GREGSON: Concerto for Orchestra. HODDINOTT: Concerto for Orchestra. McCABE: Concerto for Orchestra. (plus interviews with the composers)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Douglas Bostock, cond.

Three musicians' composers. The Romantic notion of the genius as God -- especially in a monotheistic culture -- has, I think, robbed us of a lot of pleasure and thus strikes me as somewhat unhealthy and unnatural. There's nothing wrong with liking Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, and Mahler. However, if that prevents you from liking Kuhnau, Vorisek, the waltzing Strausses, or Parry, because they become less worthy of your time, then I'd say you've missed out on something. In the name of high standards, you lose what makes any of these composers interesting for his own sake.

On the other hand, almost every composer competes with others (including composers long dead) for time and resources. Thanks to government support, although under Blair it wanes, British composers have it slightly better than Americans in their own country. However, Britain has also produced an incredible number of -- if not great -- damn good composers, all of them superbly trained, in my opinion far better than the average stateside composer. Furthermore, everybody seems to know everybody else. Composers develop strong relationships with performers, and there seems a lot of mutual loyalty. The Royal Liverpool players, for example, chose to commission McCabe. Hoddinott fostered McCabe's academic career.

Competition with the dead runs pretty strong here. When one encounters a "concerto for orchestra," one first thinks of Bartók, although Bartók's example doesn't stand alone or even chronologically first. Hindemith's contribution, at least, comes before, Petrassi wrote eight such concerti, and one finds some particularly swell examples from Kodály, Lutoslawski, Piston, Gerhard, Bernstein, Hovhaness, Sessions, and Tippett. Nevertheless, for very good reasons, Bartók's concerto became iconographic. It's hard to imagine a piece better written or as inventive. It remains the measure of all the others.

I first knew Edward Gregson's brass music in the Sixties, through recordings by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and the Hallé. Others may know him by his incidental music for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Gregson's concerto dances like mad and sounds damned good, besides. The score glitters, with special attention to brass, tuned percussion, and harp. Gregson works with rather edgy, angular, but memorable ideas. Everything holds together extremely tightly. In fact, the opening motive runs throughout all three movements of the piece. Of the three works here, I think this the one that will catch up most people, because it moves so purposefully -- indeed, almost as well as the Bartók. Gregson originally called the work Contrasts, and that's certainly the rhetorical strategy. In the first movement, it sounds as if groups of instruments keep interrupting each other. The B section of the movement contrasts with its frame in tempo, dynamics and orchestration. The second-movement "Elegy" plays with sharply contrasting ideas: something that sounds like a ground bass, rhythmic punctuation, usually from the brass, and a sinuous melodic line. The finale is a corker, the most propulsive of the three movements, with rat-a-tat rhythms and "big-shoulder" fanfare ideas in the brass. It should knock you out of your seat.

Alun Hoddinott stands as one of the four great names of Welsh music, along with Daniel Jones, Grace Williams, and William Mathias. I had to learn to appreciate his music. At first, he struck me as rather bland, especially next to the flashier Mathias. Now, I'm afraid that Mathias comes to me as way too derivative of Walton and Britten, while Hoddinott always sings in his own way. If one can separate composers into, roughly, singers and dancers, then Hoddinott sings. However, an astringency usually runs through the lyricism and adds, I think, to the persistence of the music in one's memory. As in works of Vaughan Williams or Martinu, I can "hear" Hoddinott pieces in my head that I haven't listened to in years. His concerto shows the same strong qualities. There's a wonderful opening idea, based on the call of doves (which the composer hears in his garden). It's sufficiently abstracted that you wouldn't necessarily think of it if you hadn't been told, but once you know, the composer's skillful invention will stick with you. Hoddinott abstracts the idea even further, into a game with the interval of the major second, throughout the score. Nevertheless, if the Hoddinott concerto sounds a bit more relaxed than the Gregson, it also seems to acquire a greater emotional maturity, particularly in the central adagio. If Gregson aims to impress. Hoddinott wants to convince you of something. It's not a matter of one piece better than the other, but of the contrast between Gregson the Public Orator and Hoddinott the Lyric Poet, between an artistic extrovert and an artistic introvert. You shouldn't, however, get the idea that Hoddinott is all swans and moonbeams, but it does seem night-haunted, which includes the things that go bump in the night, just at the edge of earshot.

The second movement, an adagio, is essentially a long sigh. A composer has to work to bring something like this off; otherwise it'll just lay there like a blancmange. Hoddinott pulls it off and in a non-obvious way. I have no idea from several intense listenings how he does it. It all seems "natural" and "inspired." The third movement displays both wit and power.

I've listened to John McCabe's music also since the Sixties. About his concerto, undoubtedly the most tightly-written of the three (and probably even tighter than the Bartók), unfortunately, I don't really care at all. McCabe's music to me never seems to go anywhere, or only grudgingly. It's not a matter of tempo or lack of ideas. Gregson has plenty of ideas and varies his tempi. But even at its chattering quickest, McCabe's music seems to stay put. It's not a matter of motific development, but the sense of getting from here to there, as in a tale well-told. It's more like watching a flag-pole sitter balancing a table and eating lunch -- a lot of activity, but not a lot of mileage. This comes down to my preferences on what I want music to do, and I really value "narrative" movement, which McCabe has never given me. Those of you less stubborn than I may not have this problem.

The performances -- all recording premieres -- are splendid. Hoddinott, in his liner notes to the piece, remarks that practically all modern orchestral writing is virtuosic anyway (in that sense, most symphonic pieces are "concerti for orchestra"), and technical standards for orchestral musicians have risen so high that regional orchestras, like the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, put Mengelberg's Concertgebouw or Koussevitzky's Boston players to shame, at least technically, if not musically. You also get a recorded interview by Lewis Foreman with all three composers. I'm a sucker for such things, even when a composer doesn't say anything he hasn't said before or merely pays compliments. Groupie mentality, I guess. But the three composers do in fact say very interesting things.

The recording itself shows the colors of all three scores to their advantage.

S.G.S. (Oct. 2002)