Manchester Sounds

This CD of four of Kevin Malone’s pieces is a good introduction to this Manchester-based American composer’s wide range: it’s allusive, socially engaged music, which while taking the odd risk with moment-to-moment continuity and even with taste, is sophisticated, witty (in more than one sense) and sometimes deeply moving. They are all excellent performances, recorded in the warm acoustic of the University of Manchester’s Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall.

The gently alluring opening to the first (and by far the earliest) piece, The Radio Song, seems to inhabit the modernist mainstream, but then it quickly moves into a more complex, referential and ‘problematized’ discourse, with an irresistible rhythmic momentum and instrumental flair keeping the music’s stylistic variety in convinc­ing check. Mezzo-soprano Emily Howard does a grand job of moving from one vocal style to another, and the deliberate mismatch of words and music (which for me took a bit of getting used to, including the memorable phrase “So get a life, Ferneyhough, Babbitt and Carter/ Don’t tupletize, keep it straight, please don’t make it harder’) is actually what the piece is about, although it would really come to life in a live, preferably semi-staged performance. The very end is ravishing, a loop of distant pre-recorded music fading to nothing, an in­spired coup de theatre.

Next comes American Terpsichore, for piano quartet, from 2008 (the ever-dependable Fidelio Trio with Cheryl Law on viola): the first of its two movements, ‘Spin Alley’, again displays well its gritty modernist credentials, especially in this tight and convincing perform­ance, and seems to my ears less of a ‘stylistic orgy’ (as the composer describes it) than the second, ‘Fine Art and Garage Bands’. With its evocations of older musics, rhetorical gestures and questioning silenc­es, this movement does seem to run the risk of incoherence: it’s often a fine line between exuberant post-modernism and (to my ears) the rag-bag! I had no such reservations about the very fine Angels and Fireflies, for recorder and strings (2011), beautifully played by John Turner and the Manchester Sinfonia. This compact thirteen-minute ‘scena’ unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve, and makes an immediate and memorable effect. This is ‘pure’ music, a term the composer might not approve, but despite the 9/11 associations, its passionate, sensuous, radiant keening really needs little verbal explication to make its point. If I had one minor criticism (or observation rather), it is the very traditional treatment of the strings: from the evocative title. I had hoped for rather more in the way of ‘fireflies’! But the ending, where the recorder ‘lifts off’ on its own, is very striking, leaving this listener (at any rate) wanting more.

The main work on the CD, at just under half an hour, is A Clockwork Operetta (2011), again with Emily Howard plus viola and piano (those, again, of the Ebb Trio). A twenty-eight-minute distilla­tion of the Anthony Burgess novel, described by the composer as a ‘cabaret’, it comes over as both the most daring and most assured work here: there is a real economy of note and gesture, and it grabs you by the proverbial throat and never lets go. The use of the viola is surprising and effective, the various Beethoven allusions are deftly woven into the musical-dramatic fabric, and again. Emily Howard wins one over with her wide range of quick-change characters. I found the Scene 3 (track 8) especially moving and affecting. Again, one longs to see this on stage. It is a shame that Burgess’s own lyrics are not printed in the booklet, but the words are generally very clear. This enjoyable disc gives the listener much to think about.

—Rob Keeley