SUCKLING / The Tuning


Having only recently reached his 40s, Glasgow-born composer Martin Suckling has already built up a quantity, quality and diversity of work that defines him as a major new-generation composer. He is strikingly original, as the works he completed during his 5 years (2013-18) as associate composer with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra testified. This excellent new Delphian CD, coming in the wake of last year’s orchestral portrait album on the NMC label, throws a spotlight on the more intimate dimension of Suckling’s impressive output. 

The performers here include mezzo soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons, pianist Christopher Glynn and principal players from the Aurora Orchestra, appearing in various combinations.

The title of this latest CD, The Tuning, comes from the opening work, a setting of texts by the Irish-American poet Michael Donaghy. Suckling adds to their twilit, watery illusions an aura of introspective mystery. It’s there in the quietly sculpted vocal line, radiantly embraced by Fontanals-Simmons with flashing magnesium-like flourishes on the piano. It’s a mesmerising opener to a CD rooted overall in nocturnal inspiration.

That’s no accident, for it has been Suckling’s regular habit to compose “in the hours of darkness”, a time when the family is asleep and there are no distractions, but also a time in which he clearly contemplates the nuclear inner-workings of his distinctive musical language. That doesn’t mean everything sounds the same.

Take the Nocturne for violin (Alessandro Ruisi) and cello (Alexander Holladay) that follows The Tuning. This is a world of dreamy, troubled contemplation, vigorous and dramatic in its own hypertensive way, but softened by feathery spectral textures, haunting microtonal distortions and questioning melodic sighs.

It’s the perfect springboard to the vibrant string quintet, Emily’s Electrical Absence, a four movement collaboration with Edinburgh-born poet Frances Leviston. Suckling refers to its genesis as a “shared cultural memory” on both collaborators’ parts, arising from “the power of the precedent”, which in his case is Schubert’s celebrated C major String Quintet, and in Leviston’s case the challenging poetry of Emily Dickinson. The title alludes to the work’s present-day inspiration: a complex high-speed memory device, PETMEM, developed recently by physicists to significantly speed up computers. 

There’s no need to comprehend the science to appreciate the alternating sequence of words and music, the former spoken between movements by Leviston herself. The Aurora players are terrific in the precision and sensitivity they apply to Suckling’s translucent score. Beyond the feverish rhythmic insistence of the opening movement, the music edges more and more towards surreal wonderment. 

In Her Lullaby for solo cello, we return to the quiet of the night. As a nostalgic reflection on a time when Suckling once sang lullabies to his infant children, it is broodingly sentimental, charged with something akin to a woozy aural re-imagination of infra-red light. Alexander Holladay captures powerfully its lugubrious stillness.

Ken Walton