STEVE ELCOCK (b.1957): Orchestral Music, Vol. 2 - Symphony No. 5, Op. 21, Haven: Fantasia on a Theme by J.S. Bach, Op. 4, Incubus, Op. 28.
Catalogue Number: 05V001
Label: Toccata Classics
Reference: TOCC 0445
Description: When volume 1 of Elcock's orchestral music was released, we hailed the composer - without a hint of hyperbole - as one of the music world's most exciting and overdue discoveries of recent decades. Our ecstatic write-up of that release (09T001) provides context to this wholly original, largely self-taught composer whose music lies on the northern-European axis of Nordic and British composers whose legacy includes a sizeable canon of powerful, tonal symphonies and symphonic poems. The Fifth Symphony is a kind of personal response to Beethoven’s 5th, explicitly referring to it but leading the drama in a different, far more ambiguous, direction. The opening of the first movement leaves absolutely no doubt about what is going on; a kind of thermonuclear response to Beethoven’s artillery salvo announces the work in no uncertain fashion. For the first fifty seconds we seem set for an epic battle scene depicted in a violent symphonic allegro. But, more shockingly, the conflagration blows itself out and what follows is revealed to be a huge slow movement; a hushed, withdrawn, shell-shocked adagio of unrelenting tension and unease, like one of Shostakovich’s darkest slow movements. The nearest thing to a climax is a distant echo of the opening, like a flickering monochrome newsreel of the conflict. The following section is sparely orchestrated, in an atmosphere of utter desolation. The interlocking descending thirds of Beethoven’s theme are a recurring reminder of how we got to this point. The music finally swells to a fuller texture as though finally able to articulate its lament, before finally fading out in skeletal fragments. A belligerent scherzo follows; cousin to the 'Stalin' movement in Shostakovich 10, it is based on a constant, irritable rhythmic ostinato, disquietingly related to the Beethoven motif, and immediately challenged by a syncopated counter-rhythm. The music becomes ever more warlike, finally erupting in a pounding battle scene, over which " ... woodwind and xylophone shriek out like birds of prey flying over a war zone." in the composer's words. There follows a beautiful slow movement, a moment of uncertain tranquility at the heart of the symphony, with ties to Beethoven and perhaps to Mahler and Shostakovich. The music's radiant calm is never allowed to remain unchallenged for long, though, and there is a feeling that the gentle interlude cannot last. Sure enough, the finale explodes onto the scene by mimicking the beginning of Beethoven’s triumphant final movement - which is immediately crushed and prevented from reaching its Beethovenian surging optimism. Instead, the movement, a large sonata-form structure, unleashes the energy of the symphony’s introduction, and finally its material too, in a final cataclysmic battle. Haven is an extended fantasia on the Sarabanda from Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B minor. The work is richly and generously neo-romantic, with hints of Elgar (one robust passage recalls Alassio) and Finzi, but it is not without its surprises too, as when unexpected dissonances add a bitter note to the noble Romantic elaboration of Bach's stately dance, or when militaristic vulgarity briefly threatens to invade the proceedings. Finally, the music takes on the character of a nachdichtung, a solo violin emerging to play Bach's original unadorned, in glowing relief against a crepuscular orchestral background, as though it had been there all along. Incubus is a propulsive concert overture with an eerie introduction that describes "a representation of an obsessive nightmare" - the kind of half-waking anguish of the insomniac, unable to escape into restful sleep or rational wakefulness. The piece rides a horrid, inescapable merry-go-round for eight troubling minutes before abruptly starting awake with an incongruous, out of context major chord. Siberian Symphony Orchestra; Dmitry Vasiliev.