Category Archives: CD review

Steps Volume 1 – the journey begins

I first encountered the piano music of British composer Peter Seabourne in 2016 when he kindly sent me the scores and recordings of his Steps Volumes 2, 3, 4 and 5. Conceived and organised as “a pianist’s Winterreise”, the music is remarkably varied yet highly accessible and recalls the piano music of Debussy, Janacek, Prokofiev and Messiaen in its piquant harmonies, lyricism, and rhythmic adventurousness. Seabourne describes the series as “a compositional travelling companion” and the collection works more like a cycle rather than a progressional series such as Bartok’s Mikrokosmos.

Although composed over ten years ago, the pieces which comprise Steps Volume 1 have now been released (on the Sheva label), performed by Korean pianist Minjeong Shin. The first volume is not intended as a cycle, but rather a set of pieces in the manner of Grieg’s ‘Lyric Pieces’ or Janacek’s ‘On An Overgrown Path’,  for example, and the works have evocative titles, many of which are drawn from poetry by Emily Dickenson, Sylvia Plath, Rilke and Swinburne. The range of expression, character and emotional power of these pieces is impressive, hinting at a lively, inquisitive and all-encompassing attitude to creating music (as the composer says himself, “I am with Mahler: music should contain all of life!“), and the broad scope of the music, together with its inherent expressivity, lyricism and romanticism, makes it immediately appealing. There are atmospheric etudes, aphoristic miniatures, expansive character pieces, and intimate, poetic preludes. Minjeong Shin’s sensitive response to the shifting moods and myriad soundscapes reveals the music’s astonishing variety and virtuosity.

The CD’s comprehensive booklet was written by the composer himself and contains detailed programme notes for each work, together with biographical information on performer and composer.

In Steps Volume 1, and indeed in the other volumes in the cycle, Peter Seabourne has created contemporary piano music which is accessible and appealing to professional and amateur pianists alike (he has also made the score readily available via his website), and it is most gratifying to have such a varied contribution to the ever-growing repertory of new music for piano.

Recommended.

 

Buy Steps Volume 1

Review of the other volumes in the Steps series

 

 

Meditative stillness: ‘Stations of the Cross’ by Simon Vincent

simon_vincent__stations_of_the_cross‘Stations of the Cross’, a new work for solo piano by British composer and pianist Simon Vincent, was inspired by a visit to Jerusalem in 2015 and by William Fairbanks’ installation in Lincoln Cathedral. Entitled Forest Stations, the installation is a series of sculptures in wood and reflects Fairbanks’ love of timber and his concern about the preservation of forests and trees. The sculptures tell the story of Christ’s death, the ‘Stations of the Cross’ being the places on the route to the place of Crucifixion where Christ is said to have stopped. For the faithful, each station, or stopping point, provides a point of prayer and meditation on the Passion of Christ.

Simon Vincent’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ (2016) is a series of 17 short movements, depicting Christ’s spiritual, emotional and corporeal journey to his death on the cross.

It is intended that the work opens up reflection and discussion of the image of a sole human figure weighed down with burden, an image which for me raises issues of the relationship of the individual to both a society and state which are not only capable of looking away but also of allowing suffering: themes of truly vital relevance to us today

– Simon Vincent

The work is prefaced by an earlier piece, ‘Meditations on Christ in the Garden of Gethsamane’ (2013) whose sombre, reflective mood prepares the listener for the main work on the disc. Musically, ‘Stations of the Cross’ owes much to Morton Feldman, master of stillness and controlled, deliberate silences, while the concept of a cycle of devotional meditations connects this work to Messiaen’s epic ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus’. 

Vincent’s carefully-placed chords are infused with jazz harmonies, while subtleties of tonal colour are achieved through long, sustained notes and the piano’s resonance. It’s the kind of music that demands to be heard live, preferably in an acoustic which allows the timbres and unexpected fleeting clusters of notes and rhythmic fragments to linger in the air like memories.

It was Claude Debussy who declared that “music is the space between the notes”, and the pauses and fermatas which colour ‘Stations of the Cross’ allow one to fully appreciate every single note and chord. Into this void, the sounds reverberate and resonate with a meditative stillness and restrained expressive gravity. The effect is powerfully cumulative, despite the brevity of each movement, with a sense of the music building inevitably towards its contemplative conclusion.

The work receives its world premiere on 18th April 2017 in a concert given by the composer in the Chapter House of Lincoln Cathedral. Further information

A Meet the Artist interview with Simon Vincent will be published shortly.

 

If you listen to one thing this week…….

Sibelius Piano Works, vol 1 – Joseph Tong

I had no idea that Jean Sibelius composed for the piano until Joseph Tong played ‘The Trees’ Op 75 at a concert for my local musical society. I was really taken with the variety and expressive and imaginative qualities of these piano miniatures and rushed home to explore some of Sibelius’ piano music myself. The next time Joseph Tong came to perform at the NPL Musical Society, he gave me a copy of his CD and I have been enjoying exploring the range and variety of Sibelius’s writing for the piano.

Although the violin was his main instrument, Sibelius was also a gifted pianist and his piano music is fresh and original, as this recording will attest. The opening ‘Kyllikki’ triptych has a broad romantic sweep, while ‘The Trees’ and ‘The Flowers’ are intimate, characteristic salon pieces, as evocative as any of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces with hints of impressionist and expressionist writing. The ‘Five Romantic Pieces’ display richer, more textural piano writing and hint at the composer’s growing penchant for orchestral melodies. The ‘Esquisses’ (1929) are the last pieces Silbelius composed for solo piano, but they were not published until 1973 and are not widely known. They represent the composer’s increasingly personal response to nature and utilise devices such as modes and a bold approach to harmony. Wistful and pensive, they hint at darker places beyond their titles.

The album closes with the composer’s own transcription of  his celebrated nationalist work ‘Finlandia’ which loses nothing and indeed gains much in its solo piano version, especially in Joseph Tong’s authoritative handling of the dramatic tremolandos and majestic sonorous chords of the opening measures and the sensitively portrayed chorale which is intimate and tender.

Joseph Tong is a champion of Sibelius’s piano music and his studies have taken him to Finland to the composer’s home in Ainola, where he played the composer’s own Steinway piano. His commitment to this music is evident in his sensitive shaping and pacing of these piano works. The piano sound on this recording is excellent, warm and clear, and there is much to enjoy on this disc. I believe a second volume is planned.

Recommended.

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Jean Sibelius Piano Works, Volume 1

Kyllikki, Op.41
Five Pieces “The Trees”, Op. 75
Five Pieces “The Flowers”, Op. 85
Five Romantic Pieces, Op. 101
Five Esquisses, Op. 114
Two Rondinos, Op. 68
Finlandia, Op. 26

Joseph Tong, piano

Quartz Music

Haydn: Sonatas & Variations – Leon McCawley

sommcd0162Whenever I hear Haydn’s piano music played well, I want to rush to my piano to play it myself. Such was the effect of listening to Leon McCawley‘s new ‘Sonatas and Variations’ disc on the Somm label. Haydn’s piano music is not performed enough, in my humble opinion, so it is a pleasure to have a recording of such quality to enjoy.

A brace each of sonatas in major and minor keys, these works have long been part of McCawley’s concert repertoire, and this shows in his deft and insightful handling of articulation, dynamics and Haydn’s rapid changes of mood. Nothing feels forced nor contrived, and there’s wit and humour aplenty, especially in the C major Sonata (No. 60, Hob. XVI/50) which shows Haydn (and McCawley) thoroughly enjoying his mastery of the instrument and its capabilities. McCawley brings elegance and spaciousness to the slow movements, revealing fine details of inner voices. Haydn’s final piano sonata, No. 62 in E flat Hob. XVI/52, which unlike the last sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert was composed some 15 years before Haydn died, rather than at the end of his life, combines grandeur and exuberance in its opening movement, while the slow movement has a stately nobility. The finale is a lively romp, but despite the rapid tempo, there is never any loss of detail or precision.

The F minor Variations are a delight, at once melancholy and wistful in the minor variations, and gracious, playful and warm in the major ones. Interior details are highlighted and a sense of the overall architecture and narrative of the work is clear. And I am pleased to note that McCawley observes all the repeats, which turns this work into something enjoyably substantial. Throughout there is tasteful pedalling and the piano has a lovely clarity, perfect for this music.

Recommended.

Haydn
Piano Sonatas
No. 53 in E minor
No. 60 in C major,
No. 33 in C minor
No. 62 in E flat major
Variations in F minor Hob. HVII/6
Leon McCawley, Piano

SOMMCD 0162

 

 

Kenneth Hamilton plays Ronald Stevenson, volume 1

81u7rrpufwl-_sl1500_The Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson died in March 2015. He was one of the most important composers of our time, a composer-pianist in the grand tradition of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov, probably best remembered for his monumental Passcaglia on DSCH, his tribute to Shostakovich composed in 1962. Stevenson has been compared to Liszt and Busoni: he transcribed many works for piano, and he was also a generous supporter of other musicians and students. His musical language is also redolent of these composers, as well Chopin and Alkan, but always with its own distinctive voice and an awareness of his adopted Scottish heritage.

This new disc by pianist and academic Kenneth Hamilton, which marks the beginning of Hamilton’s survey of Stevenson’s vast keyboard output, avoids the really large-scale works, though the Peter Grimes Fantasy is pretty substantial – Stevenson’s own Lisztian operatic paraphrase, in which themes from Britten’s opera are woven into music of expansive, inventive virtuosity and vivid imagination.

The disc works well as a “recital programme” offering an excellent introduction to Stevenson’s varied oeuvre. Alongside the more meaty works such as Beltane Bonfire and Symphonic Elegy for Liszt, there are shorter works, including transcriptions of Scottish folk songs and Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull, which are reminiscent of Percy Grainger in the combining of rich harmonies and textures with period music.

Hamilton studied with Stevenson and his understanding of the composer’s personal idioms is evident in his masterful handling of this music: robust and sweepingly romantic in the more bravura works, charming and witty in the shorter pieces with moments of luminous delicacy, as, for example, in Stevenson’s transcription of Rachmaninov’s Lilacs, which is all filigree textures, echoed in the opening of the transcription of Ivor Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs.

Recorded on a Hamburg Steinway at the School of Music, Cardiff University, Hamilton achieves a warm resonant sound which is particularly suited to the more expansive, textural works, though occasionally a little too dominant. Overall a most enjoyable disc with comprehensive liner notes by Kenneth Hamilton, which draw on his studies and conversations with Stevenson.

PRIMA FACIE PFCD050 1CD

primafacie.ascrecords.com

‘It May Have Been’ – the piano works of Paul Burnell

it20may20have20been20album20front20cover201500This new album celebrates the piano music of British composer Paul Burnell, spanning 30 years. Paul had recorded and produced previous albums himself, but in this instance he decided it was time to work with another musician, the pianist, composer and recording engineer James Bacon who runs the Piano Recording Studio. The music was recorded on a Bosendorfer Phoenix Imperial 290, fitted with the Phoenix agraffe system pioneered by Richard Dain at Hurstwood Farm Pianos, which gives the piano greater sustain and clarity of sound, especially in the high registers. This makes it ideal for Burnell’s piano music, much of which explores the timbre and sonic possibilities of the piano rather than melody per se.

“Unembellished, unfussy, unsophisticated…..and short” – Burnell’s own programme note for his Plain Pieces, a triptych dedicated to pianist Natalie Bleicher, could be applied to all the music on this album, though I would hesitate to use the word “unsophisticated”. Short, unfussy these pieces might be, but there is sophistication in the careful placing of notes to create subtle shadings, unexpected harmonies and suspended sounds. “Minimalist” is a description which immediately springs to mind on first hearing Burnell’s music, but this is not the frenetic (sometimes irritatingly so) repetitious minimalism of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, but rather the more contemplative and spare minimalism of composers such as Lawrence Crane, whom Burnell cites as important influence (It May Have Been, Just Before Dawn). The more up-tempo pieces here (Pacer Nos, 1, 2 and 3) owe more to Howard Skempton (another significant influence) in the use of changing chords and sequences to create energy and climactic episodes. There are also echoes of that other great American minimalist, Steve Reich, in Standing in the Rain. Composed in the mid-1980s, the piece features a persistent rhythmic figure redolent of Reich’s Clapping Music and similar compositions.

Paul was kind enough to send me copies of the scores of the pieces featured on this album and it has been a pleasure to explore the music both through listening and playing. The music is accessible (roughly Grade 3-7) and attractive, but not simplistic (see my earlier comments about sophistication) and it takes a skilled and thoughtful pianist to create the considered sounds which Burnell’s music requires. This music also offers the piano student a good introduction to minimalism and provides a jumping off point for further exploration of this genre.

James Bacon brings the works to life on this recording with clarity, sensitivity and creativity – adding a drone to 2 Ping – combined with his technical expertise in the field of recording and sound engineering, and superb state-of-the-art equipment.

Recommended.

‘It May Have Been’ is available from iTunes, Amazon and other retailers as a download or CD, and can also be streamed on Spotify.

Paul Burnell’s Meet the Artist interview will be published shortly.

 

 

 

 

 

If you listen to one thing this week…….

‘Heading for the Hills’ by Nobuya Monta and Peter Byrom-Smith
a1757970457_10
Performed by Strata String Quartet
Violin 1: Oliver Morris
Violin 2: Alexandra Dunn
Viola: Laurie Dempsey / Alice Billen
Cello: Roderick Skipp

Recorded at Blueprint Studios, Salford
Mixed and Mastered by Gaz Hadfield
Cover design by Louis Barabbas

Debt Records, released July 15, 2016

This first classical release by Debt Records celebrates a groundbreaking East-West collaborative partnership between Japanese composer Nobuya Monta and British composer Peter Byrom-Smith. ‘Heading for the Hills’, a suite in 10 movements for string quartet, is the main work on the album, bookended by Sonata Lamentosa and Sinfonia by Monta. Peter Byrom-Smith’s work, which lends its title to the album, is a tribute to the landscape of the Peak District close to where Peter and his wife Gillian, a poet, have made their home in Glossop in Derbyshire.

“The title of the album was taken from a poem written by my wife Gillian Byrom-Smith. The poem was inspired by the frequent rail journeys we have taken across the flat Vale of York towards the beauty of the Pennines.”

The main six movements of the work are musical images of real journeys between the east and west of England, depicting things the composer observed, or thought he had observed during the course of these journeys (Galleons, Swallows, Raindrops, Heading for the Hills Lanterns, Buds). A Prelude and Postlude were added to complete the work – and the journey – so that the suite works as an entire narrative when performed in concert. No. 7, Buds, was composed by Nobuya Monta and Peter Byrom-Smith.

This haunting, expressive and evocative music contains hints of British minimalist composer Michael Nyman, but without the (sometimes tiresome) insistent repetitions. Byrom-Smith seems more intent on using melody, harmony and dialogue between the instruments to create interesting textures and musical interactions. Motifs are stated, restated and developed, for example the dancing figure which opens over a drone in ‘Raindrops’  develops into a playful, twirling dance between the instruments. Here there are more than a few hints of English folksong and dance before the middle section unfolds in a more contemplative manner. Later, the folksy motif returns and an insistent little fanfare is heard in all instruments. 

‘Swallows’ creates a feeling of space, of birds wheeling and circling in the sky, with its contoured melodic lines and delicate fioriture, redolent of the solo violin line in ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Vaughan-Williams. ‘Buds’ unfolds slowly, just as a flower or plant opens to reveal itself. The final work in the suite, Postlude, recalls themes heard previously in the Prelude and introduces new material to bring the narrative and imagery to its conclusion.

Nobuya Monta’s ‘Sonata Lamentosa’ is an emotional response to the tragedies that have occurred all over the world. The textures here are more florid, the mood more urgent with an almost Schubertian melancholy (cf String Quartet No. 14, ‘Death and the Maiden’), though, as in Schubert, there is also a sense of hope. 

The closing work on the album, ‘Sinfonia’, is also by Monta, and once again seems infused with the moods and motifs of late Schubert and the harmonic and rhythmic piquancy of the early twentieth century (Ravel, Debussy). It utilises contrapuntal textures and the second movement is a thrilling fugue.

‘Heading for the Hills’ – CD or download

Composer Peter Byrom-Smith will featured in forthcoming Meet the Artist interview

 

 

 

 

Un Hommage a Erik

Piano pieces inspired by Erik Satie

biography-default2016 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Erik Alfred Leslie Satie, and to celebrate this occasion British composer Richard Fowles has released a personal hommage to Satie and his musical orginality.

Today Satie’s Three Gymnopedies are amongst the most well-known and much-loved music for piano, but during his lifetime, Satie was relatively unknown to much of the musical world. An unremarkable student, he was bohemian by nature, sceptical of established ideas and authorities, and was considered lazy by his teachers. Despite his relatively low profile during his lifetime, Satie helped shape the music of the 20th century: he was an inspiration and mentor to the group of composers known as “Les Six”, which included Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger, and influenced contemporaries such as Debussy and Ravel who recognised him as a “new spirit” with a highly original approach to composition. It was not until the mid-20th century that his work became more widely known and appreciated, thanks in part to the endorsement of American composer John Cage.

Composer Richard Fowles was encouraged to pursue this composing project by his piano teacher at Brunel University, Sally Goodworth, after he wrote a couple of Satie-inspired pieces as a student. The result is a suite of 16 piano miniatures in part inspired by Satie’s own music (Knossienne Nos 1-3 being the most obvious, where the eastern melodies of the original Gnossiennes are woven into a harmonic framework redolent of the original, but never an imitation of it) and also by the composer’s life and unusual personality. For example, ‘Sea Bird’ (track no. 6) was the nickname given by Satie to his uncle Adrian, like Satie an eccentric character and an important figure in Satie’s early life. The music juxtaposes quirky melodies which unusual harmonies to create a work which is moody, enigmatic and witty.

In fact, wit pervades these charming miniatures, particularly in the triptych ‘The Velvet Gentleman’ which references aspects of Satie’s attire with which he was most associated, including his identical grey velvet suits:

On most mornings after he moved to Arcueil, Satie would return to Paris on foot, a distance of about ten kilometres, stopping frequently at his favourite cafés on route. According to Templier, “he walked slowly, taking small steps, his umbrella held tight under his arm. When talking he would stop, bend one knee a little, adjust his pince-nez and place his fist on his lap. The he would take off once more with small deliberate steps.”

Robert Orledge, Satie Remembered. French translations by Roger Nichols.

See also: “A Day in the Life of a Musician” by Erik Satie

From: ‘Daily Routines’, a blog by Mason Currey (published in book form as Daily Rituals)

In many of the pieces, Fowles mirrors the “walking beat” that seems to pervade many of Satie’s own piano pieces, a meter which may have been the results of his “endless walking back and forth across the same landscape day after day . . . the total observation of a very limited and narrow environment.” (Roger Shattuck, in conversation with John Cage).

Other pieces in the collection are more melancholy: ‘A Walk to the Chat Noir on a Snowy Day’ conjures up the solitary figure of Satie, dressed in his grey velvet suit, making his customary walk to a favourite haunt in the centre of Paris. Meanwhile the set called ‘Biqui’ recalls Satie’s relationship with Suzanne Valadon and his feelings of devastation when the affair ended. Each piece is offered in Andante and Lento, the slower metres and repeated chord motifs lending a desolate yet intimate atmosphere to the music.

‘Sylvie’, the final track on the disc, is named after one of three poems written by Satie’s friend J.P. Contamine de Latour that Satie put to music in 1886.Its jazz harmonies and winding melody is infused with a tender, almost elegaic air.

Throughout the collection, Fowles avoids pastiche by offering us the essence of Satie’s music, and some of his contemporaries,  viewed through the lens of own originality and inventiveness which fuses eastern melodies with sensuous perfumed harmonies.

The music is performed on this disc by pianist Christina McMaster, whose affinity for this type of music is evident in her crisp articulation, preciseness of touch, and an acute sense of pacing which brings the music to life with vibrancy and atmosphere. And there is an added bonus, for pianists may also purchase the collection as sheet music (roughly Grade 6-8 level). Fowles has scored the music in a traditional way and also without barlines, à la Satie.

There is much to enjoy in this evocative collection, for those who love the piano music of Satie, and for those who are just beginning to explore it.

The sheet music is available now. Order here

The CD is released on 8th April.

Sample tracks here

Richard Fowles is an English composer, guitarist and teacher. He has worked as both a composer and session musician in some of the UK’s biggest recording studios and has provided the scores for a number of films and television programmes. He is also an in demand orchestrator. ‘Un Hommage à Erik’ is Richard’s debut album and book.

 

 

CD review: Pinks & Blues – Christina McMaster

Pianist Christina McMaster certainly does not lack ambition, nor innovation. She created her own record label MC|MASTER Records in order to release her debut album Pinks & Blues, the sold out launch of which at St James’s Theatre included a performance by a rapper. This reflects Christina’s eclectic approach, vision and energy in her music making (she has previously collaborated with London Fashion Week and is now joining forces with graduates of Central St Martin’s School of Art & Design).

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Pinks & Blues presents contrasting music from two key soundworlds in American music in the 20th century: the industrial, pioneering spirit and the rise of the teeming metropolis (demonstrated in works such as Samuel Barber’s ‘Excursions’ and Frederick Rzewski’s ‘Winsboro Cotton Mill Blues’), and Negro spirituals, Southern blues, smoky jazz clubs and the foot-stomping dance scene of New York City. The album also includes new commissions by two exciting young British composers, Freya Waley-Cohen and Richard Bullen, and on two tracks Christina is joined by Jay Phelps (trumpet), Sami Tammilehto (percussion) and Mark Lewandowski (double bass).

The album opens with the first of Barber’s ‘Excursions’, a work whose frenetic “perpetuum mobile” ostinato bassline suggests the fast-moving big city, replete with rattling metro trains, honking taxis and bustling crowds. But by track three, ‘Peace Piece’ by Bill Evans, we’re transported somewhere altogether more calm – the shady deck of a southern villa perhaps. There is a lightness of touch here which suggests both repose and an urging forward. The work is bookended by two Études by Ligeti which contain motifs redolent of Evans, also deftly played.

Richard Bullen’s ‘Scenes from a Deserted Jazz Club’ is highly atmospheric, at once smoochy and unsettling. It is followed by Frederick Rzewski’s ‘Winsboro Cotton Mill Blues’, another work of hypnotic, urgent energy immediately proceeded by the second of Barber’s Excursions, a languid blues number.

Freya Waley-Cohen’s ‘Southern Leaves’ opens with a figure reminiscent of a southern hymn tune which builds in intensity through increasingly plangent chords. It is meditative and dramatic, and provides a good foil for Gershwin’s ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ (from Porgy & Bess, which is of course set in the Deep South). Back to the urgency of the industrial city with Stephen Montague’s ‘Songs of Childhood’, while the album closes with another work by Montague’s, ‘Southern Lament: Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen’, the traditional spiritual given a contemporary twist with fanfare-like repeated figures, strumming and plucking the piano’s strings directly, and a restful hymnlike section to close.

This imaginative selection neatly reflects Christina’s personal musical tastes and her eclectic approach to programming. The American theme ehich runs through the entire album ties together tracks which in another’s hands may seem disparate, but such is Christina’s expertise in moving seamlessly between the percussive and agitated and the meditative and soulful, she achieves a very satisfying and enjoyable whole. The more bluesy numbers have the requisite sense of time standing still with sensitive use of rubato and elastic tempi, while the upbeat, more mechanical works are precise, sprightly and crisply articulated. This album promises much more to come from this exciting and stylish young pianist.

www.christinamcmaster.com

Meet the Artist……Christina McMaster

 

 

Syzygy Quartet – Songs for the Coming Day

Syzygy Saxophone Quartet formed in 2009 after playing together at the World Saxophone Congress in Bangkok. The quartet aims to promote and perform established contemporary classical works for saxophone, alongside new music written especially for the ensemble. 

At the beginning of 2013 Syzygy Saxophone Quartet were the only ensemble in Europe to be awarded the performance and recording rights to the new 45 minute work by the American composer David Maslanka. Entitled ‘Songs for the Coming Day’, the work  considers ethical and moral issues facing the world today such as the environment and war. Despite such problems, the piece is imbued with hope, reflecting the composer’s belief that “that under the chaotic surface of our world there is a rising creative energy through which is growing a new idea of living in harmony with ourselves and the Earth” (David Maslanka) and that there is still optimism regarding the future of the planet.

  
Lasting around 45 minutes, the work comprises nine movements, relatively brief “songs without words”, with titles such as Breathing, Awakening, Letting Go of the Past, and The Soul is Here for its Own Joy. The movements have hymlike qualities both in the SATB harmonies and ensemble playing, but also because some are actually based on hymns or songs,  adapted and reset for saxophone. Eight of the nine movements have varying degrees of slow tempi and a generally quiet or restrained dynamic palette.

The opening movement, ‘At This Time’, utilises a three-note motif redolent of ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and just as in the Elgar, this rising figure sounds a note of hope. All the movements, except for the penultimate one, are reflective and meditative, and Syzygy’s precise and concentrated ensemble playing and exceptionally well-blended, warm tones enhance the sense of contemplataion and stasis. The music itself is melodic and accessible. At times it has a choral quality reminiscent of Renaissance sacred music in it harmonies and simple lines underpinned by ostinato figures or pedal points.

In contrast to the other movements, the eighth, ‘The Soul is Here for its Own Joy’, bursts forth with exuberance and rhythmic excitement, while the closing movement, the poignant and introspective ‘Song for the Coming Day’ returns to the pensive mood of the earlier movements.

The saxophone is often the poor-relation instrument in classical repertoire, rarely utilised in the orchestra and not generally taken up by “famous” composers. In ‘Songs for the Coming Day’, the combination of elegance, restraint and melody and Syzygy’s technical assuredness and musical understanding, we are given the opportunity to appreciate the saxophone as a classical instrument.

Highly recommended

‘Songs for the Coming Day’ is available now 

Syzgy Quartet will feature in a forthcoming Meet the Artist interview

syzygyquartet.co.uk