Philip Grange’s Chamber Music

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WP 2019 - 2GRANGE: Tiers of Time.1-4 Elegy.3 Piano Trio: Homage to Chagall.1,3,4 Shifting Thresholds1-5 / 1Carolyn Balding, vln; 2Rose Redgrave, vla; 3Sophie Harris, cel; 4Aleksander Szram, pno; 5Ileana Ruhemann, fl; 5Catriona Scott, cl; 5Joby Burgess, perc; 5Ian Mitchell, cond / Métier MSV 28591

Philip Grange (b. 1956) studied composition with Peter Maxwell Davies, then entered York University where he studied with David Blake. His works have been performed by many leading exponents of contemporary music and commissioned and featured at many leading festivals in the UK and overseas.

The opening piece, Tiers of Time, is clearly very Maxwell Davies-ish in form, structure and sonority. Like his teacher, Grange writes music that is edgy but goes somewhere, a factor that too many of our modern-day composers, particularly American but also British, seem not to understand. It is written for piano quartet, but it is scarcely scored like a conventional piece for such a combination; rather, it pits the violin and viola against the cello and all three string instruments against the piano, creating a weird yet haunting environment of sound in which both thematic development and atmosphere are held in equal balance. At about 4:14 Grange wrote a brief viola-piano duet passage that is really interesting, and throughout the piano nudges the three strings along when it is not playing a solo commentary. At the 5:40 mark, the violin plays a high, fluttering passage that sounds for all the world like early Leif Segerstam. Indeed, as the piece continued I heard a bit more Segerstam than Maxwell Davies, which is not a bad thing.

Elegy for solo cello exploits both the rhythmic and melodic capabilities of the instrument, somewhat in the manner of a Bach Cello Suite except more modern in both harmony and rhythm. Sophie Harris maintains a fine balance between these two elements, playing with both sensitivity and a good sense of forward momentum. One thing that impressed me was that Grange seems to be able to write technical effects into his music that do not sound superfluous or just thrown in for effect. The music, despite its title, is not particularly elegiac in tone or feeling, but rather starts out moodily and becomes edgier as it moves along. At the 7:30 mark, the music becomes more emotional, combining rhythmic angularity with greater depth of feeling.

The Piano Trio, subtitled “Homage to Chagall,” is even edgier in dissonance and rhythmic bite than Tiers of Time. Here, the three instruments are well and truly pitted against one another: the cello grumbling in the depths, the piano banging out notes seemingly at random (but not really) and the violin playing alternately lyrical phrases and edgy tremolos. When things begin to come together, it is the violin that leads the way, slowly pulling the cello and then the piano into its orbit. This is a fairly long work (21:40) in four movements marked “Moderato,” “Scherzo: Sempre leggiermente,” “Adagio” and “Con fuoco,” but even the opening “Moderato” sounds pretty “Con fuoco” to my ears despite a few lyrical moments. The “Scherzo” begins lightly, with little violin figures that set the pace for the rest of the movement, and here, despite the dissonance, Grange is indeed playful in his approach. The “Adagio” is mysterious and a bit eerie, again opening with the violin, with the piano and cello just adding a few sprinkled notes here and there until a broad cello theme rides over the contrabass notes on the keyboard while the violin adds its own mysterious commentary above. Grange’s odd theme is developed oddly but still moves forward with a purpose. The final movement opens with a similarly grumbling motif played by the cello, only now at a much faster pace, while the piano plays trills and serrated figures and the violin plays its own serrated figures up above. Eventually, Grange pulls these serrated figures together as part of the development section—what a wonderfully clear mind he has for structure and detail! The piece ends on a diminuendo piano chord.

Shifting Thresholds is written for the odd combination of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion and a conductor—surely an odd requirement for a chamber work—but when you hear how complex this music is, you realize that having a conductor was a pretty good idea. This music is more fragmented in nature than the preceding works; some of it resembles George Crumb in its aura, particularly due to the percussionist playing what sounds like either a marimba or vibes. By 4:35 into the first movement, the music sounds very fragmented indeed, but this is only the result of the development being played in hocket style (one note per instrument which goes to make up a line of music), and again, in Grange’s hands it sounds like a natural development and not something that is “forced” or artificial.

The second movement, marked “in shifting tempi,” is again mysterious and, also again, sort of Segerstam-like. This is another thing I like about Grange: he doesn’t have just one “voice,” but can vary his approach depending on his mood and what he’s trying to convey. And once again he uses hocket style in his development, which is far more complex here than in the first movement. He also creates some interesting textures by having the clarinetist play in her low or chalumeau register while the violin and flute play edgy figures up high; then a full stop before we reach the “Coda,” marked as a separate movement, which opens with a broad cello solo. The movement then morphs into a series of what appear to be randomly sprinkled notes that actually make up a slow but discernible development section. This mood continues into the fourth and last movement, also written “in shifting tempi” and again developed in hocket style, this time with some very odd high-register playing by the violin and flute while the piano stays for a long while in its mid and upper ranges. Then the music increases in tempo and volume as things become ever more complex, but always clearly delineated because of its extremely transparent texture. The music then slows down again as Grange gives the musicians some gently undulating figures to play, except for the marimba which adds its own shimmering commentary. Near the end, the music slows down to a crawl as the cello plays portamento figures and the music ends in the middle of nowhere.

This is an extraordinary CD and a composer to watch!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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