Review: NMC collector

First published in Gramophone, December 2016 edition

NMC is the record label founded by composer Colin Matthews in 1989 with the explicit aim of championing contemporary classical music from the British Isles. Apparently a significant instigator was a concert of new works at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1987 that drew a full house but was not broadcast, meaning the music was only heard by 800 people. Matthews found himself pondering how to ensure broader access to new music, and he settled on recording as the answer. The quality of this latest batch of NMC releases — the calibre of the performances, the care and detail in the recorded sound, the significant platform these albums provide for young-generation composers — is proof of how central the NMC label has become to the UK’s contemporary music infrastructure.

The best seller of the bunch will doubtless be War Memorials, a collection of brass band music commemorating the two world wars and in a way the least typical NMC release. It’s a beautiful throwback. A century ago every major British composer wrote brass music — Holst, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Bliss, Elgar, more — but the website Brass Band World draws attention to the ghettoisation of brass band music today, noting that “recordings that bridge the gap between the banding and classical worlds have been precious few in recent times.” Well, here is one such recording.

During the Second World War, the civil engineer Guy Maunsell designed anti-aircraft forts on sandbanks in the Thames/Medway Estuary. They are bizarre and lonely looking structures that provided a first defence against Nazi bombers and submarines, and their decaying remains was the inspiration for John McCabe’s piece The Maunsell Forts. The piece has a solemn and unflinching passacaglia at its heart and a long, gorgeous closing elegy based on Bach’s chorale O Sacred Head Now Wounded.

Robin Holloway’s two War Memorials date from the early 1980s and allude to popular songs and 1940s imagery — a cocky soldier here, a doleful funeral march there. Lucy Pankhurst’s Voices (2014) goes in for marching steps and voice-overs of letters home from the trenches above emotively swelling brass. Neither matches McCabe’s stark, angry summation of the angst and nervy solitude of soldiering. The disc opens with Britten, the cautionary jubilance of his Occasional Overture, and closes with a collection called Diversions after Benjamin Britten that intersperses his four St Edmundsbury Fanfares with responses by Pankhurst, Simon Dobson, Paul McGhee and Gavin Higgins. The works are splendidly performed with a warm, rounded, intimate sound from Wales’s Cory Band conducted by Robert Childs and shinier, punchier playing from Tredegar Town Band under Ian Porthouse.

A WWII theme also runs through Claudia Molitor’s sound installation The Singing Bridge. Waterloo Bridge was first built in 1817, a beauty of Cornish granite and Doric columns. When the foundations started to crumble in the early 1940s, a workforce of women labourers constructed the new concrete span that still stands today, and that’s the social history that inspired Molitor. The piece was meant to be experienced in situ via a headset overlooking the bridge; as such, The Singing Bridge was a fine piece of musical psychogeography, with sensitive location recordings, traffic noises and wonky, finespun, industrial-ish prepared piano sounds interwoven with nimble contributions from poet SJ Fowler, folk band Stick In The Wheel and drum/synth duo AK/DK. As a soundscape alone it is evocative and delicate. Molitor has a wonderful way with filigree textures.

Emily Howard’s music is dark and spacious, robust and sleek. She’s the kind of composer who can summon big atmospheres in compact terms. There’s a quote from the poet Geoffrey Hill in the booklet notes of her album Magnetite that describes her work as “austerely sensuous and sensuously austere,” which seems about right. Her inspirations come from poetry, physics, chess; she has a degree in maths and computer science and her music holds together with rigorous logic without sounding formulaic or clinical. The album’s title piece is the score that made her name in 2008, and played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Gourlay its impact is hefty, resolute, ceremonial. In Threnos, mezzo Lucy Goddard and bass Simon Whiteley spin marvellous caterwauls around each other; in the string quartet Afference (the term describes how the brain receives signals from the body) the excellent Elias String Quartet sounds honed, elegiac and skittish. My favourite work on the disk is Leviathan for baritone saxophone (Joshua Hyde) and percussion (Noam Bierstone), which dwells in the fascinating textures of grotty split tones and strange partials.

Mark Bowden is another compelling young voice, another composer with an inquisitive mind for science references. The thing that captures me most in his music is its subtle, supple sense of movement: there is always an interesting flux. The four pieces on this disc were written in a decade (2005-2015) during which he spent four years as composer in residence with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and his aptitude for orchestral writing shows in the cello concerto Lyra. The orchestration glitters and glows while the solo line roams and soars; the interaction is playful, adventuresome, intricate, though cellist Oliver Coates sometimes gets lost or left behind in the mix.

Heartland is a percussion concerto and ballet score, fluid and alert with Julian Warburton as soloist. Pianist Huw Watkins and violinist Hyeyoon Park are poised and expressive in the Calvino-inspired Five Memos — the third movement, Exactitude, is breathtakingly simple and played with masterful stillness. Sudden Light is the oldest piece and the most bombastic, inspired by Liebniz’s theory on music as “the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.” BBC NOW under Grant Llewellyn give a robust, swaggering performance.

The London Sinfonietta Shorts series launched in 2008 when the Sinfonietta asked composers to contribute tiny scores for its 40th birthday. Most of the pieces were written for specific players and their characters are palpable —  Dai Fujikura’s rather tense solo bass piece ‘es’ was retaliation for Enno Senft always complaining about his bass parts. The idea of the shorts worked so well that the ensemble kept commissioning, and this latest group opens with Anna Meredith’s big-statement Axeman, a blazing outburst for electronically distorted bassoon, and moves on to Jonathan Harvey’s marvellous Little Duo, and Mark Bowden’s sensuous, cyclical Parable for alto saxophone and Harrison Birtwistle Duets Nos 1, 2, 4 & 5. For a snapshot of many NMC-related artists, this downlaodable collection is an ideal starter.