Friday 25 September 2015

Moments in Time - Red Note Ensemble perform John McLeod

John McLeod - Moments in Time - Delphian
Chamber music by John McLeod; Red Note Ensemble; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 11 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Absorbing survey of dramatic chamber pieces

The Scottish composer John McLeod is a composer of whose work I have long been aware (I sang in the premiere of Hebridean Prayers which was given by the Scottish Chamber Choir, conductor Colin Tipple, in Edinburgh in 1980), but I have lacked familiarity with his more recent work. This disc from the Scottish ensemble Red Note Ensemble (on the Delphian label) explores the wide range of John McLeod's chamber music. At the core of the disc is a group of four remarkable songs (each written for a different combination of piano and instrument), The Song of Icarus, The Song of Dionysius, The Song of Phyrne and The Song of Leda, and to these the group adds A Moment in Time written for the same forces as Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. The music on the disc covers a significant period of McLeod's output from 1974 to 2010.

John McCleod (born 1934) was 80 last year. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, clarinet with Reginald Kell, Jack Brymer and Gervase de Peyer, composition with Lennox Berkeley, going on to develop a relationship with Lutoslawski whom he knew and admired.

John McLeod
John McLeod
Each of the songs takes a mythological subject and examines it in a series of works which last 10 minutes each.  The Song of Phyrne dates from 1974, and is for clarinet and piano with pre-recorded tape and covers the celebrated Greek courtesan who as brought to trial and threatened with death, but was reprieved when she exposed the beauty of her breasts. The Song of Icarus dates from 1976, and is for violin and clarinet. It deals with the familiar story of the flight of Icarus and his subsequent doomed fall. The Song of Dionysius dates from 1989 and is inspired by the story of Dionysius who was obsessively suspicious and built an abode with a huge acoustical ear so he could eavesdrop on what people were saying. It is written for piano and percussion (some 10 types of instrument). Finally, dating from 2010, The Song of Leda for cello and piano recounts the familiar seduction of Leda by the god Zeus disguised as a swan.

The music in this pieces is not programmatic, or at least not easily so. Instead McLeod seems to explore themes and emotions. There are aural evocations of course (the huge Ear of Dionysius, the fall of Icarus with the wax on his wings melting). Here McLeod shows a fine ear and sense of imagination in his combinations of instrumental writing. The Song of Dionysius is a particular feat, combining as it does such a large range of percussive sounds, and here McLeod tends to use the piano in dialogue rather than accompanying.

The music here is tonal, but complex. There is little in the way of melody, instead we have harmonic textures often jagged and complex instrumental lines, all interweaving and often uneasy. He is not averse to highly structured music and the piano part in The Song of Dionysius sounds particularly so (perhaps to compensate for the timbral lack in the other instruments). I found the added tape in The Song of Phyrne a little annoying, the sounds of the sea and such were evocative but the rather self conscious sexy woman's voice did not add too much.

In the middle of the disc we have A Moment in Time, a two-movement work written in 2001/2002 for the Hebrides Ensemble. Using violin, clarinet, cello and piano, McLeod is deliberately referring to Messiaen except time here refers to the before and after of the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. The two movements, Metamorphosis and Threnody go from uneasy, intense and fidgety to spare, austere and very bleak.

The performances here are exemplary, and highly involving. All the works, particularly the songs, involve highly complex instrumental writing. They are written for virtuosos and the writing is very demanding, whilst not always bravura in showy way. Here the members of the Red Note Ensemble (Jacqueline Shave violin, Robert Irvine cello, Yann Ghiro clarinet, Tom Hunter percussion Jacqueline Shave violin, Robert Irvine cello, Yann Ghiro clarinet, Tom Hunter percussion) give highly vivid performances which go beyond the technical to explore the emotional undercurrent underneath.

The CD booklet includes a long article by Conrad Wilson which introduces both McLeod and his music in highly lucid fashion. One little gripe, nowhere does it give a simple recounting of the dates of the works, instead we must do calculations (1924 plus 2 years, then plus 13 years!).

This is another of the Red Note Ensemble's single composer discs (see my review of the Edward McGuire disc) and again we must be grateful for being to a serious survey of the output of a composer who has not always made the CD catalogues in the way that he might.

John McLeod (born 1934) - The Song of Icarus [9.22]
John McLeod (born 1934) - The Song of Dionysius [11.58]
John McLeod (born 1934) - A Moment in Time [12.48]
John McLeod (born 1934) - The Song of  Phyrne [11.16]
John McLeod (born 1934) - The Song of Leda [13.46]
Red Note Ensemble (Jacqueline Shave violin, Robert Irvine cello, Yann Ghiro clarinet, Tom Hunter percussion)
Mairi Pirie (voice on tape)
Recorded 10-12 December 2014, St Mary's Parish Church, Whitekirk, East Lothian
DELPHIAN DCD34155 1CD [59.14]

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