Thursday 24 October 2019

The North Wind was a Woman: chamber works by David Bruce centred on the mandolin playing of Avi Avital

The North Wind Was a Woman - David Bruce - Signum Classics
David Bruce Cymbeline, The North Wind was a Woman, The Consolation of Rain; Avi Avital, Dover Quartet, Nora Fischer, The North Wind Ensemble, Camerata Pacifica; SIGNUM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Three intriguing chamber works by David Bruce are full of striking textures and interesting influences

I first came across the music of David Bruce when his opera The Firework-Maker's Daughter was performed at Covent Garden in 2013 [see my review]. And his work, Gumboots, for clarinet and popped up on a disc from Julian Bliss and the Carducci Quartet [see my review]. On this new disc from Signum Classics we hear two chamber works and a song-cycle for soprano and ensemble. Central to the disc are the talents of mandolin player Avi Avital, he and the Dover Quartet perform Bruce's Cymbeline, whilst Avital is part of The North Wind Ensemble which accompanies soprano Nora Fischer in the song cycle The North Wind was a Woman which sets poems by Bruce himself and Alasdair Middleton. The final work on the disc is the instrumental suite The Consolation of Rain performed by the Camerata Pacifica.

Cymbeline was written specially for Avi Avital, and the title refers to an old Celtic word meaning Lord of the Sun, rather than referencing Shakespeare's play! It is in three movements, representing Sunrise, Noon and Sunset, the outer movements more contemplative whilst the central one is livelier. Essential to the work is the fascinating sound combination of mandolin and strings which Bruce uses to create a wide variety of textures. All three movements have a distinctive, very idiomatic character, but I kept hearing both Oriental influences and American folk (as in Appalachian music), yet with popular rhythms too, all combined into something rather appealing.

Alasdair Middleton wrote the libretto to Bruce's opera A Bird in Your Ear, and it was Bruce who approached him with the idea of a sequence of songs with the elements singing (Bruce had read a libretto written for a fellow composer which had included the Sea singing). So Middleton produced a trio of poems (the middle songs of the sequence) which have the Wind in unrequited love, the melancholy and mysterious Night and a very crazed Moon. To these Bruce added the first, the bleak Snow seeing itself as frozen tears, and a Mountain contemplating its only friendship.

The cycle uses mandolin (Avi Avital), harp (Bridget Kibbey), string quartet (Dover Quartet), flute (Tara Helen O'Connor), clarinets (Romie de Guise-Langlois & Moran Katz), percussion (Britton Matthews), and double bass (Kris Saebo). Again we notice Bruce's imaginative use of his instruments to create striking textures to complement Nora Fischer's voice. The Appalachian and Oriental elements seem to occur here too, but we start to recognise Bruce's distinctive voice. Fischer's voice is used to its utmost, with some spectacular high passages, and a remarkable performance as the crazed moon who wants to kill which takes Fischer to her limits. Her diction is not ideal and you do have to resort to the libretto at times.

The final work on the disc, The Consolation of Rain, was written for Camerata Pacifica (Nicholas Daniel, oboe, Ani Aznavoorian cello, Bridget Kibbey harp, Svet Stoyanov percussion). It is in five movements and is inspired by the idea that one can reconnect with someone you love by looking at nature, so here we have a series of evocations of rain. The distinctive combination of instruments makes for fascinating listening, as Bruce weaves some lovely sounds together writing for this unusual combination in an imaginative way. That we again have a plucked instrument, here a harp, at the centre of the piece brings a sort of commonality to the three works on the disc.

The disc's subtitle 'Chamber Works by David Bruce' does not do it justice, and the three pieces on this disc are written with great flair and imagination. Whilst Bruce does write lyrically (he describes The Consolation of Rain as a series of songs without words), his music is complex and richly textured and certainly repays repeated listening.

David Bruce (born 1970) - Cymbeline [15.12]
David Bruce - The North Wind was a Woman [21.54]
David Bruce - The Consolation of Rain [23.04]
Avi Avital (mandolin) and the Dover Quartet (Joel Link, Bryan Lee, Milena Pajaro van de Stadt, Camden Shaw)
Nora Fischer (soprano) and The North Wind Ensemble (Avi Avital mandolin, Bridget Kibbey harp, Dover Quartet, Tara Helen O'Connor flute, Romie de Guise-Langlois & Moran Katz clarinets, Britton Matthews percussion, Kris Saebo double bass)
Camerata Pacifica (Nicholas Daniel, oboe, Ani Aznavoorian cello, Bridget Kibbey harp, Svet Stoyanov percussion)
Recorded 13-14 February 2017, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 21 October 2017, Hahn Hall, Music Academy of the West, California
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Elsewhere on this blog
  • A Night at the Museum: the Oxford Lieder Festival at the Ashmolean Museum (★★★) - concert review
  • Housman and the Greeks at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • Spectacular and distracting: Weber's Der Freischütz in Paris from Insula orchestra and Cie 14:20 (★★) - my opera review
  • A striking new work: the London premiere of Richard Blackford's Pieta (★★) - concert review
  • He discovered something new in himself in the music: Christophe Rousset on exploring 19th century French opera, and continuing his Lully cycle  - interview
  • The Outsiders Fight Back: London Song Festival's imaginative commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots (★★★) - concert review
  • Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, volume II , the Sixteen on CORO (★★) - Cd review
  • A Day of the Dead at the Oxford Lieder Festival: Doric String Quartet, Thomas Oliemans, Malcolm Martineau, Prof. Helen Swift - concert review
  • Intimations of mortality: A Young Man's Exhortation to Boyhood's End at Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • A work of scholarship and a fine performance: Academy of Ancient Music's new recording of Handel's Brockes Passion (★★★) - CD review
  • A barren emotional landscape barely disguised by the production’s kitsch fairy-tale opulence: Turandot, Met Live in HD (★½) - opera review
  • Bringing a rarity alive: Verdi's Un giorno di regno from Chelsea Opera Group (★★) - opera review
  • Voices in the Wilderness: cellist Raphael Wallfisch on his series of cello concertos by exiled Jewish composers - interview
  • Home

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