Griller’s Orchestral Music Dazzling, Brilliant

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GRILLER: Ensemble Seventeen: Concerto for Small Orchestra. Concerto for Clarinet & Strings.1 Distant Villages: Concerto for Violas, Cello, Keyboard Instruments & Pitched Percussion / 1Denis Myasnikov, cl; Musica Viva; Alexander Walker, cond. / Toccata Classics TOCC 0424

Arnold Griller (1937 – ) is far from a household name in the music world, but to judge from this CD he should be. Getting straight to the point, this is music of tremendous vitality, intellectual interest and rhythmic-harmonic complexity. Griller uses very strong motor rhythms to propel his themes, he uses almost constant polyphony to buttress them; and he quite evidently thinks like a chamber musician even when writing for a full orchestra. One doesn’t listen to or for the strings or winds or brass and how he uses them when listening to Griller’s music; rather, you listen to the totality, how it all fits together like an energetic but eccentric jigsaw puzzle. Even at those moments when he uses what jazz musicians refer to as “outside” playing, i.e. notes in the upper range that lie outside whatever the tonality of the moment is, Griller’s mind is always focused on how to continue beyond that point and, more importantly, make everything sound logical while it strikes the listener as imaginative and unpredictable.

Thus his Ensemble Seventeen for small orchestra one hears almost continual orchestral interplay, using the instruments as soloists vying with each other for supremacy in a rather crowded sonic field. Only a slow, moody cello solo initially sounds out of place, catching one by surprise. but it is mapped out in such a way that the other instruments weave their way into and around it and make it fit in with the evolving development. Griller always sounds in complete command of his materials, and his music shifts to suit itself. Eventually, when the tempo picks up again, the winds (clarinet, oboe, bassoon) bounce off one another like ping-pong balls, into which fray the solo cello re-enters to remind us that Griller has not forgotten it. Here is a sample from the score of the opening to give you an idea of Griller’s modus operandi:

Ensemble 17 exc

The work, which continues on for 28:56, goes through several permutations before it comes to an abrupt conclusion. It is a work you will want to hear over and over again.

Annotator Douglas Finch notes that Griller “becomes taciturn when he is asked about his own music,” preferring to discuss the music of others. In the case of the Clarinet Concerto, Griller started discussing his own work but then veered off into his enthusiasm for the clarinet quintet of Alexander Goehr. Finch notes that “his love of Goehr’s Quintet does seem to be a clue – one piece in a jigsaw of influences and connections that make this one of Griller’s most emotional and personal works.” Focusing on strings as the sole orchestral component, Griller once again uses his forces contrapuntally, but in this case there is also a theme played by the violins, atonal and a bit moody, that disappears as the solo clarinet enters, backed now by the cellos and basses. The interesting aspect of this concerto is that, due to his penchant for decompartmentalizing his orchestra, Griller almost makes this concerto sound like a work for strings in which the solo instrument is not a soloist in the strict sense of the word but, rather, just another voice around which his contrapuntal web is woven. Yes, there are some passages in which the clarinet is heard playing solo notes without the orchestra’s backing, but not that many. More often than not, this music is a joint collaboration, and a fascinating one. The legato but atonal string tune that one heard near the beginning of the first movement returns near the end.

The second movement, titled “Spring,” follows hard on the heels of the first and is both jovial and bouncy. Finch points out the rather comical score indication of “the sheepdog and the flock,” wherein Griller conjures up an image of cellos (sheepdog) pushing the violins (sheep) into a more orderly formation. Just another example of how this is a “concerto” without a concerto atmosphere:

Griller Spring exc

In the third movement, Griller completely shifts gears, presenting us with very forlorn themes, and it is only here that he uses the clarinet against the string orchestra in true concerto fashion. Yet the movement concludes in an edgier mood rather than a sad one.

Distant Villages is set up in Griller’s by-now-expected style of energetic and somewhat battling counterpoint. This, I feel, is the one weakness of his music, that it tends to sound alike from piece to piece regardless of the stated mood or intent. This is a trap into which many modern composers fall: in creating a personal stylistic voice, they sometimes tend to become so slavish in their pursuit of this that they lack the ability to write in any other style but the one that they consider their “signature.” As in Ensemble Seventeen, Griller creates some contrast with a slow section, and again includes a solo cello.

This is a fascinating album despite the caveat noted above. I had occasion to praise Alexander Walker’s conducting highly in his recording of Havergal Brian’s Symphonies Nos. 8, 21 & 26 on Naxos, and I will reiterate what I said here. Walker inhabits and enlivens each and every bar of music, making it sound not merely energetic but likable, as if he had written the music himself.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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