- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
It's not clear reading the liner notes what the "Britten Sinfonia" exactly is, apparently an ensemble of varying lineups and dimensions devoted to contemporary music. Here it goes from string octet to violin-clarinet-piano trio or song with oboe and piano. Well, they have a website and it turns out that, founded in 1992 as an "East of England" orchestra, with Nicholas Cleobury as their artistic director (he stepped down in 2004 to become the orchestra's "Founder Laureate"), "Britten Sinfonia breaks the mould by not having a principal conductor or director, instead choosing to collaborate with a range of the finest international guest artists from across the musical spectrum, resulting in performances of rare insight and energy. Britten Sinfonia is an Associate Ensemble at the Barbican in London, and has residencies across the east of England in Norwich, Brighton and Cambridge (where it is the University's orchestra-in-association). The orchestra also performs a chamber music series at Wigmore Hall and appears regularly at major UK festivals including Aldeburgh and the BBC Proms. The orchestra's growing international profile includes regular touring to Mexico, South America and Europe. In February 2012, Britten Sinfonia made its North American debut at Lincoln Centre, New York." And they are NOT an only- contemporary-music ensemble.
The unifying feature in the CD's program is that the five works are commissions by the Britten Sinfonia - and apparently they were all given in the "Briten Sinfonia at lunch" series, at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge. They were recorded between 2005 and 2007. But those works deserve to be heard not just at lunchtime.
Steve Martland's Tiger Dancing for string octet (three violins and one double bass) is typical Martland, upbeat, exciting, rhythmic, syncopated, dance-like and superficial, but with flights of fancy (including a long passage for pizzicatti) that sustain interest.
Huw Watkins' short Dream for Violin, Clarinet and Piano starts in a dreamy and mysterious mood that could be the kind of cross-breed of contemporary and world music that is typical of the work of Kevin Volans for instance, except that the mood is interrupted by a more explosive, dissonant and thorny central section.
Tarik O'Regan's Raï (b. 1978) is said to be inspired by Arab, and more specifically Algerian dance music (although born and educated in Britain, O'Regan spent much of his childhood in Algeria), but really it sounds like the kind of exciting, syncopated, upbreat and repetitive world music/dance music that a Volans, Martland or Torke might have composed, interrupted by a dreamy and wistful central episode.
Jason Yarde is described as " "multi-faceted composer, arranger, producer, musical director and saxophonist" with a "freely-experimental approach to combining different soundworlds" which "has seen him bring together aspects of progressive jazz, classical, hip-hop fusion, free improvistion, broken beats, R&B, reggae and soul, to name a few". Well, "Who Knows the Beauty" for piano, sax (played by Yarde), violin, viola and bass, is jazz-inspired, and it sounds like progressive jazz, sometimes easy-listening and lyrical, sometimes aggressive and thorny. I found its 16:31 minutes a little too long to fully sustain interest, though.
I don't usually like the mystical neo-simplicity of John Tavener, but his "Songs of the Sky", written to the memory of the victims of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, are moving, opening with a dirge-like Dedicatio on the words "In memoriam victimarum Tsunami" of Medieval austerity, but one of the cycle's most affecting gestures is that Tavener sets an unexpected array of poems, American Indian, Japanese Haiku, Bengali Hymn to Kali, and while all these poems deal indeed in a way or another with death (texts provided), the moods are, unexpectedly again, not uniformly mourning, some of the songs are joyous and celebratory (II Song of the Ghost Dance), dreamily ecstatic (III Nothing Lives Long), child-like (IV What Is Life?), angry and violent (VI All Doctrines Split Asunder), and the 11th and final song, "Because Thou lovest the burning-ground", seems to traverse all these moods. Except for this last one, each song is also very short and terse, of Haiku length. Tavener uses the sparse accompaniment of oboe and piano to a great variety of colors. Britten comes to mind, and not just because of the typical use of tenor voice. The 8th song, starting at 12:53 (songs are not individually cued), is particularly beautiful, tenor singing in falsetto voice a very slow melisma in quasi unison with the oboe alone, on the words "Empty-handed I entered the world / Barefoot I leave it. /My coming, my going- / Two simple happenings / That got entangled."
Tributes or mementos to such tragedies are difficult and dangerous pieces to compose, because chances are, they will not be up to the tragedy and sufferings they caused and will appear as just trying to surf on a tragic event. But here Tavener has offered a fitting tribute, a masterpiece even, and it deserves wide circulation and many recordings.
CD's TT is a generous 76:19.