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CLASSICAL  December 2009

CLASSICAL December 2009

Subject:

Overture, Concerto, and Symphony by John Gardner

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 21 Dec 2009 17:39:56 -0800

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text/plain

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John Gardner
Orchestral Music

*  Overture "Midsummer Ale", Op. 73
*  Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat Major, Op. 34
*  Symphony #1 in D minor, Op. 2

Peter Donohoe, piano
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
Naxos 8.570406 71:54

Summary for the Busy Executive: Unexpected depths.  More Gardner!

Of all the members of the British so-called "lost musical generation" -
that is, those who faded into obscurity after World War II (those composers
not Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten, Walton, and Tippett) - John
Linton Gardner may count as one of the most lost, certainly more so than
John Foulds or Patrick Hadley.  Yet, paradoxically, he actually has
popular hits.  Amateurs do his stuff all the time.  Much of his music
has appeared on CD, mainly on miscellaneous collections, but until
recently very few of his more ambitious scores have found their way to
the general listener.  Naxos and AS&V have allowed a trickle to come
through, and the results so far excite me.

Gardner became part of the British left during the Thirties and felt the
influence of Adorno's musical aesthetic.  At the same time, like Aaron
Copland, he strongly needed to connect with the general listener.  Popular
elements like jazz insinuate themselves in his scores.  His music resides
in Walton's neck of the woods: highly syncopated, rhythmically vigorous,
and bright, almost pointillist orchestration, like bubbles in a glass
of champagne.  In fact, if you played "drop the needle" with things like
Gardner's Midsummer Ale Overture or Walton's Capriccio Burlesco, you
might have momentary problems sorting one from the other.  Nevertheless,
significant differences remain, mainly matters of temperament.  Walton
for me sings more warmly, an open Romantic even in his lighter works.
Gardner seems more clear-eyed, not so interested in the transcendent,
but delighting in and understanding what's before him - in that sense,
a classical artist.

Gardner builds ingenious, yet clear structures, easy to follow, if you
know what to pay attention to.  I've said this in public before and
gotten weird looks.  I should say, I suppose, "a reasonably-experienced
classical listener." If you can follow Mozart, you can follow Gardner.
However, most listeners today, even intelligent ones, have very little
of this experience.  We listen mainly to short song forms - self-contained,
with frequent note-by-note repetition so that the main idea sticks.
Symphonic music expands and varies its main ideas and requires a larger
space to make these ideas felt.  In songs, we usually wait for the hook
to come around again.  In symphonic music, we wait for the new place the
hook or hooks (since classical composers generally use more than one)
will take us.  John Lennon, certainly no dope, once asked his producer,
George Martin to give him a crash course in classical.  Martin played
for him Ravel's gorgeous Daphnis et Chloe Suite No.  2.  "It's nice,"
Lennon said, "but by the time the end comes around, I've forgotten what
happened in the beginning" - a little like complaining that you've
forgotten what Picayune was like after you've moved to Paris.

Compared to many classical writers (including the composer himself in
his more ambitious work), in Midsummer Ale (1965) Gardner makes things
easy.  Basically, the overture employs one major idea, or hook, from
which the entire overture springs - a do-mi-sol heard right at the very
beginning, a seed from which an inventive profusion of melodic lines
sprout, taking you to a different place almost every time.  A whale of
a piece, invigorating.  I can't listen to it just once.  I have to play
it again and again - it makes me feel that good.

The piano concerto and the symphony come from a slightly earlier,
though nonetheless significant time - 1957 and 1947, respectively. 
Both show Gardner at his most ambitious, and both constitute slightly
rougher going, as if the young composer wanted to show himself capable
of high seriousness and thus to be taken seriously.  The piano concerto
experiments more, using classical structures in a distinctly non-classical
way.  Indeed, it seems more an exploration of one enigmatic harmony
rather than a virtuosic change of key-centers.  The chord, heard at the
very beginning in arpeggio, permeates most of the score.  It strikes me
as a tonal response to Schoenbergian atonality.  Themes as such become
difficult to distinguish one from the other.  This is especially true
of the second movement, a theme with four variations.  Indeed, I'm still
not sure exactly what the theme is, although I can make out characteristic
intervals.  The finale, a rondo, is the most conventional movement; we
do hear tonal shifts.  Nevertheless, because of these earlier ambiguities,
the piece fascinates.

The symphony, on the other hand, shows a complete mastery of form and
thinking over the long haul.  Indeed, this is one of the best British
symphonies I know. Don't let the low opus number fool you.  After World
War II, Gardner withdrew a considerable amount of well-received early
work and started from scratch.  Even so, he's managed to turn out nearly
250 opus numbers.

The score is almost monothematic, growing out of a motto, which of course
you hear at the very beginning.  Except for the scherzo, Gardner's themes,
although one can differentiate them easily enough, have the same general
shape, thus pulling the symphony together like steel cable.  The first
movement - a slow brooder - creeps along for almost twelve minutes without
ever bogging down, no easy feat.  It's precisely the close-knit relationship
among the themes - the surprising transformations as well as a highly
poetic and canny orchestration setting off the various parts - that pulls
this off.  The scherzo relieves the tension and provides a perfect
rhetorical break, especially when one considers what follows.  It uses
two themes, both to my ear tinged with Chabrier-Espana inflections.
Again, the orchestration's a marvel and Gardner's judgment of symphonic
time so acute the movement lasts not a note longer than it should.  The
slow movement more or less repeats the rhetorical strategy of the first,
but the main themes apparently differ.  That is, the music works toward
getting to a climactic statement of the motto theme.  Furthermore, Gardner
implements this over two movements, rather than just the one.  Nevertheless,
the composer begins effortlessly to show how one idea morphs into the
other.  We get ghostly echoes from the first movement, but these don't
merely rehash.  The new context makes them new again.  The finale, a
rondo-like structure, takes for its main theme a wired-up version of the
motto.  The episodes recall earlier movements, and after a buildup, we
finally get the full-blown version of the motto before the symphony winks
out.  This symphony, premiered by Barbirolli, made Gardner as a composer.
It led to uninterrupted commissions which allowed him the time to write,
even if he still works in relative obscurity.  It seems to me that among
250 opus numbers more high-quality stuff should be available.  Naxos is
just the company to bring some of this to light.

These are not easy scores to perform.  The piano concerto in particular
offers few conventional signposts, and the symphony's first movement
has almost as many subtle tempo changes as one by Mahler.  Donohoe and
Lloyd-Jones navigate the treacherous waters superbly.  The Royal Scottish
National Orchestra play with bite and conviction.  In short, a wonder
of a CD with marvelous music (it will probably show up on my best of the
year), and it's on bargain-label Naxos besides.  What are you waiting
for?

Steve Schwartz

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