The Music of Rob Keeley

cover - TOCC0462

AwardKEELEY: Symphony No. 2. Flute Concerto.1,3 Triple Concerto for 2 Oboes, Cor Anglais & Strings.2,3 Variations for Orchestra4 / 1Sarah Desbruslais, fl; 2James Turnbull, Michael Sluman, ob; 2Patrick Flanaghan, E-hn; 3Málaga Philharmonic Orch.; 4Liepāja Symphony Orch.; Paul Mann, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC0462

Though born in Wales, Rob Keeley considers himself more a British composer. Initially inspired by J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, he went on to study music at the Royal College of Music Junior Department with the late Oliver Knussen. “From him I developed an omnivorous ear,” he tells us in the liner notes, “taking in late Stravinsky, Elliott Carter and the very last works of Benjamin Britten. Crucial, too, at that time (we’re talking mid- to late 1970s) was the music of Dallapiccola and Messiaen, both of whom have remained important to me.” Later, at Oxford, he studied with Bernard Rose, and the music of Michael Tippett (who I actually met once) also came into his life.

His Second Symphony, written in 1996, exemplifies Keeley’s varied influences. It opens with harsh wind and string chords that seem a preamble but not a theme. Keeley informs us that it is a paraphrase of the idée fixe from Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, but so reharmonized that it is scarcely recognizable. Most of the movement consists of short rhythmic gestures, mostly by the strings but also with biting commentary from the flutes and clarinets, which help push it along. At about 2:35 the lower strings set up an edgy double-time rhythmic figure to aid the musical progress. An interesting feature of this movement is that it sounds as if it’s trying to be tonal despite its only landing on a settled chord once in a while. Another interesting feature is the way the music coalesces in the listener’s mind despite the lack of a clearly-defined theme or variations. Everything in this movement has its own form of logic despite not sounding “logical” to the untrained ear.

The second movement, though also constantly teetering towards bitonality and atonality, has a somewhat more conventional rhythmic pulse, sort of a jolly 6/8 scherzo, and this in itself helps to coalesce the musical material, which is rather more lyrical and less fragmented than in the first. Perhaps unconsciously, I felt that in this movement Keeley borrowed a bit from Knussen. I particularly liked his whimsical use of the bassoon playing an opposing bass line towards the end of the movement. In the third, though an “Adagio,” Keeley keeps the music bitonal throughout, and although he does indeed use longer notes for the strings to play the melodic line is less “formed” than in the “Scherzo,” which completely avoids a cushy, romantic feeling. Here I heard the strong influence of Stravinsky in both the writing for open strings and the somewhat harsh, almost metallic use of winds. Towards the end of the movement, the music suddenly becomes livelier, sheds its “Adagio” feeling and semi-romps across the finish line. In the last movement, an “Allegro molto,” Keeley unashamedly admits his debt to Stravinsky’s Symphony in C except for the addition of Tippett-like counterpoint.

Next up is the Flute Concerto (2017), and here Keeley really indulges in constantly changing meter in addition to metrically shifting lines of music, which is not the same thing. He says in the notes that he conceived it as a form of Gallic Neo-Classicism, but the specter of Stravinsky hovers of this as well. I especially liked the way Keeley brought out some expressiveness from the solo instrument as well as the quirky feeling of 3 in the unusual “Adagio molto” which , as in the Symphony, morphs into an allegro.

Keeley varies his approach in the Triple Concerto (2014) for the odd combination of two oboes, English horn and strings, using a rhythmic rather than a melodic motif in the first movement. Keeley states that he was inspired by Telemann in this work, though of course any resemblance between the two composers is purely coincidental. Keeley admits that the first movement uses “waves of repeating ostinati, almost minimalist in its soundworld.”  The second-movement scherzo is wonderfully wacky in its unsettled-sounding rhythm; Keeley aptly describes it as being “full of internal (literal) repeats, but broken into by a strange heterophonic ‘slab’ of overlapping, buzzing scales.” Once again, I found the music quite humorous, and in this day and age that is nothing to be ashamed of. Too much modern music, I feel, is completely humorless (though Knussen’s certainly wasn’t). The “Andante” is equally quirky, a sort of semi-bouncy sarabande with yet another fast coda.

The Variations for Orchestra, completed last year (2019), was modeled after Elgar’s finest piece, his “Enigma” Variations. Keeley gives us a very detailed variation-by-variation description in the notes, so I won’t try to duplicate what he says, but I will play spoiler and reveal that, unlike Elgar, Keeley does start off with the actual theme before moving into the variations. And here the theme is surprisingly broader and more lyrical than anything previously heard on this disc, possibly because it was inspired by Elgar. (But why Elgar is so “beloved” by Brits, I have no idea. Except for the “Enigma” Variations, he never wrote another good piece of music as long as he lived. No, not even Pomp and Circumstance.) Again, I liked the humor in the piece, particularly in the second variation (marked “Stesso tempo”) with its bouncy-but-displaced rhythms as well as in the third variation which uses counterpoint and three-part textures with loud outbursts from the strings and winds. There are, of course, many other surprises in store in the remaining 10 variations as well as in the “Passacaglia – Finale,” particularly the trombones’ stomping ostinato in the sixth variation and the equally unusual voicing and pace in the slow seventh variation, but I will leave you to discover most of these for yourself.

This is a wonderful album, made even more wonderful by the lively playing of the two orchestras and the fine conducting of Paul Mann. Needless to say, all of these are first recordings.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “The Music of Rob Keeley

  1. Paolo de Nardo says:

    This symphony was the very first work by Keeley I heard several years ago. And it’s still in my current playlist on my phone!


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