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Grains of Sand (2CD)
Grains of Sand (2CD)
CD1 Music by Wilfrid MELLERS:  The Echoing Green for soprano and recorder;  Three Songs of Growing for soprano and piano;  A Blue Epiphany for J.B. Smith for solo guitar;  The Happy Meadow for recorder and guitar;  A Fount of Fair Dances for recorder and string orchestra
CD2 Music for Wilfrid MELLERS:  Reflections for soprano, recorder and guitar;  Dances from "The Bells of Blue Island" for recorder, violin and cello;  Koori Dreaming for recorder and guitar;  A Spectre Scene for soprano and recorder;  The Two Cuckoos for solo recorder;  Of Time and Place  Three Songs for soprano, recorder and piano;  The Monk and his Cat for soprano, recorder and piano;  Daphne to Apollo for soprano and guitar;  Feste’s Song for soprano, recorder and guitar;  Sound the Flute for soprano, recorder and piano;  Piano Variations
Performed by Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano), John Turner (recorder), Craig Ogden (guitar), Peter Lawson (piano), and Manchester Camerata Ensemble/Philip Mackenzie.
Devoted to music written both by and for Wilfrid Mellers, this handsome and imaginatively put together double CD provides a conspectus of a composer, now in his 93rd year. Mellers’ work has often seemed to be overshadowed by a long and distinguished academic and musicological career. This began at Dartington in the 1930s and culminated in an innovative professorship at the University of York from 1964 to 1981, takng in important appointments, inter alia, at Downing College, Cambridge, and the University of Pittsburgh along the way.
The first disc, consisting of music by Mellers himself, is specifically designed around the theme of Innocence and Experience derived from his beloved William Blake. This has allowed the composer to demonstrate a concept which has been central to his philosophy and his approach to education, namely the integration of music as part of human experience as opposed to being an esoteric art practised in isolation. It comes as no surprise that the American experience resulted in elements of folk, jazz and pop music being absorbed into his creative palette.
Blake’s significance is immediately apparent in The Echoing Green, three of his poems set with subtle simplicity for soprano and recorder, which lie at the heart of Sunflower, a major Leeds Festival commission and the composer’s magnum opus. The Three Songs of Growing to words by David Holbrook, whilst mirroring the Blake lyrics, aim to treat the innocence/experience concept in terms of the process of growing up, consciously embracing folk and pop idioms without compromising their modal roots.
Folk aspects in the form of the blues dominate the centrepiece of the disc, A Blue Epiphany for J.B. Smith for solo guitar, and here it is experience, not innocence, to the fore. Smith was a black lifer in a Texan prison whose blues singing drew a parallel between his personal situation and the human condition in general. The piece is made up of what the composer calls "permutations of Smith’s permutations", an anguished and intense twelve-minute journey relevant to everyone’s personal "prison", which offers the hope of attaining some measure of resolution as a tune put together from those permutations is at last defined.
Innocent in total contrast, albeit a little ambiguously with unspoken classical connotations, The Happy Meadow comprises four dances arranged for recorder and guitar from a 1964 theatre-piece for children to sing, dance and play. Each explores an aspect of goatishness as part of the growing-up process, including a quasi-Warlockian Caper, before the epilogic Envoi turns meditative when, as the composer puts it, "goatish innocence and embryonic human consciousness meet"; look out for that knowing goatish flourish at the end. From here it is a short step to the instantly likeable A Fount of Fair Dances for recorder and string orchestra, taking its name from a 17th Century collection of dances, which in marrying the physical and the metaphysical brings us back full circle to the opening Blake lyrics.
The second disc presents a wide-ranging selection of music by friends and colleagues of Professor Mellers, much of it written to mark his ninetieth birthday in 2004. It neatly complements the thread of Innocence and Experience as well as touching upon other associations he holds dear, both profound and light-hearted. Pride of place here has to be accorded to the Piano Variations of 1930 by his friend Aaron Copland, magisterially played by Peter Lawson. This seminal work of the 20th Century – by a substantial margin the oldest on these two discs yet wholly relevant to today – holds special significance for Wilfrid Mellers, who ventures so far as to suggest that "there has never been a work more decisive in its originality". One can glimpse J.B. Smith’s fragmentary blues mirrored in these bare adamantine textures built from a strict five-note row.
Mellers’ far-reaching American associations, which include an influential historical survey, Music in a New Found Land, are acknowledged by a ninetieth birthday tribute from Ned Rorem setting words by Blake in Sound the Flute. Peter Sculthorpe carries the international dimension even further with his Koori Dreaming, a haunting piece for recorder and guitar based on a native chant from southern Queensland. "Koori" is a colloquialism for "aborigine" – that salutes the part played by Mellers in encouraging his characteristic Australianism.
Another antipodean reference is to be found in the sound of the koel, the Australian cuckoo, which sings, would you believe, an upside-down version of its European cousin’s call. This gives David Matthews in The Two Cuckoos the opportunity for some genial and ingenious interplay for solo recorder neatly incorporating a passing nod to another Mellers hero by way of a quotation from Beethoven’s use of the (European) call in the Pastoral Symphony. Purring flutter-tongued geniality also informs Stephen Dodgson’s tribute to a feline-lover in The Monk and his Cat set to an anonymous and timeless Irish text of the 8th or 9th century. There is the added bonus of his Daphne to Apollo, which also appeared on an earlier Cameo release.
That journey from Innocence to Experience appears again, through the eyes of Shakespeare, in a setting of Feste’s Song from Tweflth Night by Howard Skempton who like Mellers was Leamington-born. John Paynter elects to focus on Experience in Of Time and Place with three meditations on old age by Longfellow and Keats for a seemingly ageless Wilfrid Mellers. Philip Grange turns to the metaphysical Blake in A Spectre Scene ambitiously taking Blake’s belief that he would commune with his dead brother, who would dictate words to him to be realized fully later, as the cue to adapt five verses of an unfinished poem as if related in this way by the poet’s wife. It is by no means easy listening, but powerful and moving in Lesley-Jane Rogers’ superb performance.
Robin Walker, who with John Turner devised this enterprising collection, is represented by two works. Already previously recorded, The Dances from "The Bells of Blue Island" are well on course to become something of a 21st Century classic. Reflections for soprano, recorder and guitar, composed in 2004, has the capacity to do likewise. This setting of a visionary text encompasses in a short span the composer’s basic belief – and I think that of Wilfrid Mellers too – that music is something which "helps us to live". That sense of inner repose derived from Indian and Buddhist antecedents which so characterizes the Walker style runs even through the turbulence of the third verse ultimately to bring peace in the final lines sung unaccompanied with all the purity of mediaeval plainchant. If, as I certainly do, you can discern "Divine Grace ... dancing" in the Blue Island Dances, then here too you will call to mind Vexilla regis and that solitary trombone which opens Holst’s masterwork.
Performance and recording are, as always with this team, exemplary, though on first hearing I would recommend reprogramming the second disc so that Reflections plays as the last track instead of the first. You will find the effect after the towering grandeur of the Copland Variations quite revelatory.