Monday 17 February 2014

Clarion Call - music for octet and septet

Clarion Call - Resonus 10127
Clarion Call - music for septet and octet: Berkeley Ensemble: Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 17 2014
Star rating: 3.5

Three world premieres on an enterprising disc of British music from the last 150 years

This new disc showcases 20th and 21st century works for octet and septet by Michael Berkeley, Howard Ferguson, John Casken and Charles Wood, performed by the a young group the Berkeley Ensemble - Kathryn Riley and Sophie Mather, violins, Dan Shilladay, viola, Gemma Wareham, cello, Lachlan Radford, double bass, John Slack, clarinet, Andrew Watson, bassoon, Paul Cott, horn. Three of the works on the disc are world premiere recordings. The disc is available for download only from Resonus Classics.

The works on this disc show the long reach of Beethoven's Septet and Schubert's Octet partly through the influence of the works themselves and the sheer idea of a mixed instrument ensemble of seven or eight players, and partly though the instrumentation with works being written to match Beethoven or Schubert's scoring, thus automatically giving the new work something of a ready made audience. Beethoven used an orchestration of violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn to which Schubert added a second violin part. But more than the instrumentation, Beethoven and Schubert's works established the idea of such a large chamber group, making them a standard for composers to measure themselves against.

The Berkeley Ensemble was formed in 2008 by players from the Southbank Sinfonia and takes its name from the father and son composers of the same name. They were finalists in the 2009 Royal Over-Seas League competition and the Michael Berkely piece on this disc was the group's first commission.

The disc opens with the newest work, Michael Berkeley's 2013 Clarion Call and Gallop for septet which was written specially for the Berkeley Ensemble. It was written during the composer's residency at the Trasimeno Music Festival in Italy. A high spirited and buoyant piece, it has a very distinctive texture with much high clarinet writing against spikier textures from the other instruments with the whole having a lovely transparency and airiness, combined with a very strong character. The CD booklet's notes refer to 'high jinx' and that is true, the piece has a light-hearted spirited feel, though in fact much of the musical material comes from Berkeley's anthem for the enthronement of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury.

With Howard Ferguson's we move from septet to octet and step back in time to 1933. The work was originally planned as a clarinet quintet, but Ferguson re-scored it for octet to match the forces used by Schubert, on the advice of his teacher R.O.Morris. But the work quickly found favour on its own terms. It is in four movements Moderato, Allegro scherzoso, Andantino and Allegro feroce. The Moderato moves from a few melodic lines into something more developed and expressive. The players give a real sense of dialogue and conversation hear, and the composer makes us feel an underlying sense of dramatic narrative. An dramatic gesture opens the Allegro scherzoso, then it gets off to a rather perky start, but things get more dramatic with a rather filmic immediacy. The players give the whole a sense of music making amongst friends. The Andantino starts with a long-breathed  slow melody and continues as a slow, serious and well constructed movement, giving a lovely expressive performance by the ensemble. The finale is a lively perky movement, with dramatic moments with quite a developed rhythmic feel, plus Ferguson uses some interesting combinations of textures. All in all a lovely, intelligent piece which deserves to be heard more often.

John Casken's Blue Medusa is another work which had its instrumentation re-cast. This time the piece started out as at piece for bassoon and piano. Casken's re-scoring for octet kept the bassoon's prominence, and one of the fascinating things about this one-movement work is the way the bassoon gets to hog the limelight for once. Casken's inspiration comes both from the Greek myth of Medusa and from the natural world. The textures here are altogether spikier with the lyrical bassoon solos surrounded by much stabbing and jabbing. Somehow you feel that a drama is going on that you don't quite apprehend, altogether a rather fascinating piece with a some stunning bassoon playing from Andrew Watson.

The Irish composer Charles Wood was one of the first intake of students in the new Royal College of Music in the 19th century, where he studied with Stanford. Now best known for his music for the Anglican liturgy, Wood's Septet dates from 1889, a few years after he finished his studies at the Royal College of Music. His substantial Septet is a lovely well-made piece in four movement -Allegro moderato, Andante,  Scherzo and With vigour. The Allegro moderato is a lyrical, well made movement though perhaps unsurprisingly the influence of Brahms is not far away. Evidently Stanford used to challenge his pupils to write chamber music without any detectable Brahmsian influences. Still, the movement is beautifully crafted with performances which are attractively fluent. This continues into the lyrical Andante, which is full of lovely melodic moments. Both this movement and the rather sedate Scherzo which follows have melodic inspiration which seems to derive from folk music. This continues into the finale, which has a delightful unbuttoned feel. Whilst we tend to think of Wood's music as rather looking back, there are moments here which remind me of his younger English contemporaries such as RVW and Holst.

This is a very enterprising disc with some works which certainly deserve a wider audience. Whilst I am not sure whether Wood's rather substantial Septet quite manages to keep interest up over its long duration, the other works on the disc are all crying out for regular performance alongside their older counterparts.

Michael Berkeley (born 1948) - Clarion Call and Gallop (2013) [6.42] **
Howard Ferguson (1908 - 1999) - Octet, Op.4 (1933) [20.41]
John Casken (born 1949) - Blue Medusa (2000/2007) [10.09] **
Charles Wood (1866 - 1926) - Septet (1889) [38.43] **
** World premiere recordings
Berkeley Ensemble (Kathryn Riley and Sophie Mather, violins, Dan Shilladay, viola, Gemma Wareham, cello, Lachlan Radford, double bass, John Slack, clarinet, Andrew Watson, bassoon, Paul Cott, horn)
Recorded in the Church of SS Peter and Paul, Chacombe, 24-27 2013
Available in mp3, AAC and FLA. The recording is released on Monday 3 March 2014.

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