Symphony – or perhaps it would be fairer to say that there are elements into which I’ve not yet found my way – but overall, I think it’s a fascinating score.
Indeed, all three works featured here are fascinating. Raymond Yiu writes with flair and handles a large orchestra resourcefully. Perhaps above all it’s the colours that he creates that have impressed me. The BBCSO has established a deserved reputation for giving expert performances of challenging new scores; these three performances show that Yiu’s music could hardly be in better hands, with three excellent conductors to guide the proceedings and two top-class soloists. The BBC recordings are first rate, especially as re-mastered by Paul Baxter and even when I listened through headphones I couldn’t hear any evidence of the audiences present at these concerts. The documentation is comprehensive.
Delphian have shown great enterprise in issuing these performances. If you want to hear recent music by a composer with a distinctive voice then I’d urge you to investigate this CD.