LIN: Intermezzo to the Minotaur. WOOLF: Octet. ASHBY: I’ve Been Planning for an Impromptu / Philharmonia Orchestra; Geoffrey Paterson, cond / NMC DL3041
This rather short CD—only 27:32 in length—is designed to present three modern orchestral works in their first-ever recordings. The composers are Chia-Ying Lin, who studied both in her native Taipei and at both the University of Manchester and Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome; British-born Alex Woolf, who has apparently studied nowhere (no credits in the booklet) but who has written music for the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tallis Scholars and James Galway; and Benjamin Ashby, who studied at the Royal Academy of Music and who won the 2018 Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize.
All seem to be members of the official Edgy Modern Music Club, meaning that their music opens with and contains several edgy aural shocks and develops along appropriately edgy lines, but I found much to like (and even find quite funny) in Lin’s Intermezzo to the Minotaur. This piece was inspired by Picasso’s 1928 painting Le Minotaure. The composer claims that the minotaur “symbolizes human ambiguity,
somewhere between the divine and bestial,” and that this is represented in her piece by “different ways of playing certain instruments.” Apparently, she finds that a trumpet playing with a cup mute to produce wah-wah and growl effects like a jazz musician to be “bestial,” but I found it richly amusing. Within the string of effects that Lin crams into this work there is a definite continuing thread that is developed along traditional lines, though she clearly tries to overwhelm the listener with a kaleidoscope of string tremolos and whines, the muted trumpet effects and rumbling basses. Considering the high professional level of the Philharmonia’s musicians, I was not surprised by their proficiency in this work, but I was surprised by how well they got into the spirit of the piece, playing it with an almost manic energy.
Woolf’s Octet, to be fair, is less involved with the “edgy” school than Lin’s piece, but still relies strongly on forward rhythmic propulsion. Woolf appears to be much more concerned with classical balance and form, thus his music sounds a bit more “standard.” This does not, however, mean that it is unimaginative and unoriginal. Its harmonic base is geared more towards tonality, even though he does include several ideas and phrases that go outside the home key. In the notes, he explains that the three key ingredients of this octet are “the explosive energy of outlandish, audaciously fast group gestures,” the “driving energy of a near-constant pulse,” and the “sustained, athletic melodic lines,” although to my mind the second and third are essentially the same thing. It is, however, a really delightful (albeit brief) piece.
Ashby’s I’ve Been Planning for an Impromptu is a quirky work that begins with isolated, spaced-out notes from the piano and various winds and strings, as if the musicians were just starting to warm up. Ashby explains that he has long been a fan of jazz, particularly such free jazz musicians as Evan Parker and Barry Guy, thus he wanted to infuse this spirit into this work. As he says in the notes, however, “The irony perhaps is that the whole piece is a highly detailed transcription of my own improvisation,” in other words a through-composed piece taken from a spontaneous piano session. I found it utterly fascinating, however, in fact possibly the finest, and certainly the most original, piece on this CD, although I fully realize that there are a great many listeners who do not share my love of free, atonal jazz. And once again, perhaps even more so in this work, I was utterly astonished by the Philharmonia’s ability to adapt to this style of music. Consider: back in the 1950s, the Philharmonia Orchestra couldn’t even play Hindemith very well! The selected musicians (perhaps I’m wrong, but it doesn’t sound like much larger than 10 or 12 pieces) sound exactly like a modern free jazz group. I would defy any seasoned jazz critic to identify this as a composed classical piece in a blindfold test. Only in the last section, where there is a passage very obviously scored for two or three reeds playing in harmony, would one suspect that this music was written out.
Short as it is, then, this is clearly an outstanding album. But oh, couldn’t they have come up with at least one more composition to include?
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)