Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Email Password  
Not a subscriber yet?  
Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Stephen Smoliar, March 2013

The entire recording is…an informative introduction to an aspect of Bryars’ approach to composition that has received little attention in previous releases, and that introduction is well worth experiencing. © 2013 Read complete review

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, July 2011

Gavin Bryars is not known for his piano writing. In fact, this is the only collection of his devoted to the instrument, with two of the three pieces dedicated to pianist-musicologist Van Raat. One of the pieces is an arrangement, one uses material from a choral work, and one is basically a choral piece with a chunk devoted to some extraneous piano music, so one doesn’t get the impression that the composer has much of a commitment to the instrument.

After Handel’s Vesper (1995) was originally written for harpsichord and has the spirit of a thoughtful baroque keyboard improvisation, set in Bryars’s freely tonal harmonic style. Devoid of spectacle, the piece is probably more evocative of the intended style on the harpsichord than on the concert grand, but simple evocation is not Bryars’s intent. Instead, the music is quietly stately and a bit reserved, with just a hint of 17th Century style, beautiful in its way and not too assertive or demonstrative.

Ramble on Cortona (2010), Bryars’s first work “specifically” for piano (he is a bass player), takes the 13th Century as its starting point. Like the opening track, this is basically an improvisation (indeed a “ramble”) on material from his Laude, a vocal work based on trecento manuscripts found in Cortona, Italy. Also like the first track, its relations to its subject are understated, particularly when transposed to the grand piano, but the result is strikingly beautiful and deeply moving, particularly when played as sensitively as it is here.

The Piano Concerto (2010), subtitled The Solway Canal, opens with a quiet allusion to Zarathustra and goes on to become a choral work with piano accompaniment with text by the late contemporary Scottish poet Edwin Morgan (1920–2010), whose “evocative words” are not offered in the booklet (they can be found on Bryars’s website, along with Morgan’s poem ‘A Place of Many Waters’, which is the second half of the piece). The opening poem documents a foggy sail through Scottish waters with forbidding gulls and rainy weather, while the second is decidedly stormier in nature. In between the texts, we get a typically lush Bryars orchestral atmosphere with endless harmonic progression coupled with meandering punctuations by the piano soloist, who retains a strictly obbligato and distinctly non-assertive role. The music is entirely appropriate to the subject matter: windswept, gray, and unrelievedly precipitate. Listeners with a taste for British seascapes will enjoy this.

Bryars is a fine composer, and this release will give you a good inexpensive taste of his work…

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, May 2011

Gavin Bryars’ music tends not to deal in opacity. It can loop, gaining reserves of emotional response through repetition—the most obvious example is Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet—and it can allude, but it doesn’t obfuscate.

But Bryars has cast his net widely over the years and we should welcome evidence of his versatility. This latest disc includes two works for solo piano and his Piano Concerto, titled The Solway Canal. After Handel’s Vesper was written in 1995, originally for the harpsichord, but is heard here in a sanctioned version for piano. The calm start leads to more dynamic writing which casts off the air of relatively static post-minimalist writing. It embodies, to a degree, the kind of freedoms to be found in a fantasia, a feeling that is, for me, intensified at 8:40 when a sudden trill and simple figure announces the emergence of more explicitly baroque-leaning affiliations.

The title of his next solo piano piece, Ramble on Cortona, sets up Graingeresque expectations, but these aren’t wholly met. This is the composer’s only work originally conceived for solo piano, and bases its themes on Laude, a recent vocal work of his. These in turn derive from thirteenth century Italian music in manuscripts found in Cortona. Slow and meditative, it’s flecked with ghostly ascending treble steps. But one senses too the impress of Spanish textures as the music slowly speeds up in its journey. It casts something of a spell, as it’s quietly expressive.

The Concerto (The Solway Canal) was also written in 2010. It sets poems by the Scot Edwin Morgan whose death last year was either the catalyst for the setting, or a coincidence—we’re not told which. This isn’t, and one would not expect it to be given it’s Bryars, in any sense a traditional cut-and-thrust Piano Concerto. Here the solo voice is interwoven into the music’s textures. One might think that the Busoni Piano Concerto—which has a chorus too—is a spur, but if so it’s only in the vaguest of terms and I would prefer to think of that work only as a precedent. The work is wistful, often romantic and without flourish, and again deeply intimate in reach.

The Ramble and Concerto are both dedicated to the highly able soloist in this recording, Ralph van Raat, who shows every sign of becoming a Bryars muse of the first order.

Pwyll ap SiƓn
Gramophone, May 2011

A deep, evocative response to the waterway in Bryars’s new concerto

Specific places and natural phenomena often conspire to produce highly evocative moments in Gavin Bryars’s music. Water in particular is something of a recurring theme, from the well-known The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) to more recent compositions such as The North Shore (1994) and The Church Closest to the Sea (2007).

Bryars’s Piano Concerto (2011) is perhaps his most ambitious work to date to combine both elements. Subtitled The Solway Canal, in addition to solo piano and orchestra this large-scale work also features an important role for male chorus, which sings settings of two sonnets by the late Scottish poet Edwin Morgan. Swelling up gradually from the depths of the orchestra, Bryars manages to capture the still movement of a boat “vibrating quietly through wet rock walls / and scarves of dim half-sparkling April mist”. Unlike the solo “protagonist” in the traditional concerto sense, here the piano acts as a catalyst for initiating gradual musical change, with the orchestra taking up and developing its restless repeated patterns and short phrases.

The concerto reveals hidden depths with each listening…Ramble on Cortona manages to extricate itself from such structural straitjackets to produce a number of intensely expressive and spontaneous musical moments. Ralph van Raat’s playing combines powerful projection with a neo-Romantic sensibility, focusing on important details while rarely losing sight of the music’s dynamic swell and sweep.

Malcolm Hayes
Classic FM, May 2011

The Music Gavin Bryars has for many years now been a leading figure in the English experimental music scene. He composes in an idiom that’s both ear-pleasingly mellifluous and, in its own way, quietly challenging: imagine something like Ludovico Einaudi’s keyboard musings, but with a firmer bite.

The Performance It’s the nature of Bryars’s solo piano music that it flows along in a gently timeless way, generally avoiding strong contrasts of pace, tempo or figuration. This makes for a pleasingly haunting manner. It also severely challenges a performer’s ability to keep the listener’s attention suitably gripped. In After Handel’s Vesper and Ramble in Cortona, Ralph van Raat manages this fairly well. But he’s on stronger form in the Piano Concerto, with its much wider spectrum of moods and colours; the orchestral playing and choral singing, too, are decently good.

The Verdict You need patience with Bryars’s music: it richly rewards that quality when performances of it are as sympathetic as these ones.

Tom Huizenga
National Public Radio, April 2011

Bryars’ newly released piano concerto is subtitled “The Solway Canal.” It begins with undulating tones deep in the basses, from which low piano notes slowly emerge like the prow of a boat materializing out of early morning mist

“The Solway Canal” is in a single uninterrupted movement, and though the tempo remains slow, the music has the feeling of constant motion. Rippling, repeating chords in the piano and oscillating figures in the strings give the piece its pulse, propelling the boat forward through water. The tranquil tone echoes the English pastoral school, sounding not too far off from pieces like Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi or Delius’ A Song of the High Hills.

…Dutch pianist Ralph van Raa…makes a sympathetic soloist in the concerto and two pieces for piano…

John France
MusicWeb International, April 2011

Three works are presented on this CD—two solo keyboard pieces and a major ‘piano concerto’ that also makes use of a choir.

The first work, After Handel’s Vesper was composed in 1995 and was originally conceived for solo harpsichord. I find this a little bit of a ‘ramble’ in spite of the fact that the composer has tried to fuse seventeenth-century style with jazz and a higher degree of chromaticism than Handel would have cared to use. It is certainly an interesting work that engages the listener. However, the balance between its ‘baroque ornamentation’ and the ‘lush’ harmonies can be a little overstated. I always thought that only grass could be lush! The formal characteristics seem to be predicated on a ‘free and improvisatory playing style’ rather than anything based on a contemporary Handelian ‘sonata’ or ‘suite.’ Yet it works well for piano, possibly better than the original harpsichord: there are some lovely, moving moments in amongst the pseudo-minimalistic note-spinning.

Ramble on Cortona is perhaps an unfortunate title: Grainger-esque maybe in name, but not in concept or sound. Once again this is a ‘fusion’ piece that bases its material on themes from one of the composer’s earlier works, Laudes. This in turn was derived from a thirteenth-century musical manuscript found in Cortona in Italy. The Ramble is a well crafted work that takes the listener on a journey—more a meander than a ‘yomp’. However, like much of Gavin Bryars, the harmonies and pianism are well expressed and sometimes spine-tingling. Not a masterpiece perhaps, but certainly an enjoyable and important essay for the piano.

The major event on this surprisingly ‘economical’ CD (only 52 minutes long) is the Piano Concerto The Solway Canal. Naxos has been unable to give the text to the two sonnets by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan which inspired the work. Fortunately they are quite easy to locate on the internet, so there is no excuse for not perusing them.

The music is well played on this CD by the soloist Ralph van Raat, who also contributed the laudatory liner-notes. The Cappella Amsterdam and Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic under their conductor Otto Tausk provide an excellent accompaniment in the piano concerto.

This is an interesting CD that will appeal to a wide range of listeners who are comfortable with Bryars’ approachable style…the musical sounds are superb and often deliciously moving…

George M. Wallace
a fool in the forest, March 2011

this disc collects the entirety of Bryars’ compositions for solo pianist. He has written for piano previously, but those works have generally called for more than one piano or more than one pianist, or both. So, at this writing, the Bryars solo piano works are three in number: a Piano Concerto, subtitled The Solway Canal after one of the two poems whose texts are incorporated in it; a new solo piano piece, Ramble on Cortona, written for van Raat in conjunction with the composition of the concerto; and a piano revision of a 1995 piece originally written for harpsichord, After Handel’s Vesper.

The centerpiece here is obviously the concerto, which received its premiere in February, 2010. The work was commissioned in part by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, which produced this precursor video at the time of the commission in 2006:

Four years later, in an essay following the premiere, van Raat writes:

I think the Piano Concerto by Gavin Bryars takes on a unique place in piano concerto literature. First of all, because it has a rather uncommon orchestration of piano solo, orchestra and choir. Second, because the piano takes on a role which is quite radical: virtuosity is not anymore defined by playing as many notes as possible, but by another element which I think is, at times, overlooked by musicians and composers: that of complete ‘control’ over the instrument. Control, in my opinion, not only means being able to control technically difficult passages, but also means being able to play just a few notes as one wishes, i.e. with the right colour, tone, intention and dynamics. I think the concerto is challenging, because one cannot hide himself or herself in technical display. Here it comes down to playing relatively few notes in such a way, that they start to mean something, and that they move people. Gavin asks for an intrinsic way of music making, which is averse from musical acrobatics. Especially nowadays, in which very flashy television and radio make many people used to needing just very short attention spans, this piece forms an interesting counterpart, which we generally are not used to anymore.

And that sums it up nicely. The Solway Canal is not a flashy showpiece for the soloist, spattering runs and crescendos round the hall, but an extended collaboration between soloist and ensemble, with long, organic lines of thought twining through and about it. The piece is not explicitly programmatic, but it has been rightly compared to watching a passing, shifting landscape or perhaps to slowly walking the length of a scenic panorama. As van Raat notes, the scoring is not only for orchestra and piano, but also for a male chorus. The chorus, at three junctures in the single-movement work, sings texts drawn from two sonnets—“The Solway Canal” and “A Place of Many Waters”—by the late Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan (d. August, 2010), and it is perhaps those stern and watery vistas that are best evoked by this music. Throughout its darkly thoughtful progress this is a Piano Concerto that holds attention moment to moment with a sense that we cannot anticipate what will come next, other than to know with confidence that it will charm and satisfy.

With no orchestra or chorus to flesh them out, the two solo piano pieces included here make room for a bit more ostentation and flourish, but still marked by a laudable degree of restraint.

As mentioned above, After Handel’s Vesper was originally written for harpsichord. It is “after” Handel in both the temporal sense and the sense of operating under the earlier composer’s influence. Intriguingly, Bryars’ notes on the piece reveal that the “Vesper” on which it is modeled is a fictional one, referred to in a novel by Raymond Roussel, in which Handel composes it “by a curious set of chance operations involving sprigs of holly and coloured ribbons.” Bryars did not use chance operations in the composition of his piece, but consistent with period practice he has left the performer room to improvise ornamentation as he or she is moved to do so.

Percy Grainger coined “ramble” as his term for variations on an existing theme, and Gavin Bryars adopts it for his Ramble on Cortona. The title refers to the Cortona manuscript [Il Laudario di Cortona], a 13th century collection of laude, a form of unaccompanied song usually on a sacred subject. Bryars has been setting selections from the manuscript for a variety of vocal and instrumental combinations in recent years, and is apparently bent on eventually setting all of the fifty-odd laude it contains. For his “Ramble,” he selected a handful of themes from earlier vocal settings, transferred them to the piano and set about working variations upon them. The result is the equivalent of examining a fine gem through a series of lenses, fresh facets emerging with each new refraction.
If I wanted to pick just one Gavin Bryars recording as an entry point for someone not already partial to Bryars’ music, it would likely be the CBC Radio Orchestra performances collected on I Have Heard It Said That a Spirit Enters, which—not nearly so portentous as its title suggests—gives a slightly better sense of Bryars’ full range and which includes his revelatory meditation on the so-called Porazzi Fragment of Wagner. That being said, this new Solway Canal collection has much to recommend it as a starting point as well, and will certainly provide ample satisfaction for those of us already converted to the astringently seductive pleasures Gavin Bryars’ music has to offer.

Ralph Graves
WTJU Classical Comments, March 2011

I’ve always liked Gavin Bryars’ music, although I admit I was always more familiar with his earlier works, such as “Jesus’ Blood Ain’t Failed Me Yet,” and “The Sinking of the Titanic.” The latter was almost a study in sound landscapes and non-tonal sonorities, crafted to deliver a visceral emotional wallop. Bryars has continued growing as a composer, delving even further into the nature of sound, while refining his musical language.

All of that’s beautifully illustrated in this new recording from Naxos. Pianist Ralph van Raat presents three of Bryars’ recent compositions for the instrument, two of which are dedicated to van Raat. All three works share certain similarities. There are these long flowing arpeggios played with the damper pedal down. This causes these layered chords to overlap each other, creating an additional voice as sonorities fade in and out.

At first listen, I was reminded briefly of Philip Glass’ music—but only briefly. While flowing diatonic chords are prominent, that’s where the similarity ends. Bryars isn’t concerned with gradual changes over time. He’s more interested in what’s happening at the moment. His chords change quickly, although each chord often has several notes in common with the one before it. The result is music that organically flows from point to point, much like a vine.

While the two solo piano works on the album, “After Handel’s Vesper” and “Ramble on Cortona” are compelling listening, the piano concerto is a real masterwork.

Subtitled “The Solway Canal” it takes the Edwin Morgan poem as its starting point and basis for organization. Like Smetana’s “Ma Vlast,” the piano concerto takes the listener down the canal, presenting scenes along the banks that drift past. The solo piano part isn’t especially virtuosic, but it is the glue that holds the work together. The piano plays almost constantly, with the orchestra and chorus organized around its shimmering chordal cascades.

I would be hard-pressed to precisely describe the structure of the work, but I don’t think it matters. “The Solway Canal” pulled me along from the first note to the final chord, and everything just seemed to fall into place.

If you think modern music has to sound like a toolbox descending a staircase, give Bryar a listen. You won’t hear pretty little melodies, but you will hear compelling, accessible music that draws you in emotionally. And really, isn’t that the point?

Highly recommended.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, March 2011

Gavin Bryars, at the age of 68, is without question one of the great living composers. Though not nearly as well known as Gorecki or Part, there are works by the post-minimalist British composer that are every bit as haunting and beautiful as theirs. His career isn’t exactly commonplace either. He began as a jazz bass player, often in free jazz contexts, studied with John Cage and Cornelius Cardew, and, by the time of his works “The Sinking of the Titanic” and “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” had created a sound world all its own, no matter what bloodlines it would clearly have across the Atlantic to the music of Reich, Glass and Adams. This is strongly tonal music, lyrical, at times so personal that it borders on private and yet it seldom fails to impress, whether his original sources are Handel, 13th century manuscripts in Italy or impressionism. Van Raat is perfect for it, refusing steadfastly to force a presence on it that the composer so conspicuously avoided (in that, it’s a bit like the piano music of Satie).

Stephen Eddins, March 2011

The music of British composer Gavin Bryars has been shaped by a variety of influences, from the avant-garde aesthetic of John Cage and Cornelius Cardew to minimalism, but its roots were in jazz performance, and it’s easy to hear the sensibilities of jazz underlying the solo piano works, After Handel’s Vesper and Ramble on Cortona. Both have an improvisatory quality and a harmonic language derived more obviously from jazz than from the Handel or the 13th century laudes that provide the source material. They have a mellow sweetness, and they unfold with amiable leisure. Bryars’ Piano Concerto (The Solway Canal) is a darker work, an evocative soundscape that features the accompaniment not only of an orchestra but a choir. The piano part, frequently a simple melodic solo line floated over an arpeggiated or chordal accompaniment, is far from the virtuosic showcase that typifies most concertos. The chorus, perhaps inevitably, draws the listener’s attention most powerfully, and the piano part frequently takes on the character of an accompaniment. This flexibility of roles and the shifting musical focus should be problematic only for purists who demand that a concerto follow a preordained form, because the result, if not simple to categorize, is hauntingly lovely. Like the solo works, it develops at a reflective, unhurried pace. Its lack of dramatic contrasts in tempo is another element that sets it apart from conventional concertos, but it is highly effective in its moods of subdued melancholy. The album doesn’t make the kinds of demands that show off Ralph van Raat’s considerable virtuosity, but he brings just the right gentle poetry to Bryars’ music. Otto Tausk leads Cappella Amsterdam and Netherlands Chamber Orchestra in a colorful and expressive performance of the concerto. Naxos’ sound is atmospheric, clean, and well-balanced.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2011

Highly admired among avant garde European composers, Gavin Bryars has fashioned a personal view of tonality that is ever seeking new and interesting sounds. Born in the UK in 1943, he studied music privately while pursuing a university degree in philosophy, playing in jazz groups then making an impact on early compositions. He was to become prolific in many genres, often seeking to reestablish links with music of the Baroque era. He subscribes to the present day fixation of creating music that moves and evolves slowly, a pulse that is unimpaired when the scoring on paper would appear to be busy. That is particularly true of the Piano Concerto, the soloist’s role avoiding any outward brilliance and more often forming part of the orchestral texture. As a passive voice it takes us gently through a dream-like and misty landscape in a sea of peace and tranquility. To enhance this scenic picture, Bryars introduces a choir that intones words by Edwin Morgan, a Scottish poet who died last year shortly after this recording was made. The disc opens with two works played by solo piano, After Handel’s Vesper using a Baroque style as its starting point and falls easily on the ear. It was originally written for harpsichord, and I guess it is far more effective in that guise. In fact Ramble on Cortona is the only work Bryars has composed thus far for solo piano. Inspired by 13th century manuscripts found in Cortona, Italy, it is also in a measured pulse of lyric attraction. The Dutch pianist, Ralph van Raat, is obviously well attuned to the Bryars idiom, and finds the Netherlands orchestra in excellent form. That part of the release comes from a ‘live’ performance that at times offers an unusual piano sound. The remainder is very well presented.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group