GMCD 7354 – Prospero’s Isle – Chamber Music by James Francis Brown

Tamás András (violin), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola), Gemma Rosefield (cello), Katya Apekisheva (piano)

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American Records Guide January – February 2012

James Francis Brown is an English composer born in 1969. As with many of his British-Isle generation, affinities with such figures as Britten, Tippett, Maw, McCabe, Dodgson, and the brothers Colin and David Matthews are readily apparent in his music, as are more traditional influences from Walton, Vaughan-Williams, Ireland, and Finzi, as well as more continental (and chromatically adventurous) sonorities inspired by (for example) Bartok and Berg.

But Brown, who has chosen to write tonal music, has discovered his own kind of tonal music. Harmonies are at once luxuriant, subtle, and fresh; rhythms are spun out with graceful suppleness yet seem unforced and spontaneous; the often-intricate figurations are cunningly worked (but entirely free of “contemporary” gimmicks), yet shimmering with verdant pantheism. Seldom does one hear new music that marries such daunting technical skill and virtuosic demands with so much ease and life-affirming joy, so much pleasure in unusual timbral layerings that (as Caliban tells us) “give delight and hurt not”, so much exquisite delicacy and refinement.

All is not, nor could be, sweetness and light. The central sections of Brown’s 1996 String Trio’s II, a 15-minute variation sequence, darken into unease, agitation, and even, in the fifth variation- where Brown’s typically active and teeming surfaces are briefly pared down to slow, lorn, hesitant single lines – into elegiac stoicism. But this is a brief and exceptional interlude. For the most part the Trio, as well as the 2004 Piano Quartet, 2011 Violin Sonata, and 2006 cello-and-piano duo Prospero’s Isle are serenely rapturous, their soaring and wide-spanning strophes inlaid with intricate filigree, their hovering and wafting and bounding allegros alive with the constant motion of a butterfly aflit in an airy golden glow of resonances, their more lyrical and contemplative moments tranquil and quietly inward.

The interplay of line and texture as this music unfolds is especially enthralling. I’ve never heard timbral interpenetrations more diaphanous, more rarified, yet better fitted to the instruments or more aurally fascinating. Just listen to the Violin Sonata’s dancing and flickering central scherzo: the violin and piano are so amorously entwined they seem ecstatic pulsations of a single light-filled organism.

Performances by all concerned are little short of miraculous: filled with love for the music, and rendered with unstinting warmth, tonal splendor, and sensitivity. Guild’s recording is a perfect complement: rich, airy, detailed, aquamarine-clear. This is an enchantment from beginning to end.

Fanfare November/December 2011

In the music business, lineage used to be a big deal. In the 19th century, composers routinely traced themselves to their predecessors and proclaimed their allegiances to particular schools. Of course, there were drawbacks to that practice. Take Brahms, for instance. Toiling in Beethoven’s huge shadow, Brahms spent the better part of two decades writing his first symphony and reportedly destroyed numerous string quartets that he deemed unworthy of Beethovenian precedent. Toward the beginning of last century, however, as bloodlines became corrupted and embracing tradition became anathema, composers began to be more and more afraid of thinking, writing, and sounding like their predecessors. While new ways of writing music were discovered in the process, the classical tradition seemed irretrievably broken.
Against that background, what struck me initially about this extraordinary recording is just how unafraid James Francis Brown, a British composer born in 1969, is of those who came before him. That is no small feat, particularly given how complicated Brown’s musical genealogy appears to be. Through his composition teacher Hans Heimler, a student of Alban Berg, Brown’s lineage can be traced all the way back to Antonio Salieri, who taught Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt. Moreover, as I learned on Brown’s website, Heimler was a friend of British composers Ralph Vaughan Williams,
Michael Tippett, and Alan Rawsthorne, and those composers’ influence is also subtly evident in Brown’s music To complicate matters even further, in the notes that accompany the recording we learn that Bela Bartok and Ferruccio Busoni also strongly influenced Brown.
For the most part, however, Brown does not sound like his predecessors and it would be grossly misleading to call him old-fashioned. To be sure, as is abundantly clear in the four works featured on this recording, Brown has mastered the classical forms and is content to write for combinations of instruments many contemporary composers dismiss as boring. (Who writes string trios these days?) But Brown’s musical ideas are unmistakably fresh, and they reflect the sensibility of a composer who, while aware of his musical legacy and fully conversant in the Old Masters’ techniques, lives very much in the present.
Of course, unless the content is also interesting, mastery of the form is usually not sufficient. In Brown’s case, there is content in spades. Indeed, there are countless moments to savor in each of the four pieces featured on this recording, and space limitations prevent me from doing full justice to his music. I am particularly moved by the first movement of the Violin Sonata, where, for the most part, the instruments play independent thematic content. But when, toward the end of that movement, the instruments finally abandon their seeming indifference to one another and engage in a dialogue, like two ice dancers suddenly finding each other, the effect is ravishing. Elsewhere, in the Bartokian Piano Quartet and in the String Trio, there is elemental strength and Beethovenian jaggedness, but also Mozartean clarity and repose. (Incidentally, Brown quotes Beethoven in the trio.) The cello-and-piano piece Prospero’s Isle alternates between moments of hushed lyricism and vehemence, but everything comes together in compelling ways.
That this is first-rate music is also apparent from the excellence of the musicians who have gathered to make it. It is refreshing to see that six star musicians have given up top billing to champion new music with enormous conviction and aplomb. The quality of the recorded sound is superlative.
In sum, this is truly stunning music that is stunningly performed and recorded. Any serious lover of good music ought to hear it.
Radu A. Lelutiu

MusicWeb International May 2011

Alan Mills, writing in the booklet, suggests that James Francis Brown’s work “will possibly remind some listeners of a certain type of mainstream English music in the 20th century – and composers such as Vaughan Williams, Ireland or even Finzi.” His essay also makes much of the fact that today’s composers are no longer afraid of writing tonal music. That said, and accepted, anyone expecting this composer’s music to sound like one of those evoked above is, I think, in for a surprise.
The earliest music on the disc is the String Trio from 1996. The composer evokes Beethoven in connection with this work, which features a short Beethoven quotation. Beethoven certainly comes to mind when one hears the strongly rhythmic opening theme played over constant, rushing semiquavers. Much of this first movement continues in this vigorous vein, though the second theme is calm and returns at the close. The second movement is a set of six variations, opening in sunny mood before clouds gather. The final variation returns to the mood of the opening. It is the shortest of the six, perhaps just too short to be as adequate a summing up as the composer probably intended. The work is nonetheless expertly written for the medium, with no dryness of texture, and the listener is eager to return to it.
The three-movement Violin Sonata begins with a dramatic and highly chromatic opening gesture from both instruments, leading to a series of contrasted episodes. The music, often beguilingly melodious, sometimes comes to a halt which one could take as the end of the movement, but then sets off again on another tack. The Presto requires virtuoso playing from both instrumentalists, and its central section, with repeated quavers in the violin part is strikingly lovely. The finale is one long song, restlessly moving towards what is, undoubtedly, a kind of resolution, the very end of the work being undeniably effective. The composer’s notes, however, tell us that the work was originally three separate pieces that became “increasingly related to each other” during composition. Striking, brilliantly written and often very beautiful though the music is, I think it shows.
The Piano Quartet opens with huge energy amid much hammering and sawing, expressions I use descriptively and with no pejorative intent. The second subject is in total contrast, and made me think of Tippett. Then there is a certain “busyness” to much of the music that might put the listener in mind of Hindemith. The musical language is skilfully employed throughout, often highly chromatic, yet moments of repose – and, in this case, the whole work – coming to rest on a simple major chord do not seem incongruous. The composer analyses the work, which is in a single movement, as a sonata form structure with an extended coda. One can hear the two “subjects” plainly enough, but there is much less sense of a development section, and very little feeling of arrival for the recapitulation, which in any event the composer says is “substantially reorganised and re-interpreted.” The musical ideas are striking and often beautiful, but I don’t always feel I know where I am in the piece, nor where the music is taking me. Nor do I think the rather splashy coda quite comes off, but all credit to Brown for not being afraid of writing a decisive close.
Of Prospero’s Isle, for cello and piano, the composer writes “…it was not exclusively the magical aspects of the play that attracted me, for The Tempest is also a study of power and mastery over people, events, even the very elements of nature. It is tempting as a composer to see parallels with the organisation and control over the elusive substance of music.” I confess to being somewhat allergic to this kind of stuff, as I also am to “Perhaps the characters of Prospero and Miranda are alluded to…” Either they are or they aren’t, and he should know. Having got that off my chest, let me turn to the music, which is no less impressive than that of the other three pieces. This work is the most tonal of the four, especially so at the outset where the composer profits from the rich sound of parallel sixths when played by a cello. The music is highly melodic, even in the more dramatic passages, and in spite of what the composer writes, is full of magical and beautiful sounds, mostly guaranteed to “give delight and hurt not”. At around the eight minute mark there is a forceful passage leading to an ardent melody for the cello accompanied by downward spread arpeggio chords on the piano; in such passages I tend to wish Brown would put less in, especially in the piano part which threatens to overwhelm the cello.
The booklet contains detailed information about each of the young players, and rightly so, as the performances are of remarkable virtuosity and conviction. They are clearly captivated by the music. Listeners will be too, for is spite of any slight reservations I might have, this collection of chamber pieces shows a composer of the utmost integrity, totally in command of the medium, with a voice of his own and an aural imagination to match. The disc is beautifully recorded and I recommend it warmly to any collector interested in the bewilderingly diverse world of contemporary music.
William Hedley
Four compelling and highly individual chamber works brilliantly performed by six outstanding young instrumentalists.

International Record Review March 2011

Guild continues its coverage of contemporary British music (a disc of Peter Fribbins was reviewed in June 2010) with this disc of chamber pieces by James Francis Brown – now in his early forties (and not to be confused with late American composer Francis James Brown), whose work has been widely heard in the UK over the past 15 years. A period, too, when composition of a more or less tonal nature has reasserted its validity, at least in the hands of those equipped with the technique and temperament to deploy it. That Brown is one such is evident from the Piano Quartet (2004), whose single movement proceeds from its almost Classically contrasted first and second themes, via a lengthy and cumulative development, to a reprise whose distanced and even remote nature is thrown into relief by a substantial coda which sees the work through to an exuberant recollection of its opening music.
Both of the duo pieces are studies in subtle expressive contrasts and long-range tonal processes. With the Violin Sonata (2002), a freely evolving first movement (hence the `Quasi improvvisazione’ marking) of often discursive cast is countered by a Presto that renders earlier material in a more aggressive but also speculative light; a dichotomy transcended by the final Allegretto; with its subtle interplay between instruments and its innate formal and expressive finesse. Prorpero’s Isle (2006) follows a not dissimilar process in its alternation between slow and fast sections, yet here a sense in which Brown seems concerned less with what is being said than with how he says it is evident, as is a textural sameness that inhibits the music’s emotional reach (which perhaps accounts for his having subsequently orchestrated the piece).
No such qualifications apply to the String Trio (1996), the earliest but by no means least characteristic work here. Its two movements consist of a sonata Allegro whose more inward theme gradually gains the upper hand, then a set of six variations that range from the rumination of the third and fifth variations, via the determined vigour of the second and fourth, to the genial manner of the first and almost nonchalant pay-off of the sixth: a finely achieved contribution to a genre not over-endowed with major works, and wholly convincing on its own terms. As with all these pieces, the performance could not be bettered in terms of overall commitment, and the disc is enhanced by admirably realistic sound as well as by Brown’s pithy annotations. Pleasurable as well as enriching music that deserves a wide audience.
Richard Whitehouse

New Classics Co March 08 2011

Featuring chamber music by James Francis Brown, a composer of exciting, visionary and emotionally rewarding music. The Shakespeare-inspired Prosperos Isle, described as lyrically suave by Paul Driver in The Times, forms the dramatic centre piece of this CD – qualities which are equally abundant in the Violin Sonata and the String Trio. Katya Apekisheva, Gemma Rosefield, Nicola Eimer, Tamás András, Sarah-Jane Bradley and Classical Brit Award winner Jack Liebeck, deliver stunning performances in music which makes many emotional and technical demands.