I first encountered Geoffrey Burgon's music on Remembrance, a brilliant St. Paul's Cathedral Choir recording on Hyperion. Burgon's piece was a setting of the Nunc dimittis, a work that appeared in his soundtrack to the BBC film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This Chandos recording is the first recording of his orchestral music that I've encountered.
Burgon was a jazz trumpet player so it's not surprising that he would associate the sound of the viola's lower range with American dance music of the 40s. The Viola Concerto has an alto saxophone and drum kit in its orchestral texture, but it's the composer's crafty mix of the pungent percussion and warm-voiced viola that makes this a winning work. I was especially impressed by the Shostakovich-like tango in the middle movement. Philip Dukes is outstanding in the solo part and is blessed with the warm, amber tone that inspired Burgon.
The drum kit also appears in Burgon's Cello Concerto, a work from 2007. There are darker things afoot in this piece. Burgon doubles the low winds and asks the percussion to play in their lowest registers in this score. This is brooding music that pays homage to film noir, (Burgon said "I began to view the soloist as a protagonist in such a film."). The Concerto is a marvelous work and a major addition to the cello and orchestra repertoire, I hope that more cellists take it up. Cellist Josephine Knight has just the right bite for the Concerto's more muscular passages while also playing gently and quietly in the moodier moments.
The song cycle Merciless Beauty was written in 1996-97 for countertenor James Bowman. Four of the seven songs in the cycle are set to texts by the contemporary writer Kit White while the others are from traditional British sources: Chaucer, Blake and the ever-popular Anonymous. This is a marvelous cycle filled with some lush melodies and showcases Burgon's gift for achieving big emotional power with subtle gestures. These days there are few mezzo-sopranos who can stand up to Sarah Connolly (Burgon asked her to record the songs) and she is brilliant throughout. Connolly is sweet-voiced in Letter to Anna, pregnant and powerfully intense in The Sick Rose. Rumon Gamba leads the City of London Sinfonia in performances that are perfectly colored, masterfully shaped and beautifully recorded.