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.
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THE WORLD WAS ONCE ALL MIRACLE
Maximiliano Martin/Orquesta Sinfonica de Tenerife/Navarro
The centrefold of the booklet that accompanies this fine new disc of clarinet concertos features one of the most eloquent orchestra publicity pictures you’ll see. With their trousers rolled and hemlines skimming the water’s surface, the shoe-less orchestra of the Canary Islands, in full evening dress, are assembled around a pair of timpani, a line of white surf lapping at their ankles and the famous black sand of Tenerife between their toes. It is an image that immediately makes you want to know what these game musicians sound like. The additional knowledge that they were recorded by the Delphian team in the stunning Auditorio de Tenerife designed by Santiago Calatrava should only further whet the appetite.
The good news is that they are very good indeed. An internationally-recruited outfit, there is a crisp freshness to their string sound, the section that makes up all bar seven players on the disc. The featured soloist is local lad Maximiliano Martin, long-standing principal clarinet of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and stalwart of the SCO’s current programme of digital concerts featuring smaller groups.
For all that this is Martin’s disc, his countrymen are by no means a mere backing track, given the robust repertoire he has chosen to showcase his own virtuosity. The concertos by Copland and Nielsen and James MacMillan’s one-movement Tuireadh are contrasting works, but each has fine scoring for the strings, not excepting the MacMillan, which began life as a work for clarinet and string quartet. Conductor Lucas Macias Navarro is himself a wind player, with the benefit to his role here of having played oboe in concerts and recordings directed by Claudio Abbado, and his feel for the balance between soloist and strings is surely crucial to this album’s success.
Composed as a memorial to the 167 lives lost in the 1988 fire on the Piper Alpha oil rig in the North Sea, Tuireadh is always a harrowing listen, with its borrowings from laments in Scottish traditional music and raw vocal keening. Placed last in this sequence, it is one of the few works that could follow the already troubled late work by Carl Nielsen, the character of which is said to come less from its composer than from Nielsen’s dedicatee, the clarinettist of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, Aage Oxenvad. With no reference recording in existence, Martin creates an image of this turbulent chap, in particular partnership with the snare drum of Juan Antonio Minana, that is a portrait in sound.
Aaron Copland’s concerto was written 20 years later for Benny Goodman, who reportedly – and slightly incredibly – found the score more challenging than he had bargained for. It is a sparkling jazzy opener on this disc, and another illustration of Martin’s command of a range of voices on his instrument, recently demonstrated in the SCO’s excellent performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale.
Edinburgh 1742, Parte Seconda
Although it hardly compares with undertaking all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, for example, bassoonist Peter Whelan is showing an admirable dedication to completeness in his project to reacquaint folk with Francesco Barsanti. An Italian resident in Scotland in the 18th century, he was a major figure of the Edinburgh Musical Society and Edinburgh Festival-goers have recently heard his music performed in the restored splendour of St Cecilia’s Hall in the heart of the Old Town.
This Linn disc adds the second five of the ten Concerti grossi he published in the capital, the first such works ever in Scotland. Whereas the first five, featured on an earlier release, were scored for an ensemble with two horns, these are written for a group with a trumpet (David Blackadder) and two oboes (Alex Bellamy and Hannah McLaughlin). It is noticeable as the sequence unfolds towards the six-movement No.10 how very much in the mode of musical thinking Barsanti was. This is baroque music that anticipates classical forms in both its tonal colours and its rhythmic variation; it is not just a matter of local interest to rediscover an important composer’s work.
For context, the album again includes music by Handel. The two men knew one another well, and the Overture to Handel’s opera Atalanta, featured here, was in the manuscript collection of the Edinburgh Musical Society on the date in question, the work having premiered at Covent Garden a few years earlier.
Completing the recital, as on the first disc and likely to have been featured in Barsanti’s concerts, are four of his arrangements of Old Scots Tunes, played by violinist Colin Scobie with Elizabeth Kenny on guitar. For some they may prove the highlight of the album, for others a sideshow, but the authenticity of the programming is quite justified.
Even more fascinating is the information, in Michael Talbot’s thorough booklet note, that Barsanti followed up the Scots tunes with “six racy French airs” composed for a volume co-written with Handel , likely for his gifted pupil Princess Louisa, fifth daughter of George II, on the occasion of her marriage. With any luck Whelan has a soprano lined up to partner Ensemble Marsyas and continue this historical journey.