This is as niche as they come, especially to the average American listener, I would imagine. Trained in Liverpool and Manchester, David Ellis’s career remained remarkably loyal to the north of Britain, aside from a stint in Portugal helping to run an orchestra, with a career at the BBC leading to him becoming head of music at BBC North. As a snapshot of the contemporary culture scene in Northern England this has some interest, not least as Ellis studied at the same time at the Royal Manchester College of Music as Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, and along with the likes of Alexander Goehr and John Ogden forming the New Music Manchester Music Group. Nevertheless, anyone expecting a radical, atonal voice like Birtwistle in this present collection of short orchestral works will be taken back by the gentle neo-Romanticism of Ellis’s writing. Given the avant-garde dogmatism of much contemporary composing in the 1950s and 1960s, one could maybe argue that Ellis was the true radical of his time in defying any Modernist trends.
It is a pity this disc does not include his four pieces for orchestra (later reworked as a sinfonietta), a breakthrough for him that was premiered by no less than John Pritchard. Instead we open with the Vale Royal Suite, a pleasant enough five-movement work, condensing the hours of a day into 12 minutes. It is as unthreatening and forgettably likeable as its movement titles, such as “A leisurely morning” and “A midnight waltz.”
If that work was written deftly for an amateur string orchestra, the following Diversions stems from a more unlikely and unromantic source of commissions: The Warrington New Town Development Corporation, in relation to its completion of the M6 motorway. A composer’s gotta eat….There is humor and skill at work in this bustling, propulsive piece with its restlessness and abrupt ending, so Diversions is very true to its title. It definitely adds a welcome note of energy in a rather placid album of academic forms.
Concert Music, the title piece which follows, is a four-movement suite of mournful strings and glimpses of feverish tension. The third movement is the most interesting with its repeated motifs and phrasing, but otherwise there is a rather faceless, meandering structure to the work, directionless and rather tepid. By contrast, Celebration, conducted here in a BBC recording by the late Edward Downes, was written for the Royal Northern College of Music and, as a later work than others, it stands out for its dark, brooding, Bergian drama, and passages of eerie beauty. This is arguably the best work on the album.
Written in memory of his wife in 2011, September Threnody is a fine, contemplative work for strings with spare textures and a sincere feeling of bleak loss. Yet it too lacks focus and a sense of arc throughout the work, although I very much like the short, spare little coda as a final movement. We conclude with Solus, recorded here at its premiere in 1973. As a flip side to the gentle day of the Royal Vale Suite, this is a tense tone poem of the journey from dawn till dusk. It is a shame a better recording couldn’t be found (it is mono and very murky) as there are flashes of real inspiration in the edgy, shivery lines.
Throughout the playing of the various ensembles is generally very tidy. This album has been decently produced too, with good concise notes and bios. Given the variety of sources and vintages, the sound is also remarkably consistent and full-bodied, with the exception of the muffled-sounding Solus. Whether this will help find David Ellis an audience is another matter. His music is never less than perfectly pleasant, with many a charming evocation of place and landscape, but it lacks face or an opinion, especially in his earlier work. A little mundane for Manchester, I think.