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Gavin Bryars' Gently Undulating Piano Concerto

Nick Staines
Naxos Records

What's New, a new series on this blog, simply creates space for discussion of recent releases of CDs, videos and downloads.

A watery theme flows through quite a number of works by British composer Gavin Bryars. The Sinking of the Titanic, an early work from 1969, remains his best known piece, but there have been plenty of other aquatic adventures, including The Black River, Four Songs From Northern Seas and The North Shore.

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.

Being a Bryars composition, this is not a conventional piano concerto. Don't expect flashy cadenzas or roller coasters of double octaves. Instead, Bryars' piano is like some indifferent ship captain guiding the music through a calm canal. Along for the ride, a male chorus intones two evocative sonnets by one of Bryars' favorite poets, the Scotsman Edwin Morgan. The sound reminds me of the melancholy shipmen singing from the decks of Wagner's Flying Dutchman. Bryars himself admits that the addition of the chorus was a nod to another odd piano concerto — the one by Feruccio Busoni.

"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.

Bryars cuts a pretty wide swath in the music world. He was once a jazz bass player and studied with John Cage in the mid-1960s. His music seems to appeal to an equally wide spectrum of musicians and listeners. Tom Waits recorded perhaps the second-best known of Bryars' works, Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, an arresting composition that Brian Eno first released on his own label in 1975. He's written for jazz bassist Charlie Haden and for the early music ensemble Trio Mediaeval.

/ Naxos

On this new album, Bryars composed for the Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat, who makes a sympathetic soloist in the concerto and two pieces for piano alone. Ramble on Cortona, with its minimalist, seesaw rhythm, is inspired by 13th century vocal manuscripts. After Handel's Vesper, originally for solo harpsichord, sports bold chords and Baroque gestures in slow motion. Compared to the alluring concerto, they both come across just a little flat.

If you're interested in more Gavin Bryars, our colleagues over at Q2 in New York are in the midst of "Never Failed Me Yet," a weeklong immersion into the composer's music.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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