Tuesday 22 August 2017

An Eventful Morning in East London

An Eventful Morning In East London - Harriet Mackenzie
Paul Patterson, Deborah Pritchard, David Matthews, Robert Fokkens, Emily Doolittle; Harriet Mackenzie, Philippa Mo, English String Orchestra, English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods; Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 18 2017
Star rating: 4.5

A striking disc of 21st century violin concertos

This disc from violinist Harriet Mackenzie, the English String Orchestra and the English Symphony Orchestra, conductor Kenneth Woods on Nimbus Alliance is an attractive mix of contemporary violin concertos under the intriguing title An Eventful Morning in East London, which is the title of one of the works on the disc. We hear concertos by Paul Patterson, Deborah Pritchard, David Matthews, Robert Fokkens and Emily Doolittle, and Harriet Mackenzie is joined by her colleague Philippa Mo from Retorica for Patterson's concerto.

Paul Patterson's Allusions for two solo violins and strings dates from 2007, it was commissioned by the Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS) to celebrate the composer's 60th birthday and OOTS premiered it conducted by David Curtis. Here Harriet Mackenzie and Philippa Mo perform the work with the English String Orchestra, conductor Kenneth Woods. Now, the work is called Allusions for a particular reason, each movement is an allusion to a particular opera, Verdi's Falstaff in the first, Mozart's Don Giovanni in the second, and The Marriage of Figaro in the third. But, I have to admit that on first hearing, listening blind, I entirely missed the connections. What stood out for me, on first and subsequent listening was the way Patterson's writing was so much in the great line of English 20th century string music.
The first movement, 'False impressions' is busy and neoclassical with the use of the soloists very much on a first amongst equals basis, creating a concerto grosso feel. The second movement, 'Mindscape', is slow and thoughtful with Patterson using a palate of rich harmonies to create music of great beauty and intensity. The final movement 'Beneath the surface' is a fast, furious and almost mad-cap.

Deborah Pritchard's violin concerto Wall of Water for violin and string orchestra from 2014 is inspired by Maggi Hambling's series of oil paintings Walls of Water. The concerto was commissioned for Harriet Mackenzie by the English String Orchestra, conductor Kenneth Woods and premiered by them at LSO St Lukes in 2014. The work was recorded live at the premiere, and this recording gave rise to the idea for this disc. It is a single 20 minute piece which opens with a violin cadenza supported by low strings, as the piece develops sometimes the solo part seems to rise out of the bass line, and at other times the violin soars above a more developed string accompaniment. It is by turns intense melancholic and virtuosic.  Again, English string music seems to be a particular influence. The contrasting sections of the piece seem to keep returning to the mood and material of the opening, with elegiac melancholy to the fore, ending with the soloist receding into the distance. Throughout, Mackenzie is in wonderful control of the solo line, throwing off the more virtuoso elements with aplomb.

David Matthews' Romanza for solo violin and string orchestra dates from 2012, it is a single movement work lasting just over 10 minutes. A lyrical yet intense violin solo sings over a restless string accompaniment. Matthews' booklet note talks about how reading Bayan Northcott led him to cast the middle section as a waltz. But it is certainly a highly complex, multi-layered one, with Mackenzie's lyrical violin swaying over the top.

Robert Fokkens'  An Eventful Morning in East London was written for, and is dedicated to Harriet Mackenzie who premiered it with the New Professionals Orchestra conducted by Tim Murray in 2006 at the Purcell Room. Fokkens' scenario for the work is an idea for a musical happening taken from the Scratch Orchestra's book of ideas, but Fokkens re-invents it as taking place 'on the hazardously cattle-infested stretch of the N2 motorway between East London and Umtata in South Africa's Eastern Cape province'.

The piece starts with a very striking texture, the solo violin stupendously high supported just by high orchestral strings, this translucent texture develops flurries which turn into a busy, still high, violin with quite a bit of percussion. Tensions build, and then snap and we return to solo violin and eerie percussion. This is a gesture which Fokkens uses more than once in the piece, building tension and allowing it to snap and paring back to just soloist, until at the end the soloist evaporates into silence. In the middle there is a remarkable keening episode which seems to be built out of the Dies Irae. This is a striking and imaginative work, and I have no doubt that the high violin part is as fearsome as it appears to be from Harriet Mackenzie's description in the booklet, but she performs with wonderful style. This is the only work on the disc written for full symphony orchestra, rather than just strings.

We finish with Emily Doolittle's falling still, a work for violin and strings dating from 2001. This offers us a lyrical violin over a dark, restless orchestra with a gradual sense of unwinding.

All the works on this disc were written in the space of less than 15 years (2001 to 2014) by composers born in or based in the UK. All the works are different, and show the remarkable vitality of the tradition of writing in the violin concertante form. More remarkably, the four works for string orchestra on the disc show a striking lineage to English 20th century string music, but each composer has developed very much their own voice.

The concertos receive fine performances from the performances, and really make this an enjoyable and highly satisfying disc.

Paul Patterson - Allusions for 2 solo violins and strings (2007) [19:17]
Deborah Prichard - Wall of Water (2014) [21:07]
David Matthews - Romanza for solo violin and string orchestra (2012) [10.49]
Robert Fokkens - An Eventful Morning in East London (2006) [13:12]
Emily Doolittle - falling still for violin and strings (2001) [5.09]
Harriet Mackenzie (violin)
Philippa Mo (violin) [Patterson only]
English String Orchestra [Patterson, Pritchard, Matthews, Doolittle]
English Symphony Orchestra [Fokkens only]
Kenneth Woods (conductor)
Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, 30 January 2017 [[Patterson, Pritchard, Matthews, Doolittle],
 LSO St Lukes (live), 18 October 2014 [Fokkens]
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