Tuesday 26 March 2019

Dance Maze: new chamber music by Tom Armstrong on Resonus Classics

Dance Maze - Tom Armstrong - Resonus Classics
Dance Maze chamber music by Tom Armstrong; Simon Desbruslais, Jakob Fichert, Nicola Meecham, Audrew Riley, James Woodrow, Fidelio Trio; Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 March 2019 
Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Revision and re-working is the key to this fascinating collection of chamber music from contemporary British composer

This disc from Resonus Classics is an intriguing selection of the recent chamber music by the contemporary British composer Thomas Armstrong. Performed by Simon Desbruslais (trumpet), Jakob Fichert (piano), Nicola Meecham (piano), Audrey Riley (cello), James Woodrow (electric guitar) and the Fidelio Trio (Darragh Morgan, Robin Michael, Mary Dullea), we have six pieces which span a remarkable range of Armstrong's career.

The selection of pieces presents a remarkable example of Armstrong's technique as each piece is part of a process of revision which seems to be an ongoing part of Armstrong's compositional process. Some are replacements, though it seems that Armstrong is keeping the original versions as a separate revisional layer, whilst others create parallel versions often changing structure and instrumentation, a duet for electric guitar and harpsichord being re-written for piano trio.

In the cast of the piano suite, Morning Music (2012-2015), the smaller movements are in fact re-workings and re-visitings of the material used to create the longest movement, 'Aubade'. In Divertissements for piano trio (2009) we are hearing the revision of the original electric guitar and harpsichord.  And with Diversions 3 for electric guitar and cello, we also have a significant re-working of original material. And then we have Dance Maze in which we are presented with two versions, the original for piano which was written in 1994 and has itself been revised, and then the revised version for trumpet and piano from 2016-17 (and on the download, there is a version for trumpet only as well). The final work on the disc Akin is not strictly a revision, or reworking, but is inflected by previous material.

The four movements of Morning Music for piano solo are very different, the tiny 'Limit' with spare notes suspended in mid-air, the perky, spiky, and equally tiny 'Trails' and then the more substantial 'Aubade', still spare with placed chord and occasional flurries, with 'Relay' finishing with angular fragmentary motifs, often aggressive but also with a use of space between the material. {Relay is only available on the download version].

Divertissements for piano trio is constructed as a collage of vivid fragments, often repeated, with the mood changing as the music unwinds and then gets highly rhythmic again, and there are intriguing hints of dance music within the material.  Diversions 3, for electric guitar and cello, starts as a jagged dialogue between the two instruments, though as the piece evolves they move into interesting unisons and the whole piece has a rather interesting use of timbre though at over 17 mintues long it perhaps outstayed its welcome.

With the versions of Dance Maze we have long workings out of structural material, jagged fragments which build up into terrific moments, and hints of jazz and dance in the motifs. With the second version, for trumpet and piano, the insistent repetition of motifs is very noticeable with a sense of high energy. The two versions of Dance Maze together last over 30 minutes and by the end I felt that I had spent plenty long enough with the material. And in fact the digital version of the disc has a third version of Dance Maze on it, this time for trumpet solo which provides us with yet another, rather more austere view of the same material.

Akin, for violin and piano, again re-visits the idea of jagged edged material in dialogue, incessant rhythms and high energy.

All the performers on the disc give strong performances, clearly engaged with dynamic and striking music.

Listening to this disc, with much of the music full of facinating energy and ideas, I did wonder whether composers are the best people to select the material for performance on discs, whether we might have got a stronger programme by contrasting Dance Maze with other material rather than with versions of itself. As it is, this disc represents a striking exploration of Armstrong's fascination with the working out and revising of material, and an unusual demonstration of compositional process in the making.

Tom Armstrong - Morning Music
Tom Armstrong - Divertissements
Tom Armstrong - Diversions 3
Tom Armstrong - Dance Maze:Variations for Piano
Tom Armstrong - Dance Maze: Duos for Trumpet and Piano
Tom Armstrong - Akin
Tom Armstrong - Dance Maze: Solos for Trumpet
Simon Desbruslais (trumpet)
Jakob Fichert (piano)
Nicola Meecham (piano)
Audrey Riley (cello)
James Woodrow (electric guitar)
Fidelio Trio (Darragh Morgan: violin, Robin Michael: cello, Mary Dullea: piano)
Recorded Studio One, PATS Building, University of Surrey 27 Dec 2011, 25 Sep 2014, 19 June 2017, 20 Dec 2017


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