The spectre of a thousand film music composers hangs heavily over Jon Lord's Durham Concerto, a recent commission from Durham University to celebrate its 175th Anniversary year.
The hour-long piece has been released on Avie Records and the recording pairs the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Mischa Damev, with an elaborate line-up of starry soloists that includes Matthew Barley (cello), Ruth Palmer (violin), Kathryn Tickell (Northumbrian pipes), and Lord himself on Hammond organ. Birthday presents, even ones bought for oneself, clearly do not come cheap in the North of England.
The suspicions that are aroused by the name of Jon Lord (the composer, lest we forget, of that infamous attempt at a fusion of classical and rock aesthetics, Concerto for Group and Orchestra) are confirmed by its composer's uneasy handling of large-scale form. Despite the best efforts of the performers, this impression is lasting. The disc, and the piece, ultimately fail to transcend the rather naïve details of the musical material, with the didactic programme of six 'pictures' of Durham that are set out in the sleeve notes as the basis of the work ultimately circumscribing the autonomy of the music. Its static nature seems more suited to the scoring of a film than it does to that of a fully self-sufficient concert work.
The problems we encounter throughout the Durham Concerto are evident from its very first pages. There, the orchestra rehearses that most clichéd of musical pictures: the attempt to evoke daybreak in sound. We hear a distant trumpet call, faintly reminiscent of Copland's Fanfare, in a clear C sharp major. The music then slides inelegantly into a modally-inflected G minor at the entrance of the hushed strings on a unison G across three octaves, with the trumpet motif being taken over and varied by other brass and wind instruments. As might be expected, the music builds from this opening into a much more texturally diverse and rhythmically mobile final section, where day has finally broken in a burst of apparently brilliant sunshine and light. But the illusion of progress that the increase in volume and density brings can't mask the fundamentally non-productive immobility of the musical argument.
However, these passages are handled delicately by the soloists, with Damev managing to keep a careful control over the initially shy accompaniment. The conductor creates, through his careful handling of dynamics and pacing, a real sense of anticipation, purpose, and growth in the course of this confused movement. This is accomplished as much despite the music as it is because of it. Though there are moments in the music of true emotional catharsis, especially when the strings continuously emerge with fervour out of unexpected cadential resolutions toward the end, the desired experience of Brucknerian monumentality never materialises. We are left instead with the impression of an earnest music that is striving for something clearly beyond its grasp. The palpable tension here between what might have been achieved, and what is actually achieved, is a recurring and a ruinous trait of this work.
These problems continue in the five remaining movements (the structure is made up of three pairs of two movements, with each pair representing, respectively, morning, afternoon, and evening). Grand but largely unsuccessful attempts in the third, fourth and sixth movements to evoke the sublime aspect of nature, and of worship (with respect to the city's imposing cathedral), are balanced by the much more bawdy and fun music of the remaining two, dance-like, sections.
The second and the fifth movements are in fact the only passages where we feel at least some sense of freshness, and of originality. Though largely derivative of Copland in their scoring and their rhythms, the music of these sections nevertheless provides some sense of contrast, and of movement. When we finally arrive at the bolshy brass figures towards the end of the fifth movement, for example, we feel in their low tessitura and loud dynamics at last some sense of a logical progression of material. This nicely rounds off the high and flighty dances of the preceding pages. The performers relish their task here, with Palmer and Barley responding especially well to the humour and bombast of the music. The orchestra, likewise, achieves the relentless verve and the whipcrack phrasing that is required of them, with a finely honed sense of farce and of fun.
A folk influence is paramount throughout the work. Whereas in the faster movements the reminiscences sit well in the general musical flow, in the other, more turgid sections, the vague invocations of Celtic mysticism do nothing more than create a sense of false, and facile, sentimentality. The Aeolian figures that dominate the thematic material of the work, whilst pertinent in the prayer-like cello motifs of the first movement, are relied upon too much in the ensuing music to carry any emotional weight. The nicely played, but ultimately dull, solo pipe opening to the second movement is exemplary in this regard. Like much else in contemporary pictorial composition, the flattened seventh minor mode is here employed as an easy means of creating a consolatory and supposedly profound sense of depth.
It is not, however, simply that Lord is without talent. He often surprises with an unexpected key change, or a memorable melody, for example. Nor should it be inferred that any attempt at fusion such as this should be dismissed out of hand; such works often provide extremely provocative listening experiences. It is just that, in this instance, the problematic transference of one musical ideal into another musical realm that we so often find when rock musicians attempt something on a larger scale, again fails to be convincingly resolved. The adoption of a much more elliptical and ambiguous programme, if a programme were necessary at all, would have been helpful in this regard. I think it would be fair to say though, above and beyond any debate about absolute and programmatic music, that what is fundamentally lacking in Lord's new work is a clear and continuous line of argument through the whole piece. Though there are attempts at symphonic integration, the work, with its block forms, its aesthetic of pictorialism, and its gauche dynamic arcs, never attains a concerted sense of purpose and cohesion. This is at the crux of its many problems.
In the final analysis, this disc presents a committed and occasionally engaging performance, which nevertheless ultimately fails to overcome the shortcomings of the musical work being performed. The sensitive playing of the soloists, who have much exposed concertante music, is matched throughout by the close ensemble playing of the orchestra, who nevertheless struggle at times, it must be said, to overcome the bland, string-heavy orchestrations of their composer.