THE WORLD WAS ONCE ALL MIRACLE
Occasionally, a new composer will spring from nowhere with a musical style that seems completely chaotic, unapologetically eclectic and to all appearances untutored. Yet through the apparent mire emerges a personality so stirring, so imaginative, so wonderfully refreshing that what might be mistaken for stylistic naivety turns out to be an instinctive statement of wild self-belief.
If you haven’t heard of Raymond Yiu, he was born in Hong Kong in 1973, came to the UK in 1990 to study for A levels, before reading engineering at Imperial College London. Mainly self-taught as a composer, and with a freedom of language emanating from his early exposure to 1980s Western pop sung in Cantonese, his music was soon being played by the BBC’s orchestras, the success of the London premiere of The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured leading to commissioning of Symphony for the 2015 BBC Proms. Both feature on this curiously exciting disc.
Just how important it is to know that The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured takes its title from a pamphlet issued by the 18th century Scots-born bookseller Alexander Cruden – something of a latter-day Mary Whitehouse who styled himself a moral “Corrector” – is debatable. More interesting is Yiu’s analogy of modern-day international citizenship, a kind of cultural morass that finds form in the madness of extremes.
While the motivic germ is a borrowing from Elgar’s Cockaigne – a portrait of a very different London – this “game for orchestra” soon explodes into a restless, shifting menagerie of colour, gesture and references. There is violence and calm, industrial grit and spiritual calm, pealing church bells, wanton dance pastiche. It’s a crazy cacophony, skittish in parts, but hugely addictive. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, under David Robertson, reveals Yiu’s underlying craftsmanship in a performance bursting with vital exuberance and energy.
In Symphony, Yiu displays the same freedom of expression. The protagonist is a countertenor (Andrew Watts), present from the word go – or rather, the gradually emerging word “strong” – in a time-travelling selection of texts from Walt Whitman, Constantine P Cavafy, Thom Gunn and John Donne. The five-movement format offers greater scope for Yiu to frame his thoughts, self-regulating the seeming free-for-all of the earlier piece.
In no way, though, does it curb his eclectic toolbox, from which the likes of esoteric modernism and seventies’ disco are plucked with shameless confidence. Watts’ flamboyant and versatile performance is matched by conductor Edward Gardner’s cool mastery over the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which is a remastering of the original Royal Albert Hall premiere.
The World Was Once All Miracle features the indomitable baritone Roderick Williams with the BBC SO, this time under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis. Written in the years immediately following Symphony, it’s an extended setting of words by Anthony Burgess, commemorating the 2017 centenary of the A Clockwork Orange author’s birth, in which Yiu explores ever wider musical influences, such as the Malayan instrumentation that haunts the third song.
Burgess’ words, of course, are just another perfect excuse for Yiu to engage in further wicked satire. With musical quotes from Thomas Arne (one very obvious snippet of Rule Britannia) and a blatant parody on mid-20th century popular song to end with (somewhat abruptly), mixed with anything else that takes his fancy, the charm of Yiu’s music is its compulsive listenability. Scots label Delphian, in remastering these performances, has done well to bring it to wider attention.