Wednesday 16 November 2016

Mark Bowden: Sudden Light

Mark Bowden - Sudden Light - NMC
Mark Bowden Lyra, Heartland, Five Memos, Sudden Light; Hyeyoon Park, Huw Watkins, Julian Warburton, Oliver Coates, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Grant Llewellyn; NMC Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 16 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Imaginative orchestral writing in a survey of Mark Bowden's recent works

This disc from NMC Recordings showcases orchestral and instrumental music by Mark Bowden. Born in South Wales, many of the orchestral pieces on the disc are the fruit of Bowden's residency with BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBC NOW). Both Lyra (2011) and Heartland (2012) were commissioned for the BBC NOW, and Sudden Light (2005, Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize winning, and premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra) was the first work of Bowden's played by the BBC NOW. On the disc the BBC NOW is conducted by Grant Llewellyn, and they are joined by soloists Oliver Coates (cello) and Julian Warburton (percussion). Along with these, the disc also contains Five Memos (2015) for violin and piano, performed by Hyeyoon Park (violin) and Huw Watkins (piano), who gave the work's world premiere.

Mark Bowden - photo Kate Benjamin & Rob Orchard
Mark Bowden - photo Kate Benjamin & Rob Orchard
Lyra was commissioned as a cello concerto, the title refers to the lead character in Philip Pullman's fantasy novels His Dark Materials, but can also refer to the name of a constellation of stars, a Russian class of submarine and of course the lyra viol.

The first movement (Allegro), has a lyrical incantation from the solo cello (Oliver Coates, who premiered the work), with interruptions from a glittering, Britten-esque orchestra. Gradually these to coalesce, with a vibrantly lyrical cello part and busy orchestra, full of lovely textures and colours. But there is more than just colour to the piece, and the performers give a real sense of journey. A cadenza-like passage leads to the intense Adagio e lontano, with a passionate soloist over spare yet magical orchestral colours, becoming richer and more passionate at climaxes. The final movement, Vivo con anima, has less of a sense of concerto and more of an ensemble. This is a big bold work, with some brilliant detail in the orchestra.

Five Memos for violin and piano is based in ideas from Italo Calvino's essays Six Memos for the Next Millennium (which Calvino left unfinished at five essays).
Each of the five movements relates to ideas from one of the essays, or you can listen to the music simply as fascinating character pieces. Lightness has a high suspended violin above an undulating piano, textures spare yet full of incident. Quickness has a busy, angry violin in dialogue with calmer piano, with a sense of contrast in the musical material. Exactitude has a long slow violin line, finely spun out by Hyeyoon Park,  with spare piano chords giving a sense of suspension to the violin. Visibility combines a strong, elaborate violin part with glittering, rippling piano in a striking texture. Finally Multiplicity gives us a sense of the disparate voices, despite the busy material. Fine performances from Hyeyoon Park and Huw Watkins bring out the rich incident which Bowden gets from his two instruments.

Heartland is a percussion concerto, reflecting the importance of percussion in Bowden's orchestral textures, the work also functions as a dance piece being also written for the National Dance Company of Wales. The ideas behind the work refer to a geopolitical theory by Halford John Mackinder, from 1904, suggesting that any totalitarian regime which commanded a 'heartland' linking Europe, Ais and Africa would dominate the world. Though I was not sure how helpful knowing this was when listening to the music.

The opening Allegro con brio is a panoply of exotic sounds, it is often lightly but atmospherically scored with the marimba to the fore. The Andante con moto combines bells (or bell-like instruments) with a magical web of sounds, a gentle meditation with occasional upsets. The final Allegro ritmico is a s rhythmically structured as its marking suggests, over the top of which is a percussion obbligato creating shimmering textures. The percussionist who brings off the energetic solo part is Julian Warburton who premiered the piece.

The final work, Sudden Light is the earliest on the disc. A single movement, it opens with an explosion, alternating with elaborate textures. There is a furious energy at times, with a complex structure underpinning it.

I enjoyed all the works on this disc, appreciating how Mark Bowden combines fascinating orchestral writing with underlying emotional structures. The performances from Hyeyoon Park, Huw Watkins, Julian Warburton, Oliver Coates, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Grant Llewellyn are exemplary. Highly recommended indeed.

Mark Bowden (born 1979) - Lyra (2011) [22.42]
Mark Bowden - Five Memos (2015) [16.33]
Mark Bowden - Heartland (2012) [22.32]
Mark Bowden - Sudden Light (2005) [16.54]
Oliver Coates (cello)
Julian Warburton (percussion)
Hyeyoon Park (violin)
Huw Watkins (cello)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Grant Llewellyn (conductor)
Recorded 21-23 December 2015 at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Caardiff, and 19 April 2016 at All Saints,Tooting, London
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