Tuesday 21 March 2023

Friends are nothing, Family nothing, all the world is a wilderness - premiere recording of Jonathan Dove's In Exile

Jonathan Dove: In Exile; Simon Keenlyside, Raphael Wallfisch, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Gergely Madaras; Lyrita

Jonathan Dove: In Exile; Simon Keenlyside, Raphael Wallfisch, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Gergely Madaras; Lyrita
Reviewed 21 March 2023

Inspired by Raphael Wallfisch's family history, this remarkable work for solo baritone, solo cello and orchestra proves to be quite remarkable - dark, complex and profound

Composer Jonathan Dove and cellist Raphael Wallfisch have been talking about Dove writing a cello concerto for Wallfisch for over ten years and this finally came to fruition with the premiere of In Exile at Symphony Hall, Birmingham in December 2021. These performances, recorded live, are the basis for this new disc from Lyrita, in which Gergely Madaras conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Dove's In Exile with baritone Simon Keenlyside and cellist Raphael Wallfisch.

The work is not strictly a cello concerto as there are two soloists, baritone and cello, both incarnating different aspects of the protagonist of In Exile. The work was inspired by Wallfisch's own family history, his father fled to Palestine in 1937 whilst his mother, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, is a concentration camp survivor. In Exile has a series of texts assembled by Alasdair Middleton including an anonymous 10th century text The Wayfarer, Dante, Shakespeare, Emily Lawless (1845-1913), Khalil Gilbran, Kaveh Bassiri from The 99 Names of Exile, and Douglas Hyde (1860-1949), to explore ideas of exile. Cast roughly as a day in the life of an exile in a foreign land, the texts are bleak, beautiful, haunting and very challenging.

Regarding the form of the work, Wallfisch feels that 'the cello represents the soul and spirit of the Exile, the baritone is that person and sings the dramatic and often challenging texts'. The cello has a clear, independent voice, and the work is punctuated by movements for solo cello and orchestra. In fact we begin with the cello, an intense solo moment where the orchestra joins only gradually and the material seems to rise and rise. The effect is not unlike some of John Tavener's large-scale solo cello works.

Dove writes for the voice in a sort of declamatory arioso, which enables Simon Keenlyside to bring out the texts brilliantly. Around the voice, the cello is often more dramatic, more intense, complementing Keenlyside's powerfully expressive bleakness with complexity and vivid emotion. The first vocal section is bleak arioso, sparely written that really evokes a sense of coldness. But emotions vary here in a vivid fashion, and one memorable sequence seems to almost evoke RVW's Sea Symphony, as the voice moves from declamation into something more melodic. 

Much of the colour and drama of the work comes from the cello and the orchestra, but the sheer strength and expressive power of Keenlyside's responsive and very direct performance brings a central anchor to the work. The last couple of movements move from a spare slow march that underpins the setting from The Wayfarer (Middleton's modernisation of a 10th century text), 'Friends are nothing, Family nothing, all the world is a wilderness', to an ending of quiet intensity in a setting of a poem by Irish poet, Douglas Hyde that seems to evaporate into nothing. There is no resolution here, the music seems to say, exile goes on.

This is a terrific piece, in a powerful and moving performance from all concerned. Jonathan Dove's music avoids many of the expressive tropes that often feature in his work, and whilst this is accessible and tonal, it is also remarkably dark, complex and profound. This is not an easy work, and it offers no easy solutions.

We are treated to a short extra at the end. Dove accompanies Wallfisch on the piano in Night Song, a darkly intense piece that derives from the final section of In Exile.

Jonathan Dove (born 1959) - In Exile
Jonathan Dove - Night Song
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Gergely Madaras (conductor)
Jonathan Dove (piano)
Recorded live at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 8-9 December 2021
LYRITA SRCD413 1CD [37:53]

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