Henri Rousseau, Sevres Bridge, credit Wikipedia
Endnotes, March 2023
In this edition: premieres for the composer, Randall Svane; orchestral music by Francis Poulenc; reviewed by Stuart Millson
The Quarterly Review is always keen to champion new music that bucks the trend. In today’s terms, this means compositions that confront, not support, the modernist brutalism and iconoclasm that takes pleasure in turning accepted norms on their head. It is for this reason (and after sampling his work) that we have come to regard the contemporary United States composer, Randall Svane (born 1955) as a standard-bearer for the composition and art that takes us back to the world of the symphonic poem, to the unashamedly idealistic and patriotic occasional statement (his American Fanfare) and to the concerto, the chamber sonata and the liturgical works that celebrate Western spirituality.
Although Svane’s oeuvre has not yet achieved worldwide attention, we believe that a new Debussy or Vaughan Williams has come into being – such is the composer’s embrace of emotional warmth, tonality and, occasionally, a tincture of Impressionism. But warmth and tonality – scorned by extreme modernists – do not mean that the composer has decided to insulate himself from the anxieties of our time. In fact, the reverse is true: the resurrection of tonal music allows us to find our way again; to make sense of the world in a language that we can all understand. Art is collective and offers us all a revelation: thanks to this new American master, music becomes truly relevant.
Svane’s inventive, graceful, darting, airborne Flute Sonata is a work of joy and sunlight. But most recently, it is his new Oboe Sonata, lasting the best part of half an hour, that has taken centre-stage. Meditative, developing into an unstoppable dialogue between the piano and the oboe (an instrument that always seems to tell a story) – the sonata brings to mind the sound-world of Vaughan Williams or his pupil, Gordon Jacob.
So what exactly was the inspiration here: a landscape, an event, or just the joy of writing music for its own sake? Who better to ask than the composer:
“I wrote this piece because I had a gap in my catalogue: there is a sonata for flute, one for clarinet, and one for bassoon. So as a personal challenge I decided to write an oboe sonata. Two thirds of the way through the writing, I was introduced to an amazing oboist, Randall Wolfgang, who lives a few blocks from my house! He has quite a few recordings out with Deutsche Grammophon, played with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for many years, and also the New York City Opera. After introducing him to my work and discussing music, he became enthusiastic about the first two movements of the piece, inspiring me to the extent that the third almost wrote itself! He and I are now doing some concerts in the [New Jersey] area together.”
Shortly after this interview, the two Randalls featured at the spectacular Morristown Church in New Jersey, a performance space cherished by American musicians for its near perfect acoustic and Carnegie Hall-style Steinway B grand. The composer was certainly in an upbeat mood. Instead of waiting for another six months before any further airing of his works, the organist Brian Harlow was about to give the premiere of Svane’s Eight Little Preludes and Fugues (inspired by Bach) on the immense Morristown organ.
At Gloucester Cathedral, on the 25th July, Svane’s powerful, instantaneous orchestral flourish, Quantum Flight, will be performed as a symphonic curtain-raiser by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Partington (part of the Three Choirs Festival).
Finally, to the music of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) – the French composer with two definite sides to his character: musical dry wit, sparkling with Stravinsky-like rhythms as we bustle along the boulevards to the next cafe or revue; but then, in another realm, the inward-looking, consoling pastoral soulfulness of a Frenchman during the occupation – an intensely rooted, Catholic composer glimpsing heaven through the incense of Northern French churches.
From the Chandos label comes a CD that is both a tribute to Poulenc and to the man who presided over the recording, the late Bramwell Tovey – conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra – who died last year. Always on the look-out for something out-of-the-ordinary for his programmes, maestro Tovey arranged a feast of lesser-known Poulenc pieces, including the Pastourelle from 1927, and a ballet from the Paris Opera’s early years of the Second World War, Les Animaux modèles. This stage-work is outwardly a surreal countryside setting of charming animal fables, with grasshoppers, lions and cockerels all appearing. But Poulenc intended the work to be more than a just a children’s corner: he saw it, instead, as a statement of French identity and history, in a subtle, cultural defiance of the occupying power. By all accounts, he sighed and shrugged his shoulders when the audience took their seats: to wit, grey ranks of German officers, enjoying the cultural delights of Paris, surely the Wehrmacht’s best available posting of the entire war.
An impressive recording made at Watford Colosseum, with the CD cover featuring a 1906 painting by Rousseau, ‘Monkeys and Parrot in Virgin Forest’, Chandos have opened our ears, afresh, to a composer who too often exists in the shadows of, or as an afterthought to, Debussy and Ravel.
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of QR
For further details, visit the composer’s own website, www.randallsvane.com
Details of the Three Choirs Festival can be obtained at: https://3choirs.org
Randall Svane’s Cello Suites are now available on Leggiero Records, (LR205).
Poulenc, orchestral works, Bramwell Tovey, BBC Concert Orchestra. CHSA 5260.