Divine Art has here produced a fine retrospective of the music of David Ellis. According to the composer’s website, it is only the second CD to be devoted entirely to his work. Although many other pieces have appeared on compilations from Campion Cameo, Dutton and Meridian, this is the first major exploration of the orchestral works.
It is not a grave confession to admit that I have not heard any of the works on this present CD before: I rely heavily on the liner-notes provided by the composer for my review. My only mild criticism of these excellent notes is the statement that ‘the least problematical work in this collection [is the Vale Royal Suite ]. I find that all the works are approachable, occasionally a bit challenging, but always expressive and extremely well written – never problematic. This is exciting, fresh and imaginative music.
The notes give a brief biography. The website presents considerably more detail: three or four sentences may give some context to his music. Ellis was born in Liverpool in 1933 and studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music (1953-57). His fellow students included Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Elgar Howarth, Alexander Goehr and John Ogdon. In 1964 he was employed by the BBC as a music producer latterly becoming Head of Music, BBC North in 1977. In 1986 he was appointed Artistic Director and Composer-in-Residence to the Northern Chamber Orchestra. After a period of working in Portugal he returned to the United Kingdom to devote himself to composition and work on CD production. His compositions include three symphonies, concertos for violin and piano, and a wide variety of chamber and instrumental music.
The earliest work here is the Concert Music dating from 1959 which was not premiered until 1972. Ellis notes that the string writing ‘did not conform to the avant-garde tendencies prevalent elsewhere in the UK at the time of its completion.’ The work is in four movements and explores a variety of moods. The important thing is that this ‘neo-romantic’ music is consistent, balanced and ultimately satisfying. For me, it should take its place in the repertoire of ‘string orchestra’ music alongside music by Berkeley, Tippett and Leighton.
I was impressed by Solus composed in 1973. It was at this time that I had started attending concerts and recitals in Glasgow and suffered from hearing a number of ‘premieres’ which were typically unmemorable and sometimes virtually unlistenable. If only I had heard Ellis’s work it might have restored my faith in ‘modern music’! Solus was a commission from the Manchester Camerata for their inaugural concert at the Royal Northern College of Music on 2 June 1973. The title reminds the listener that some 400 years previously, Copernicus had ‘made the discovery that confirmed the relationship between the Sun and planet Earth.’ David Ellis wrote a set of variations that reflected the progress of a typical day from ‘dawn to dusk’. The theme heard at the start, is presented in a number of guises, with a wide range of emotions ranging from warmth to death and even desolation. Yet it is piece that can be enjoyed apart from its programme. It is possibly the most vital piece on this CD.
Diversions (1974) had a strange genesis. It was commissioned by Warrington New Town Development Corporation. This group had been set up to ensure that the then new M6 motorway did not isolate the town. A concert to celebrate the success of the initiative was given by the Manchester Camerata under Frank Cliff: it included Diversions . This is an immediately enjoyable set of ‘continuous variations’. The title alludes to a perennial hazard of road travel – being ‘Diverted’.
Although the liner notes do not state it, ‘Celebrations’ is the last movement of a work called Trilogy . The first and second are titled ‘Circles’ (strings) and ‘Centerings’ (woodwind). It is difficult to know whether Trilogy was conceived as a ‘symphonic’ work or was created from three diverse pieces. Certainly, the composer considers that ‘Celebrations’ works as a standalone piece. It was commissioned by Sir John Manduell for the Royal Northern College of Music and makes use of an 18 th century-sized classical orchestra. In spite of the title, there is much reflective music in this score that contrasts with the lively opening and closing measures.
The undated Vale Royal Suite is a delight. Based on a day’s ‘journey’ the music gives expression to moods associated with ‘A leisurely morning’, ‘Afternoon Activity’, ‘Early Evening at Rest’, ‘A Midnight Waltz’ and finally after a very late night, ‘Tomorrow’s Sunrise’. I guess that if I was the composer, I would ditch the movements’ ‘character piece’ titles and go for the tempo directions only. This is basically ‘light’ music that is moving towards something more serious.
The latest work on this CD is September Threnody for string orchestra, completed in 2011 and premiered by the Northern Chamber Orchestra under Nicholas Ward in 2013. The word ‘threnody’ can be defined as ‘an ode, song or speech of lamentation, especially for the dead.’ This is highly appropriate as the work is dedicated to the composer’s wife who died in 2009. However, the emotion of this four movement work does have many positive moments and the listener feels challenged at the end of the piece rather than depressed. September Threnody is written in four short sections.
As noted above the liner-notes are first-rate: they are clear and informative. The recording is excellent. The performances are all completely convincing.
David Ellis has presented here a wide range of approachable, absorbing, enjoyable and sometimes thought-provoking (but not problematic) music. I have heard nothing by Ellis, on this CD or elsewhere, that has not impressed me. He is a composer who deserves all success and I can only hope that this present exploration of a selection of his orchestral music will lead to greater attention in the world of recording and concerts.