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Gary Carpenter: SET



Gary Carpenter - one of Britain’s most diverse and engaging composers, whose work’s span: dance, film, opera, musicals and concert music, releases a highly anticipated CD of his orchestral works.

Each of the immaculately crafted compositions moves effortlessly between contagious toe tapping energy to more reflective, poignant and timeless pieces. His is a sound world enthused with quirky jazzy undertones and lush orchestrations – a truly contemporary composer whose musical language speaks to all.

Originally hailing from London, Gary’s strong connections with the North of England have led to many fruitful artistic collaborations. He is the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Composer in Association and this CD sees conductor Clark Rundell and Andrew Manze bring the RLPO, with soloists Iain Ballamy (saxophone) and Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano) to life.

This CD is a gem to be discovered! A must for music connoisseurs of all ages and those wanting to delve into the musical imagination of one Britain’s quietly impressive talents. © Daniel Kidane 2018

Gary Carpenter: SET


Gary Carpenter (born 1951 in London) has the knack of writing music of wide appeal without one ever thinking that it is contrived to be liked, or that he is second-guessing the audience; the result is music that is immediately engaging and satisfying yet with something saved for return listens. It also paints pictures; music for the imagination.

Fred and Ginger (2011, composed for the LSO and Daniel Harding) has a whiff of a 1930s’ dance sequence surreally re-imagined; it’s a pulsating if (to my mind) quite sinister score as the famous couple dance across a haunted ballroom, large orchestra in attendance.  SET, a Saxophone Concerto, is in five short movements and opens in punchy/jazzy style (leaning Stan Kenton’s way). It’s an appealing start and inspiration is maintained over what follows, whether intensely romantic or pulsating with purpsoe. Iain Ballamy is quite brilliant (so too Sophie Hastings on drum-kit) on his smoky-sounding tenor in this very enjoyable – foot-tapping and lyrically enticing (nightclub bluesy) – Concerto.

In Willie Stock (2016, commissioned to mark the centenary of World War One, and premiered by Oliver Knussen), at the opening one might sense a misty, grey-cloud morning, and the soldiers’ trepidation before “going over the top”. Then greater activity is apparent (the orchestration is similar to Berg’s awesome Opus 6) – one might imagine the troops advancing slowly, their boots caked in movement-sapping mud – as conflagration becomes horrific before settling to ghostly flecks of sound, including a distant trumpet fanfare and a long funeral roll on a side drum; it’s a haunting piece. In reality Willie Stock existed and was killed, aged twenty-five, at The Somme and was the composer’s uncle.

Dadaville (commissioned for BBC Proms 2015, the premiere led by Sakari Oramo) was inspired by Max Ernst’s “relief” that is housed in Tate Liverpool. As music Dadaville connects in its pictorial proposals and increasing activity, and also through colourful scoring and dynamic contrasts, and with musical growth being seamless; and towards the end do I hear the two notes that open Beethoven 9? I believe I do.

These are all impressive and rewarding pieces, heard in excellent performances and first-class sound, yet are overshadowed by Love’s Eternity (initiated in 1992 and since revised), a quite wonderful set of songs that owe in one way or another to Roberts Browning and Schumann and to Heinrich Heine, and that really touch the heart and send shivers of appreciation down the listener’s spine. If I were asked to ‘guess the composer’ I would have come up with Ned Rorem, André Previn and Leonard Bernstein as possibilities – there is something outgoingly American here (the final number, ‘Reunion’, had me thinking it would find a place in Bernstein’s Candide). Carpenter has produced something special here, deeply affecting settings (as he says, as much to do with Death as the cited Love) and in which Kathryn Rudge excels. Sometimes, listening to music can be so devastating on the emotions. There is beauty and solace here.

- Classical Source

I very much enjoyed reading Carpenter’s own wry introductions to these five very diverse pieces. His words project great warmth and humility, and these qualities are abundant throughout this album. As befits someone who has found success in a host of different genres, including opera, musical theatre, radio drama, film music and ballet, there is a true craftsman’s confidence and precision at the heart of his work. His assimilation of the stylistic features of so many different forms of expression is certainly impressive, but what will be most attractive to the listener will be Carpenters’s skill as an orchestrator; it is utterly natural and is projected in every bar of these five works. Carpenter has compositional flair to burn, but at no stage is there a suggestion of ‘showing off’. If his orchestrations are colourful, unusual and atmospheric, he also has a fine ear for a tune, and conveys a lightness of touch which consistently filters out the potentially ‘cheesy’. At the same time the sounds he conjures gently hint at contexts or moods without ever descending into the obvious.

Thus in the brief opener Fred and Ginger, a brilliant synthesis of Hollywood glitz and serial abstraction, the spirit of 1930s RKO musicals (Carpenter specifically references Top Hat in the notes) is skilfully evoked with velvet textures that are touched by the essence of dance on the one hand and by Schoenberg (one of Hollywood’s most famous, if unlikely residents) on the other. It conveys svelte confidence and swagger alongside something darker, even sinister – perhaps pointing to the tears and tantrums that allegedly punctuated the fractious relationship between Astaire and Rogers. Carpenter writes wonderfully for muted brass, and Fred and Ginger fizzes along with a breeziness that is by turn fluent and tentative. It is delightfully ambiguous.

As an unashamed nostalgist, I was especially taken with the longest work on this disc, the tenor saxophone concerto SET which Carpenter wrote for the eminent jazz master Iain Ballamy, a practitioner renowned for his improvisational skills which are put to optimum use here– as Carpenter eloquently puts it “…you don’t get a Lamborghini to do the weekly shop!”. The titles of each of its five movements refer to 1950s British television, although they act merely as creative triggers, rather than literal subject matter. Thus SET is not ‘about’ television nostalgia per se. While he doesn’t mention it in his notes I wonder if the depths of Carpenter’s buried childhood memories are at work here, especially in the playful dance moves of the third movement Footso, which refers to the gawkily-pawed feline companion of Twizzle, the eponymous hero of a long forgotten Gerry Anderson animated puppet show of the time. Ballamy conjures a suitably damp, smoky vibe in the second movement You’re Never Alone…which nods to the ancient ad for Strand fags (3s 2d for 20!), a TV moment which is the epitome of Noir. His playing approaches romantic and wistful in the fourth panel Love and Kisses, which concludes with a be-bop infused improvised cadenza which segues into the rather sleazy groove of In Blue Fox. Carpenter’s orchestration is masterly and engaging throughout as is the sense of propulsion and drive in the faster movements. Quite apart from Ballamy’s outstanding playing there is a superb turn on the drums from Sophie Hastings.

Willie Stock was Carpenter’s uncle, a rifleman who perished in his twenties at the second Battle of the Somme. He is commemorated in this World War 1 memorial piece which takes his name, in which the composer handles a huge orchestra with the utmost delicacy and restraint. It also pays oblique reference to Alban Berg in terms of the use of coded motifs, and in its number of bars, (a multiple of Berg’s ‘unlucky’ number, 23) but all of that is clever technical detail and ultimately unnecessary for an appreciation of the music. Willie Stock is a fascinatingly complex, moving tribute which builds inexorably from its quiet opening bugle calls into something more restless, questioning and disturbing. If its textures and flavours evoke Berg, its melodic and harmonic material is more recognisably Carpenter’s. The sinuous woodwind and brass lines that haunt the work are recognisably elegiac yet oddly sun-dappled. It is a touching, atmospheric tribute.

Equally affecting is the song cycle Love’s Eternity, which was originally written for a 1992 radio monologue about the demise of the poet Robert Browning and features five settings of love poems by his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Carpenter orchestrated the original piano versions for the golden-voiced Liverpool-born mezzo Kathryn Rudge especially for this disc; she performs them here with her local orchestra. I last heard this intelligent, probing singer on a fine Hyperion collection of songs by Donald Swann. Her communication of the English language is exemplary–Barrett Browning’s words aren’t exactly tailored for the modern singer - and Carpenter is fortunate indeed to have found another perfect advocate for his art. Robert Browning was a huge admirer of Schumann and the latter’s spirit somehow hovers around these five numbers- the concluding song Reunion is a Barrett Browning translation of Schumann’s beloved Heine. As the composer asserts, these poems are as much haunted by the trappings of Death as they are fascinated by the essence of Love, and they reveal Carpenter to be as expert in his sensitive treatment of language as one might expect from a composer of six operas and five musicals. He also draws a bewildering variety of sounds from the reduced orchestra.

The disc concludes with another short orchestral showpiece Dadaville, inspired by Carpenter’s personal impressions of Max Ernst’s relief of the same name and premiered at the First Night of the Proms in 2015. While it begins in a quiet, eerie place, it swiftly becomes perky (highlighting the two notes that begin Mahler’s First?), even agitated, and at times Carpenter’s arrangement is searingly visceral with thrilling brass and percussion. The baritone sax makes a telling contribution in its last couple of minutes before a denouement whereby the two ‘Mahler’ notes that open the work seem to briefly ‘become’ the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth. Like all the pieces here it is performed with gimlet precision and palpable enthusiasm by a fastidiously drilled RLPO, conducted by Clark Rundell, who also conducted the Ensemble 10/10 on the NMC Carpenter portrait I mentioned earlier.

Given that the disc is less than an hour long there is a dizzying amount to take in here. The Nimbus Alliance engineers (Richard Scott, Phil Hardman and Yufeng Zhang) have provided a warm, natural ambience for these richly detailed pieces. It is to be hoped that the disc triggers more interest in a composer who is something of a hidden treasure of the English scene, another native master who is arguably (and perplexingly) more celebrated abroad than at home. His appealing and deeply communicative music deserves the widest currency.

Richard Hanlon