Thursday, 13 March 2014

Lyell Cresswell creates some lovely sound worlds in three orchestral works recorded for Naxos by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Lyell Cresswell (b.1944) was born in Wellington, New Zealand. He studied in Wellington, Toronto, Aberdeen and Utrecht. After some teaching at Glasgow University he joined Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff as Music Organiser. In 1980 he returned to Scotland as Forman Fellow in Composition at Edinburgh University before becoming Cramb Fellow in Composition at Glasgow University. In 1987 he won the Ian Whyte Award for the Orchestral work Salm, and in 1979 received the APRA Silver Scroll for his contribution to New Zealand music. His works have been recommended by the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in 1979, 1981 and 1988. Since 1985 he has been a full-time composer based in Edinburgh.

Cresswell has been a featured composer at Musica Nova, Glasgow 1984; Sonorities Festival of Twentieth Century Music, Belfast 1985; Asian Music Festival, Tokyo 1990; New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, Wellington 1990; St. Magnus Festival, Orkney 1991; Musica Insieme, Bologna 1992; Academy Now! Festival, Glasgow 1993; Middelburg Festival, Netherlands 1993; Concerti Aperitivo, Teatro Comunale, Modena, and in April 1998 at the Federico Garcia Lorca festival, Bologna.

He has been a guest of the Warsaw Autumn Festival 1985; the Philippine-Asian Music Festival, Manila 1988, Festival of the Asian Composers' League, Taipei 1994, guest lecturer at L'Accademia di Brera, Milan 1987 and L'Accademia di Belle Arti, Bologna 1994, and artistic director of the New Zealand, New Music festival in Edinburgh in 1998. In 1989 his Speak for us, great sea was performed at the BBC Proms, London, and in 1995 Dragspil for accordion and orchestra received its first performance at the BBC Proms as a commissioned work. A recent work, KAEA (Trombone Concerto) was written for Christian Lindberg and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Another recent large-scale work is his Concerto for Orchestra and String Quartet, commissioned by the City of Aberdeen for the Yggdrasil Quartet and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. This is one of three works by Cresswell that are featured on a new release from Naxos.


Coupled with Creswell’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and I Paesaggi dell’anima, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra  is conducted by Hamish McKeich with Stephen Pledge (piano)  and the New Zealand String Quartet

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, written in memory of his close friend and fellow composer Edward Harper, is in seven movements played without a break. It was written for the pianist on this recording Stephen Pledge.

Low piano chords open the Funeral March, slowly becoming varied and more dramatic and complex as the orchestra joins. An insistent pulse low in the orchestra runs through this movement. Soon a quiet ticking from the percussion is heard in a hushed section, before the music begins to build with falling brass chords leading to a loud climax. Soon the music quietens again with a throbbing orchestral pulse and bold chords from the piano but the orchestra tries to gain in dynamics, only to fall hushed again with piano gently picking a motif. Bells sound quietly as the orchestra joins in the hushed opening of Adagio I. Soon the piano enters slowly picking out a theme. There is a wonderfully conceived movement when the orchestra repeats the opening hushed theme with beautiful chords from the piano. Soon individual brass and woodwind enter quietly but the piano returns alone leading to the end.

Frantic chords on the piano and dramatic orchestra open Scherzo I, with many little individual outbursts in the orchestra and a fiendishly difficult piano part before the music ends. A dissonant braying orchestra opens Addolorato before the piano enters alone. The orchestra rejoins and rises to its opening dissonant, swirling sound before quietening. Soon the piano brings a languid, flowing melody soon joined by the orchestra with little drooping motifs. The orchestra becomes more dramatic but again falls hushed, as the piano joins in some exquisitely delicate passage work. All along, this theme has the feeling of subdued emotion behind the often hushed delicate strands.

The piano and orchestra jump straight in with a wild, scurrying theme in Scherzo II before falling to a sudden quiet section for woodwind. The piano joins, scurrying quickly along and becoming more and more dramatic. Timpani and percussion are heard, with some terrific playing from Stephen De Pledge right up to the sudden end.

Repeated piano notes open Adagio II before being slightly varied. A bell sounds quietly; other percussion enter with the strings in a haunting moment – something Cresswell seems to be able to do so well. Sighing brass are heard quietly before the piano provides increasingly bolder chords and the orchestra suddenly breaks out, only to be hushed as more delicate percussion are heard. The piano picks out its opening motif before the Presto arrives, with the music suddenly hurtling forward with a rhythmic, jazzy piano theme. Part way through there is an orchestral section that holds a quieter drama which the piano gently takes up before the frantic, scurrying theme returns with piano and orchestra hurtling forward to the coda.

Stephen De Pledge and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra are phenomenally impressive in this concerto.

Written as part of a project exploring the links between music, painting and landscape, I Paesaggi dell’anima (Landscapes of the Soul) follows imaginary landscape patterns through rhythm, colour, line and evolving motifs.

The work opens gently with shifting harmonies in the strings which slowly pick up as a double bass introduces a mournful melody. The strings provide a short series of chords before the double basses interact together. Swirling strings surge and sway before lower strings provide a low rich harmony in a landscape of dark gloom.  

Various little motifs appear out of the mists before the music becomes more enlivened, the mists have gone and we have a brighter landscape.  Swirling strings raise the music, becoming quite passionate but soon a hush falls, leading to lovely shimmering orchestral sounds. Basses ruminate before a theme high in the strings arrives, quietly and gently flowing. The music grows more dynamic again leading to a frenzied, swirling string passage.  After a short quiet, still section there is a sudden anguished outburst leading to a faster section with pizzicato strings that rushes forward before rising higher and becoming more agitated in a terrific swirl. Strange hovering strings give way to the agitated strings to end.

The composer doesn’t say what kind of imaginary landscapes he had in mind but this music gives full reign to the imagination. Again Hamish McKeich draws some impressive playing from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Concerto for Orchestra and String Quartet was commissioned by the City of Aberdeen and first performed by the Yggdrasil Quartet and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 1997. It is dedicated to the memory of deceased friends.

A wood block tap and harp flourish open the concerto as hushed strings lead to a plaintive melody for trumpet taken up by the woodwind. Soon a rhythmic theme thunders forward with the viola of the quartet joining, leading to a violent and passionate climax. As the music drops to a quiet section, the cello of the quartet appears in a solo theme, joined by the viola, then violin and various combinations of the quartet before playing together. When the orchestra re-joins it heaves up from the low brass to a faster, lighter string section accompanied by the members of the quartet.

A slower, quieter section arrives that has the quartet playing over pizzicato basses and percussion in music that seems to lumber along. Soon there is a skittish moment for the quartet, sharing the theme around between themselves and the orchestra. When the lovely, hushed, extended section for strings and harp arrives there are some lovely quartet sonorities – a really fine moment from the New Zealand String Quartet. Eventually the orchestra livens up and becomes more animated with the music hurtling around the orchestra becoming increasingly dramatic.

When the music suddenly quietens, the quartet plays a gentle theme before quickly moving forward with the quartet interspersing motifs within the orchestra, leading to a rich climax. A quiet string episode follows but soon there is an orchestral outburst as the orchestra leads the music to ever more dramatic heights. However, the quartet still has a say before the sudden orchestral end.

I am glad to have heard this music which has many fine moments with Cresswell creating some lovely sound worlds. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Hamish McKeich delivers some impressive playing as does the New Zealand String Quartet and pianist Stephen De Pledge.

They all receive an excellent recording made in the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand and there are informative booklet notes by the composer.

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