Wallen’s Fascinating Orchestral Music

Photography Green Version.indd

WALLEN: Cello Concerto.* Photography (A Jelly Bean Extravaganza) / *Matthew Sharp, cel; Ensemble X; Nicholas Kok, cond / Hunger / The Continuum Ensemble; Philip Headlam, cond / In Earth / Errollyn Wallen, voc; Tim Harries, bs-gtr; Quartet X / NMC 221

Errollyn Wallen was born in Belize but has spent most of her life in England. Like Leonard Salzedo, whose marvelous string quartets I recently reviewed, she has written for movies and TV, but in her case this is the lion’s share of her output. Perhaps this is one reason why she is not so well known “across the pond,” yet as I noted in my review of her first classical CD (for a nationally distributed classical music magazine), she is a highly original and fascinating composer. This CD, which came out a couple of years ago, somehow flew under my radar, thus I am taking this opportunity to review it now. Unfortunately, I had no booklet to download along with the sound files, so I cannot tell you the origin or particular meaning of the titles.

The Cello Concerto has echoes of Romanticism about it, beginning with a soaring melodic line played by the soloist a cappella, but like most of her music it quickly morphs into a somewhat more modern vein after the first 16 bars or so. The solo work continues for some time, four minutes and 48 seconds to be exact, before somewhat edgy string tremolos are introduced from the orchestra. Later on, the strings echo and answer the cello before moving on to different music on their own. It is a one-movement work lasting 22 ½ minutes, very tightly structured with no superfluous music in it—one of Wallen’s hallmarks as a composer. By and large, the melodic and harmonic language are reminiscent of late 1940s-early ‘50s classical works, yet her originality shines through the somewhat recognizable structure and format. She uses portamento for both the soloist and the background strings in a striking and interesting manner, and it is truly a one-movement piece; it is not divided, as is often the case in works such as this, into sections in contrasting tempi. An excellent, somewhat dramatic work.

Hunger is a more ominous-sounding piece for orchestra, beginning with soft, grumbling basses, over which edgy viola figures are heard. This goes on for some time, building up tension in a quiet manner before the tympani come pounding into view, upping both the volume and the tempo. The music becomes quite hectic and ever more intense as it develops, then returns to its initial slower tempo for further development. At 17:23: she introduces a sort of ominous march tempo, played by the basses, while the other strings develop the music further above them. An excellent piece!

Photography, subtitled A Jelly Bean Extravaganza, is somewhat explained via a video upload on YouTube of this piece. Visuals of flying jelly beans cover the screen, creating abstract images as they move around, much like one of Oskar Fischinger’s abstract shape films for M-G-M in the 1930s. The music, then, is highly rhythmic while staying in one basic chord for much of its length, which makes it resemble minimalism. Oddly, however, the slow second and third movements, lyrical and effusive, seems oddly out of place with this concept.

Yet it is the last piece on this disc, In Earth, that is the strangest and most atmospheric, using what sounds like electronic drums (as well as electronic tape sounds) in a highly creative manner. In time, I heard small extracts from Purcell’s “When I am laid in earth” from Dido and Aeneas as part of the musical fabric, played by a cello with the bow on the very edge of the strings. This suggestion of the Purcell tune gradually fleshes itself out a bit more, until finally Wallen herself sings the famous aria in a shallow, breathy voice. I can only presume that this was her intention, to remove the aria from an operatic concept.

No two ways about it: Errollyn Wallen is her own person, following her own musical muse. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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