Gramophone, November 2007, Vol. 85
If a restraint strain of British pastoralism has to exist, better it cross-fertilises with expressive microtonal slides and gives a fraternal nod to post-minimalist American neo-tonal music. That’s the message Welsh composer John Metcalf’sParadise Haunts… for violin and orchestra (1995) communicated to me even if, as I noticed later, the composer rejects a tag of "minimal" music. The title suggested itself after Metcalf read about the film-maker Derek Jarman, and the significance Jarman’s garden had in the final months of his life. It’s fascinating to speculate what Jarman the onetime punk hell-raiser would have made of this determinately pretty music, but I have to concede it’s difficult not to be charmed.
The strength of Metcalf’s score lies in its horse-sure sense of shaping over an extended, one-movement span and his creative handling of the orchestra. The piece begins with an explosion of lyrical detail – melodic cells in the solo violin laced with potential are placed against harmonically fertile wind chords, and Metcalf treads a skilful balance between evoking generic post-The Lark Ascending lyricism while avoiding being overly derivative. Thomas Bowes has the right kind of sound – warm and dutifully expressive – to highlight the music’s melodic strengths, and his energetic pursuit of Metcalf’s lavish decoration powers the music onwards, through the overlapping repetitions of the middle section towards its cathartic conclusion.
Three Mobiles for saxophone and orchestra is rather too cute; In Time of Daffodils, settings of Keats, Wordsworth and others for baritone and orchestra, is sturdier with a natural sense of narrative that flows from the poetry.
MusicWeb International, January 2008
The title of Metcalf’s Paradise Haunts … is drawn from a line quoted in a book about film-maker Derek Jarman: “Paradise haunts gardens and it haunts mine”. The composer came across this when reading a review at about the time Thomas Bowes – the soloist here – asked Metcalf for a new piece. The composer also mentions that he started work on the piece at a time when he felt the urge to simplify his musical language. Paradise Haunts… was “the first work to embrace a wholly pan-diatonic or ‘white note’ style”. This substantial work, a rhapsody in the form of a theme and variations, was originally written for violin and piano. Incidentally, the original chamber version has been recorded and is still available on Lorelt LNT111. The orchestral version was made some time later, in 1998.
Variations unfold almost effortlessly and seamlessly, with enough contrast and variety to sustain the work’s long time-span. It concludes with a beautiful coda in which the music eventually dissolves into thin air. The music, as in the other works of Metcalf, is often warmly melodic and lyrical as well as strongly expressive. In the case of this particular work, I was often reminded of Barber’s Violin Concerto, which does not imply imitation but rather hints at the general tone of the music. A fine, accessible work, albeit steeped in tradition – by 20th century standards – although the solo part must be rather demanding both in technique and in musicality.
Similarly, Three Mobiles started out for saxophone and piano. The orchestral version, actually for string orchestra, was made in 2003 when the work was revised. A further revision was made in 2006. The title refers to sculptures known as mobiles – Calder’s celebrated mobiles are an example. In the insert notes, the composer goes into some detail as to how he tried to relate his musical mobiles with those of Calder. The most important thing, however, is the music, although I suppose that close analysis of the score might prove revealing. Suffice to say that in substance Three Mobiles is a concertino for saxophone and strings. It consists of two short, lively outer movements framing a rather more developed, predominantly song-like central movement. Again a quite attractive work that should appeal to saxophone players willing to add to their sadly limited repertoire.
Like the other works here, In Time of Daffodils started life as a short song-cycle for baritone and piano. It sets To Daffodils (Herrick), Daffodils(Wordsworth) and To an Early Daffodil (Amy Lowell). In the meantime, however, BBC Radio 3 commissioned an orchestral work to mark the composer’s 60th birthday. He felt that a more substantial song cycle was possible and went on to choose three further poems: The Lent Lily (Housman), the Prologue to Endymion (Keats) and another poem by Amy Lowell (White and Green). Not content with this, he re-arranged his settings into two main parts separated by a short orchestral interlude. As if to emphasise the overall symmetry, each of the two parts is centred around a longer setting framed by shorter ones. The plan of the work is thus:-
Part I : The Lent Lily, Daffodils, White and Green;
Part 2 : To Daffodils, Endymion, To an early Daffodil.
Most of the poems are fairly well-known, although I must admit that those by Amy Lowell were new to me. All relate to Spring symbolising death and renewal, although the celebrated prologue to Endymion has a more general meaning. Again, Metcalf’s settings are fairly traditional, in the best meaning of the word, and the words come clearly through the warm, at times lush but always subtle scoring. The music is colourful, superbly scored and – again – attractive and accessible without condescension. While listening to this beautiful work, I often thought that this was the large-scale orchestral song-cycle that John Ireland never composed. Frankly, I mean that as a compliment.
These performances will not easily be bettered. Everyone sings and plays with conviction and commitment; and the whole is warmly, yet naturally recorded – a real pleasure from first to last.