Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Characterful and accessible - Stephen McNeff orchestral works

Stephen McNeff - Orchestral Works, BSO Dominic Wheeler, CDLX 7301
During the three year period from 2005 to 2008 composer Stephen McNeff was embedded within the life and work of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as their composer in residence. Initially referred to as their Composer in the House,  McNeff was the first to benefit from a ground-breaking scheme by the Royal Philharmonic Society and the PRS for Music Foundation. During his three years McNeff wrote some 25 pieces for the orchestra, its ensembles and associated organisations like the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and the youth chorus. McNeff's relationship with the orchestra continued after 2008, and in 2012 he composed The Chalk Legend which the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performed as their contribution to the London Cultural Olympiad.

This disc brings together four major pieces from McNeff and the orchestra's relationship, all recorded on disc for the first time: Sinfonia, Heiligenstadt, Weathers and Secret Destinations with Dominic Wheeler conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Bournemouth Symphony Chorus.

McNeff has a practical approach to composing: 'My music is always written for someone. I want it to talk to people, to move them and give them pleasure, possibly insight. Composers sometimes forget that they are part of the entertainment business'. Whilst resident with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra his works included not only the large scale ones on this disc, but a piece for one of the orchestra's education ensembles, a fanfare for a celebratory occasion, a waltz for a Christmas concert and an overture for a schools concert.

Sinfonia was composed specifically as a concert opener lasting no more than 20 minutes. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra wanted a work which was lyrical and fun, and McNeff responded with a symphony inspired by the three-movement symphonies of William Boyce, scored for a small orchestra. Marin Alsop conducted the premiere in 2007.

The opening movement, marked Quietly and oddly, is elegant and evocative, with McNeff using the two main themes in a fragmentary manner, constantly tantalising with the withheld promise of a 'big moment'. There is a smile in the music, though it is fundamentally serious. The drama develops, but McNeff's fragments never quite coalesce. McNeff's style is essentially tonal, but never simplistic, and in the first movement I caught glimpses of the influence of Britten, particularly in the imaginative orchestration.

 The second movement, marked Warmly, is quiet, intense and very English in its feel. The style is almost neo-classical but there is an edge to the harmonies and it is not a completely comfortable movement. The lively finale, Boisterous, is full of tune and untuned percussion. The main tune is perky and infectious, with McNeff's rhythmic handling recalling Tippett. After a brass and percussion climax, everything magically evaporates; but this is not the end as McNeff cocks a snook with a marvellous coda.

Heiligenstadt was premiered in 2005 with Marin Alsop conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The work was the result of a specific request from Marin Alsop for a piece to go before Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It is inspired by Beethoven's 'Heiligenstadt Testament', the moving document in which the composer attempted to come to terms with his deafness. McNeff's music is not programmatic, instead he uses fragments from Beethoven's songs, like Sehnsucht, to create an overall arching structure, slow-fast-slow. It is a substantial work, lasting over 13 minutes.

It starts from a single melody, a wistful remembrance of a Beethoven song. The opening section is spare, even when the textures develop, with a constant feeling of wistfulness and melancholy, its intensity gives the feeling of waiting for something. The middle section is more dramatic, its rhythmic complexity recalls to mind Tippett again. But the music then relapses into quite foreboding with an expressive violin solo, finally evaporating but intense till the end.

Weathers sets poems by Thomas Hardy and was premiered by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by David Hill in 2007. McNeff sets five poems (some in full, some just extracts) by Thomas Hardy: WeathersSong, She Hears the Storm, At Day-Close in November and Domicilium. But the music flows continuously from one to the other with orchestral interludes between, the idea being one of a journey.

The work opens with the interaction between turbulence and quiet, apt perhaps for a weather based piece. When the chorus enters with Weathers they and the orchestra form a single texture rather than the feeling of an orchestra accompanying a chorus. McNeff's setting is lyrical, but with spice. After more brass dissonance, we have an impassioned tutti for Song followed by some lovely delicate word-setting building to a climax.

A vivid orchestral interlude leads to She hears the Storm. This is marked 'Fast and Wild', and though the music is brilliantly vivid, I did wonder whether the performance was quite fast and wild enough. The final interlude is calm, but not comfortable, leading to the quietly intense final sections At Day-Close in November and lines from Domicilium. The performances are austere but powerful.

To follow the workds you need to download them from the Dutton website. This is a necessity. Though chorus's performance is vivid, involving and technically, secure, they do not project the words adequately enough.

The final work on the disc, Secret Destinations, was written in memory of McNeff's friend, the poet Charles Causely, and the title comes from a volume of his poetry. The three movements, Rushing the Stone Horizon, Sfumato, Eden Rock, recreate three of McNeff's memories of Causely, in the Rocky Mountains, in candlelight in the Basilica of Assisi, and meditating on a picture of his parents. Secret Destinations was premiered in 2006 by Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Rushing the Stone Horizon (marked 'Always moving') is full of rhythmic brilliance and glittering attraction; I have to confess that it recalled for me the symphonies of Walton and Malcolm Arnold. Sfumato continues the feeling of rhythmic brilliance but in a quieter, more fragmentary way. Finally Eden Rock combines austere open textures alongside nervous interruptions from brass and woodwind. McNeff brings back ideas from the first two movements and concludes with the quiet, but deeply felt, interplay of motifs.

McNeff's works on this disc are all fascinating and accessible in the best possible way. This is contemporary music which neither talks down nor revels in obscurantism. You can imagine people enjoying the works at many levels and it is a tribute to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's support for McNeff that we have this disc.

Performances from Dominic Wheeler and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra are exemplary, and the players do rather seem to be enjoying themselves. The orchestra seems to on something of a brilliant streak at the moment (see my review of their recent disc of the Britten and Shostakovich violin concertos). Highly recommended.

Stephen McNeff (born 1951) - Sinfonia (2007) [15.33]
Stephen McNeff (born 1951) - Heiligenstadt (2005) [13.34]
Stephen McNeff (born 1951) - Weathers (2007) [16.26]
Stephen McNeff (born 1951) - Secret Destinations (2005) [18.48]
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Dominic Wheeler (conductor)
Recorded: Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, 24-25 July 2012
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7301 1Cd [64.48]

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