One More from Steve Elcock


ELCOCK: Incubus. Haven: Fantasia on a Theme by J.S. Bach.* Symphony No. 5 # / *Andrey Lopatin, vln; #Grigory Vever, cl & Evgeny Plaskin, Fr-hn; Siberian Symphony Orch.; Dmitry Vasiliev, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC 0445

We delve into the sound world of Steve Elcock one more time; this is Vol. 2 of his orchestral works. This program opens with Incubus, which Elcock adapted from the final section of his string quartet, Night After Night. I listened to a cross-section of Elcock’s chamber music on a separate Toccata Classics CD but did not care for it nearly as much as I do his orchestral works. His chamber music is not merely gentler in feeling, but also very “pastoral” in that British sort of way that Brits like but I do not, thus I declined to review that disc.

Although Incubus opens in a very slow tempo and the basic theme is rather amorphous, Elcock’s imaginative sense of orchestration imparts a feeling of mystery onto the proceedings. Somehow, I think, being able to use a much richer sound palette with an orchestra “opens up” Elcock’s imaginative powers, for as Incubus progresses the music has more bite and drive than any of his chamber works that I’ve heard. Indeed, the fast-running motor rhythms in the background as the tempo increases (and wanes again) keeps one listening to the music, both fascinated and curious as to where it is going next, which is one of the wonderful things about his music. Much of the development section consists of fast-running figures, played mostly by the woodwinds, but later on there is a sort of “grinding” theme played at half-tempo by the lower strings that dominates the soundscape for several bars; then the tympani comes banging in as the whole orchestra gets involved.

Haven is built around the “Sarabande” in J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 1. Interestingly, here Elcock’s music is not merely tonal (probably to be expected since it is built around a Bach theme) but also surprisingly Romantic-sounding, with only sparing use of more advanced harmonies, but it is not an “easy listening” piece. On the contrary, it involves the listener without lulling him or her into overly Romantic “gooshiness”…but it is clearly an accessible piece, and the one orchestral work by him that will undoubtedly find its way onto standard concert programs. I did, however, feel that this haven lasted a bit too long—nearly a half-hour, in fact—and doesn’t say very much until the 10-minute mark, when the tempo increases, Bach’s theme is tossed to the side, and Elcock revels in his usual manic-bitonal style. But at the 17-minute mark, the soft Romantic theme and mood return, this time with some surprisingly Debussy-like harmonies tossed in…and occasional louder, more aggressive outbursts. A “haven,” indeed! Surprisingly, a solo violinist pops up at around the 19-minute mark to play the sarabande as a solo (but not, alas, very well). Elcock then adds a counter-melody played by winds and lower strings against the solo violinist, who scrapes away as if he absolutely hates this sarabande melody, until we as listeners begin to dislike it as well…but happily, by then the music stops.

With the Fifth Symphony we are clearly back in Elcock’s normal environment, explosive orchestral works, yet the opening of this symphony is actually more violent than the opening of any other of his orchestral works I’ve heard to date. It does, however, suddenly disappear to allow a solo cello to introduce a much more lyrical and tonal theme which goes on for a bit. This is then developed slowly over a protracted period of time, at least until the 14:20 mark when a fast, loud outburst occurs before receding in volume and tension yet again for the finale of the movement.

But the Fifth is a very big symphony for Elcock, lasting nearly 45 minutes. The second movement is in a medium-quick tempo (“Ostinato – Allegro”). with an arresting, catchy repeated figure played by the violas as the rest of the strings, and winds, play opposing, quick figures around it. The third movement, a “Canzonetta – Largo,” is again a very tonal piece which also sounds very pastoral in a British way (think of some of Vaughan Williams’ music), although there is a very interesting middle section with some more intriguing harmonies, briefly featuring a xylophone. With the gritty, muscular last movement, we are in familiar Elcock territory, and indeed this is one of the finest creations on this disc—well written, tightly argued, and brilliantly orchestrated.

As an overview, I would say that the music on this CD is fascinating in many places but, for me, not as consistently intriguing or as inventive as on the other two CDs in this series. Had I heard this disc first, I would have given it a nice review (which I did here), but would not have been enticed to explore Elcock much further. If, however, Toccata Classics had replaced Haven with his Concerto Grosso for strings, a very interesting work which is on the composer’s website, it would have been a stronger CD.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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