Tuesday 14 April 2020

A profound sense of imagination: music for unusual combinations of instruments by Howard Skempton on 'The man hurdy-gurdy and me'

Howard Skempton The man hurdy-gurdy and me; Sirinu; metier
Howard Skempton The man hurdy-gurdy and me; Sirinu; metier
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 April 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Chamber music by Howard Skempton, from miniatures to two larger-scale concertos, all for unusual combinations of instruments

This disc from the ensemble Sirinu on Divine Art's metier label brings together some of Howard Skempton's chamber pieces, mainly for unusual instrumental combinations. So we have a chamber version of the Concerto for Accordion and Oboe, and the Concerto for Hurdy-gurdy and Percussion, alongside a selection of smaller pieces performed by Sara Stowe (soprano, keyboard, gamelan), Matthew Spring (hurdy-gurdy, lute, viol, gamelan, double bass), Jon Banks (accordion, medieval harp, gamelan), Chris Brannick (percussion, gamelan), Christopher Redgate (oboe, harpsichord, gamelan) and Isabelle Carre (flute, alto flute, piccolo, recorder, gamelan).

Sirinu is a British ensemble specialising in early and world music, and one of their interests is commissioning new music for old instruments. So on this disc the three founders of Sirinu, Sara Stowe, Matthew Spring and Jon Banks are joined by musicians from contemporary music and from world music for a programme inspired by a piece by Skempton written for Sirinu.

So we start with The man hurdy-gurdy and me, for soprano, hurdy-gurdy, medieval harp and percussion which was commissioned for three members of Sirinu, Sara Stowe, Matthew Spring and Jon Banks in 2011. The text, by Alison Golding, tells the story of the hurdy-gurdy, and the combination of timbres is profoundly intriguing. Skempton creates a sound which is at the same time rather old and very modern.

Next comes Random Girl for oboe and vibraphone, which uses the vibraphone melodically and engages it in dialogue with the oboe. The title comes from Skempton's son's description of an encounter in the local pub! The piece starts with a rather haunting melody on the vibraphone, before the oboe finally enters with a comment on it, developing a complex dialogue. As with much of Skempton's music, the material is apparently simple yet the results complex.

Skempton's Two Highland Dances were originally written for piano, and here arranged for lute. The second of the pair comes first on the disc, a tiny piece which makes a rather haunting lute solo.

Written in 1997, the Concerto for Accordion and Oboe originally used orchestral accompaniment, but is here heard in a version for accordion, oboe, flute/alto flute, keyboard and double bass by Sara Stowe. Skempton uses variation form, starting with a striking and dynamic melody on the accordion to which the other instruments gradually add. The rhythmic propulsion of the original melody is never far away, even when Skempton slows his material down. Again Skempton creates a fascinating sound-world with his instruments, something which Sara Stowe's reduction plays on, to create a real chamber piece. The rhythmic nature of the work, whilst clearly Skempton, combined with the sound of the accordion does sometimes hark back to the music of someone like Kurt Weill and the Weimar Republic.

Apple-Blow was written in 1993 for the striking combination of soprano and gamelan; the text is by Mary Webb. I have no idea how Javanese Skempton's writing for gamelan is, and the opening of the piece very much reminded me of a work for musical clock! It is totally charming, and when Stowe's soprano finally comes in she only adds to the atmosphere.

Bagatelle for solo flute is tiny, and here Skempton's writing is more angular, with a long and apparently endless melodic line full of jumps and angles. Gentle Melody is written for Skempton's own instrument, the accordion and is a delightful dance reminiscent of many fairground experiences. It is quite short, but I did rather feel it stretched the material out somewhat.

Setting a poem by Christina Rossetti, Winter: My Secret is for soprano, recorder, treble viol and harpsichord, being commissioned in 2012 for a concert marking Alfred Deller's centenary. Here, again, Skempton creates some striking contemporary textures using the old instruments. Here and on the other vocal items, you do rather need to follow with the printed text; Skempton's instrumental approach to text setting does not facilitate easy diction. For this Rossetti setting, he writes an almost continuous line for the soprano, barely giving pause for the poem's paragraphs, instead creating a sense of constant forward motion.

Gloss for oboe and vibraphone is a companion to Random Girl, here we have a high, keening oboe with the vibraphone placing notes in the air as accompaniment. With the next piece, we return to the lute in the first of Two Highland Dances, a gentle, rhythmic dances.

The text for Feste's Song comes from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, here for soprano, guitar and treble recorder. You feel that Skempton was less interested in the particulars of the text than in creating a striking and evocative texture. Here the recorder doubles the voice whilst the guitar thrums underneath. As with earlier text pieces on the disc, Skempton's setting creates a feeling of constant forward motion.

The Beauty of the Morning is written for a trio of the higher instruments in the Javanese gamelan, again creating a haunting, rather musical clock-like atmosphere at once striking and meditative. Half Moon is another of Skempton's miniatures, this time for flute and accordion. It is a slow, thoughtful piece, with the flute being used almost as part of the accordion, colouring the instrument's upper line.

The disc ends with Skempton's 1994 Concerto for Hurdy-gurdy and Percussion, originally written for Evelyn Glennie and Nigel Eaton, in a chamber version for hurdy-gurdy, percussion, oboe, flute/piccolo and keyboard by Matthew Spring (from Sirinu) who also gave the work's European premiere in 2005. The opening solo for hurdy-gurdy has Indian influences, but it also hints at another sound-world, that of the Scots bagpipe and this is built on in the way the other instruments (including a drum) join in and add to the initial sound. Only gradually does Skempton move away from the Highland sound, till we are in a far more exotic world. After the highly rhythmic opening, the work feels like a gradually unwinding, and finally the opening material returns in a rather different light.

What one takes away from this disc is Howard Skempton's profound sense of imagination when dealing with unusual and intriguing combinations of instruments. In each combination he comes up with a sound world at once simple yet intensely intrinsic to the instruments concerned. The performances from Sirinu are terrific, with each performer playing a number of roles. This is a disc to delight and intrigue.

Howard Skempton (born 1947) - The man hurdy-gurdy and me
Howard Skempton - Random Girl
Howard Skempton - Two Highland Dances - no. 2
Howard Skempton - Concerto for Accordion and Oboe
Howard Skempton - Apple-Blow
Howard Skempton - Bagatelle
Howard Skempton - Gentle Melody
Howard Skempton - Winter, My Secret
Howard Skempton - Gloss
Howard Skempton - Two Highland Dances - No. 1
Howard Skempton - Feste's Song
Howard Skempton - The Beauty of the Morning
Howard Skempton - Half Moon
Howard Skempton - Concerto for Hurdy-gurdy and Percussion
Sirinu (Sara Stowe - soprano, keyboard, gamelan, Matthew Spring - hurdy-gury, lute, viol, gamelan, double bass, Jon Banks - accordion, medieval harp, gamelan, Chris Brannick - percussion, gamelan, Christopher Redgate - oboe, harpsichord, gamelan, Isabelle Carre - flute, alto flute, piccolo, recorder, gamelan)
Recorded 10-11 July 2017, St Giles Church, Bletchingdon, Oxfordshire
metier msv28580 1CD [63.63]

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