Martyn Brabbins / Simon Halsey / Oliver Knussen / Sakari Oramo

Julian Anderson: Book of Hours

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English composer Julian Anderson enjoyed a professional status of being named "composer-in-association" to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra between the years 2001 and 2005; before that he'd been engaged in a similar capacity with the chamber orchestra Sinfonia 21. Anderson is a former student of Tristan Murail and shares Murail and Gérard Grisey's interest in "spectral" composition, a kind of massing up of timbres that claims a common continuum from the music of Boulez, Messiaen, Dutilleux, and post-serialism. Anderson claims that his harmonic practice is "systematic, but drawn from life," which must be sort of like having your cake and eating it too if you want to be recognized as a follower of the great Western tradition said to be moving forward from Boulez, and yet not held responsible for departing from the model. Nevertheless, in the works featured on the NMC disc Book of Hours, Anderson is everywhere trying to break out of the mold of such techniques, and he seems most successful when he is either referencing tonality or building up structures that have some kind of tonally recognizable component.

The five pieces on Book of Hours were written in connection with Anderson's residency with City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Of these, the title work seems the best -- despite a weak ending, it demonstrates the most secure blend of expressive devices that Anderson is interested in, down to the tasteful and sparse use of electronic sounds employed. Four American Choruses is scored for a cappella chorus and utilizes texts, though not the tunes, of nineteenth century revival hymns common to the Moody and Sankey fundamentalist campaigns of that era, pieces Anderson learned about through their employment in the music of Charles Ives. Though Anderson stops short at matching the words to a distinct melody, the music itself is diatonic and the swirling masses of voices within a recognizable harmonic corridor results at times in a thrilling sound, like waiting in a back alley in Chicago on a cold windy day and being swept up in a gale. Eden, which seems to be the favorite of annotator John Fallas among these works, is a piece that incorporates microtonal pitches into its spectral landscape; some of it sounds like early Louis Andriessen, and the flattening strings make for a rather dour-sounding Eden. Imagin'd Corners and Symphony seem the least distinctive among these works, as one occasionally feels moved to say "that sounded like Webern, or Stockhausen, or Varèse, or fill in the blank" here and there. On the other hand, none of this music is ever boring or seems out of touch. Anderson has genuine skill and talent, and when the talent begins to override the technique it seems that, although Anderson is already recognized as belonging to "the club," he's not so sure he wants to be a member.

The City of Birmingham Symphony, its Chorus, and Contemporary Music Group all seem to love these works and perform them with excellence and exuberance. Three of the pieces are recorded live, and these are so well made that they are indistinguishable from the studio recordings here, in itself an achievement.

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