The Voice Inside / How Swift the Hours / Cassandra’s Songs / Kaea
Madeleine Pierard, mezzo-soprano; Vesa-Matti Leppänen, violin; Michael Kirgan, trumpet; David Bremner, trombone
James Judd conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Lyell Creswell (b.1944), Wellington, NZ native who now considers Edinburgh home base, shows a decided interest in furthering the scope of activity of four instruments (trumpet, trombone, violin, and voice) in works that reveal his range of interests as a composer. The Voice Inside, based on the striking and incisive verse of contemporary Scottish poet and novelist Ron Butlin, is billed as a concerto for soprano, violin and orchestra, and it truly casts both Pierard and Leppänen in virtuosic roles, vis-à-vis the orchestra as well as each other. The six poems center around the transcendent moments in which both voice and violin give utterance to sound, and then to music. The relationships are ever-changing: “Catch as catch can, / boy and girl, woman, man / contrapuntal, asymptotic, / palindromic / mirrorwise inversion / canonic imitation / Your theme or mine?” The two instruments appear as both lovers and rivals against the light orchestral backdrop. Movement VI is a scherzo, in which Pierard engages in pleasant verbal gymnastics with the evocative sounds of a string of names of famous violin virtuosi. VI, Burlesque, playfully twits the 12-tone school of composition: “Twelve equal tones, dangling on a score, / if one of them should modulate / would there be a melody / where none had been before?”
“Alas! How Swift,” the title of Crewell’s 11-minute concerto in a single movement for trumpet and orchestra, alludes to the fleeting passage of time, reflected in the swirling movement of the orchestral accompaniment, at the constant speed of 138 beats to the minute. That movement seems to echo the restlessness of wind and water (including, at the 0:57 mark and again, about a minute later, the chugging, guggling sound of water passing down a drain!) Often the orchestra is required to play both quietly and swiftly (musicians can tell you the difficulties that involves), and the trumpet player to execute frequnt double-tonguing. To return to the washday analogy, the orchestra goes into a final speed rinse cycle as we near the end, prompting a last burst of virtuosity from the trumpet.
“Cassandra’s Songs,” another example of a fruitful collaboration between Ron Butlin and the composer (with a verse from Euripides’ The Trojan Woman inserted as the text for the third song, of five) are poignant expressions of exile, identity, loss, hope and despair. It is another instance in which outstanding vocal artistry, here executed to perfection by Pierard, is brought to the service of great poetry: “Teach me, gods of song, some harsh lament / Dissonant with tears and howls, / Help me to sing Troy’s sorrows, invent / New sounds for my grief.” (The words I’ve chosen are Euripides’, but Butlin’s are on the same high plane of inspiration.)
Finally, Creswell returns to his Kiwi roots with Kaea, a concerto for trombone and orchestra that draws its title and the inspiration for its primitive beauty on the so-named war trumpet that was traditionally used by the Maori people to terrify their enemies before a battle. Of course, the Maori also have some of the world’s most beautiful songs and chants. But here, with the exception of a brief legato melody in the slow section of this work, the music is mostly staccato, phrased stunning by the soloist in a way that pushes the limits of the trombone in the way of terse, rhythmic excitement and a blaring suddenness that can create a miasma of sound, as it does when we first hear the voice of the Kaea. Truly, a hair-raising moment!