Songs of the Sky = STEVE MARTLAND: Tiger Dancing; HUW WATKINS: Dream; TARIK O’REGAN: Rai; JASON YARDE: Who Knows the Beauty; JOHN TAVENER: Songs of the Sky – Britten Sinfonia 001 – Signum SIGCD149, 76:14 ***1/2 [Distr. by Naxos]:
The Britten Sinfonia 001 is a group of people playing various instruments in varied combinations, so this album is not a collection of all one-ensemble types of pieces. The first time through I did not like it much; part of the problem is that the sound is rather garish in places, recorded too loudly, and lacking subtlety. But once I turned down the volume (and a turn on headphones helped as well) the music began to come across much better.
The big piece here is John Taverner’s Song Cycle Songs of the Sky, a work of remembrance written in response to the 2004 Tsunami that ravished Indonesia. I have not been happy with this composer in recent years, feeling that his music has become increasingly mundane and static. But this is different—there is a lot of thought put into the settings of each of the brief eleven movements, and the work is truly touching, scored for piano, oboe, and tenor.
Steve Martland’s Tiger Dancing is a real foot-tapper in the best Martland tradition, physical, unrelenting, and impossible not to like. There is also a lot of rhythmic energy in Tai O’Regan’s Rai, a piece that tries, successfully I believe, to exploit the meaning of this Arabic word (“opinion”), scored for string trio, flute, clarinet, harp, and percussion. You can hear echoes of The Soldier’s Tale throughout the work. One also hears the cross-cultural music that infuses the piece with its life and life-affirming vigor. Huw Watkins’s Dream (violin, clarinet, and piano) is a sort of quiet reverie that is continuously interrupted by what seems like nightmares, or at the very least a series of more dramatic episodes that belie the quietude of the title.
Who Knows the Beauty by Jason Yarde is the only work here that still gives me some problems; part of the piece remind me of what sounds like an advanced take on Charlie Parker’s famous sessions with strings. Other parts are genuinely improvisatory, and the whole thing has a strong jazz flavor, only emphasized by the scoring for alto saxophone, piano, violin, viola, and bass (played often like a jazz bass). The work is certainly intricate and expressive, but whether its deeper musical values—if any—come across later, only time will tell.
This is a fine album of new music for mixed ensembles, expertly played in somewhat caustic sound, but I think the quality of the pieces outweighs most sonic considerations.
— Steven Ritter