This second volume of the orchestral music of the English composer David Hackbridge Johnson (b. 1963) brings two mighty symphonies: the dark and tragic No. 10 (2013), cast in a single monumental span, and the three-movement No. 13 (2017), a fierce and fiery affirmation of life. They are complemented here by an orchestral ‘motet’ which passes plainchant in kaleidoscopic review.
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Paul Mann, conductor
Catalogue No: TOCC0452EAN/UPC: 5060113444523Release Date: 01.07.2018Composer: David Hackbridge Johnson Artists: Paul Mann,
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Download the Booklet
Motet No. 6, Benedicite maria et flumina, Op. 337, No. 4 (2015)
Symphony No. 13 Op. 361 No. 1 (2017)
Gijs van der Meijden :
This second instalment fulfils the promises made by the first: Toccata has uncovered (yet another) highly interesting yet, so far, completely unknown composer. Mr. Johnson does write highly personal, original music it is highly rewarding listening to. And while his music is utterly, “of today”, he does write in a approachable style (not that I eschew ‘difficult’ modern music) that coveys itself to the listener in gripping way. Not that his music is simple or superficial, far from it.
The 10th Symphony is a kind of ‘Sinfonia funèbre’ for his first wife, and the music is quite searing. The very opening recalls the beginnings of Shostakovich’s 5th and 8th symphonies, though Johnson’s 10th as a whole does not convey the utter hopelessness of these Russian symphonies. Much of what follows sounds deeply disturbing, a raging against fate not unlike a work such as Pettersson’s 10th, even when it misses that latter work’s relentlessness. Unlike the other two composers mentioned here, Johnson’s 10th has some light in it, and some hope left. Definitely not an easy work to listen to, but one written very much from the heart.
The 13th is, according to the text on the CD-case’s backside, ‘a fierce and fiery affirmation of life’, and the movement’s headings might suggest just that: ‘Allegro con brio’ for the first, and ‘Allegro alla burlesca’ for the third and last movement. But there is much more going on than just a celebration of life. Many darker shadows and eddies swirl below the surface, and the middle movement is quite unsettling. The very opening of the symphony sets the tone; when I first heard it, I was reminded of some other music of which I was unable to immediately recall what piece, until I realised it sounds much like ‘Jupiter, the bringer of Jollity’ from Holst’s ‘The Planets’. But where in the latter work the fireworks just set off and go, in Johnson’s symphony the music stumbles already in bar 3. The Finale too is not exactly what one would call ‘burlesque’ in the ordinary sense; the material contains (and reworks) many things of earlier in the symphony, and is highly unruly metrical-wise. If it is an affirmation of life, it seems to be written by someone who knows life is worth living despite. Hence, it is quite closer to the ‘Rondo-Burleske’ of Mahler’s 9th, or the Finale from Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto. The backside text of Volume 1 lists a number of composers from whom Johnson ‘inherited’ his language, but the middle movement of the 13th reminds me of similar ‘much below the surface, of not very far’ slow movements from symphonies of composers such as Malcolm Arnold and George Lloyd (especially the latter’s 6th or 9th)
The performance sounds as if it is as good as one might wish (indeed, the composer writes to be quite satisfied with both the orchestra and conductor), and the recording is very fine indeed, and highly detailed. The recording venue is a different one than for Volume 1, with a better acoustic from which the recording benefits.
With Volume 3 apparently in the making (containing the 15th Symphony a various tone poems?) we are in for quite a ride of discovery. Since the composer seems to write symphonies faster than Toccata can release them, this ride may take some time yet; I do hope Paul Mann and Toccata can keep up! Hopefully a next Volume will contain some of the composer’s earlier symphonies, and a next one perhaps the original version on the 12th?
I forgot; 5 stars out of 5!
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