Wednesday 28 April 2021

Wild Blue Yonder: new disc of chamber music by Eleanor Alberga

Wild Blue Yonder - Eleanor Alberga; Thomas Bowes, Eleanor Alberga, Richard Watkins, Nicholas Daniel, Ensemble Arcadiana; Navona Records

Wild Blue Yonder
- Eleanor Alberga; Thomas Bowes, Eleanor Alberga, Richard Watkins, Nicholas Daniel, Ensemble Arcadiana; Navona Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 April 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The world of sleep, dreams and nightmares explored in this satisfying new disc of chamber music from Eleanor Alberga

Wild Blue Yonder is a new disc from Navona Records featuring four chamber pieces by UK-based Jamaican composer Eleanor Alberga performed by Thomas Bowes (violin), Eleanor Alberga (piano), Richard Watkins (horn), Nicholas Daniel (oboe) and Ensemble Arcadiana.

The album was originally planned to have a somewhat different shape, but the events of 2020 forced the cancellation of recordings of two of Alberga's large-scale chamber pieces. So the new disc features new recordings of Alberga's Shining Gate of Morpheus for horn and string quartet (2012) and Succubus Moon for oboe and string quartet (2007) plus live archive recordings of two works for violin and piano, No-man's land Lullaby (1997) and The Wild Blue Yonder (1995).

Often, composer-led discs can end up being a semi-random assemblage of achievable recordings (and I speak from experience here), but despite the changes wrought by 2020, Alberga's programme on the disc has a rather satisfying shape and the four pieces work together as a whole, but I do hope that we get to hear the missing works in the not so distant future!

As Thomas Bowes (violinist on the disc and Alberga's husband) writes, the album can be heard as a journey of several encounters in the realm of sleep and dreams, ranging from demons, comforters, guardian angels and more impish spirits.

We begin with No-man's-land Lullaby for violin and piano. Written in 1996, the piece was partly inspired by visiting Central Europe and seeing the beauty of a landscape which had played host to two world wars. Paul Fussell's book The Great War and Modern Memory played a role in filling in detail, but Alberga also acknowledges the piece's recognition of her own European heritage and the realisation that two World Wars were part of her heritage too.

The work starts quietly, and after episodes of fear, anticipation and going into battle the music evokes those abandoned to die in No Man's Land. The opening is eerie and whilst Alberga's language is tonal the music takes us to strange places. This continues as the work develops, with the sinuous violin line going onwards. There are dramatic interludes and interpolations, but we end back with the haunting violin and a distant evocation of Brahms' lullaby - magical

From here the music moves to the world of dreams, the world of Morpheus, god of dreams and sleep. Shining Gate of Morpheus for horn and string quartet was a result of Alberga's continuing fascination with the world of Greek myth. In her booklet note she explains that "It is said that false dreams enter through gates of ivory, and true dreams through gates of shining horn. In Greek, the word for 'ivory' is like the word for 'deceive' and the word for horn is similar to that for 'fulfil'; thus the use of the horn as a musical instrument is significant."

The work is in a single movement, moving from a short introduction evoking the world of sleep through a fanfare into the world of dreams. Imaginative textures in the strings lead to the opening horn solo, perhaps evoking a mix of hunting and Britten's opening melody for his Serenade. The work seems to progress as sections linked by striking passages for the strings. Throughout there is a sense of the five instruments interacting, this isn't a mini horn concerto. This world of dreams is wonderful, eventful and inventive,

Succubus Moon for oboe and string quartet, which was commissioned by the City of London Festival, explores rather darker territories and takes as its inspiration Incubi and Succubi, evil presences doing harm to humans. In a single movement, we start from eerie silence with just a single oboe note coming and going, gradually emerging into an eerie soundscape which develops into something seductive yet unsettling. Again, I was struck by the imaginative textures of Alberga's writing for the five instruments. There are some terrifying climaxes, but end up back in a sort of disturbing silence.    

Finally, comes The Wild Blue Yonder which explores the idea of arriving in a strange, alien environment. Violin and piano tell a striking narrative, where the music never quite settles, but turns quite and angry. Alberga describes it as constructed from several unrelated fragments. By the end, though the frenzy has quietened, there seems no real resolution.

Ensemble Arcadiana is led by Alberga's husband, Thomas Bowes, and the ensemble arises out of the annual Arcadia Festival in the Welsh Marches, which Alberga and Bowes founded in 2010. Ensemble Arcadiana features in the studio recordings of Succubus Moon and Shining Gates of Morpheus with Richard Watkins (horn) and Nicholas Daniel (oboe). Whilst the other two works are live recordings made by Thomas Bowes and Eleanor Alberga in the 1990s.

This is a striking and highly satisfying disc, and there is a great deal to enjoy both in Alberga's writing for her chamber forces and in the dramatic narratives that she weaves.

Eleanor Alberga (born 1949) - No-man's-land Lullaby (1997) [10:16]
Eleanor Alberga - Shining Gate of Morpheus (2012) [13:12]
Eleanor Alberga - Succubus Moon (2007) [14:19]
Eleanor Alberga - The Wild Blue Yonder (1995) [11:45]
Thomas Bowes (violin)
Eleanor Alberga (piano)
Richard Watkins (horn)
Nicholas Daniel (oboe)
Ensemble Arcadiana (Thomas Bowes, Oscar Perks, Andres Kaljuste, Hannah Sloane)
Recorded live at Studio 1, University of Surrey, 2 December 1997; at Wyastone Concert Hall, 7-8 October 2019; live at St John's Smith Square, 22 November 1996

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