Berio, Macmillan, Verbey: Trombone Concertos - van Rijen, Fischer, Stenz, Spanjaard
Classical - Orchestral
Macmillan: Trombone Concerto**
Jörgen van Rijen (trombone)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Iván Fischer**, Markus Stenz***, Ed Spanjaard*
Principal trombonist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jörgen van Rijen is also much in demand as a soloist with a special commitment to promoting his instrument. Various composers have written new pieces for him, including James MacMillan and Theo Verbey, whose works are included on the present disc together with Luciano Berio’s SOLO for trombone and orchestra.
The present recordings were made at concerts with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Iván Fischer, Markus Stenz and Ed Spanjaard respectively. They have previously been showcased on three different discs on the RCO’s own Live Horizon label, and are gathered together here for the first time. The disc therefore highlights the versatility of van Rijen as a musician, but also of his instrument as perceived and presented by three very different composers.
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Review by Mark Werlin - December 23, 2023
James MacMillan, born in Scotland in 1959, rose to prominence on the popularity of his orchestral work "The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie", and through many compositions for choir. In an interview published in 2019, MacMillan described his commitment to "taking music — a serious musical culture — into schools, into communities that might not get in immediate engagement with it…. to make music palpable and real and vital in communities that you would not normally expect it to be." That commitment reflects a childhood in a working-class Catholic family, and a youthful turn towards, then away from, Left political ideology. MacMillan’s renewed faith informed his musical production.
In the Trombone Concerto, dedicated to his granddaughter Sara, who died before her sixth birthday, the perseverance of the composer’s faith seems tested to the breaking point. The recurring ambulance siren motif arising out of dense instrumental passages — like voices raised in alarm — paints a picture of the chaotic moments at the end of a child’s tragically brief life. But for MacMillan, the sorrow of his granddaughter’s early death was channeled into an expression of spiritual travails in musical form. It is unreasonable to approach this highly personal work as pure musical writing; it is inextricably bound to the circumstances out of which it was composed. There are passages of greater agitation, and of deep calm, that furnish trombonist Jörgen van Rijen with a framework for exploring the instrument’s emotive qualities.
The work of Theo Verbey, who died in 2019 at age 60, first came to the concertgoing public’s attention with a well-received orchestration of Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1. He received commissions from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, collaborated with chamber ensembles and soloists, and composed for film soundtracks, while establishing a teaching career, first at his alma mater the Royal Conservatory at the Hague, and later at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam as an instructor in the classical and jazz departments.
Verbey’s “LIED” for Trombone and Orchestra was commissioned by the RCO for soloist van Rijen. In the introduction, a slow-tempo trombone melody floats over sustained strings, seting an atmosphere of foreboding. While the first and third movements incorporate unaccompanied trombone played in its lowest register, the second and fourth movements follow the trombone’s passage through episodic developments and sudden dramatic orchestral surges. For soloist van Rijen, LIED offers a vehicle for exploring the breadth of the instrument’s tone colors. It is to be hoped that the work of Theo Verbey will be more widely performed and recorded in coming years.
MacMillan and Verbey were exact contemporaries who followed entirely different musical paths; MacMillan's religiously-infused work stands in sharp contrast to Verbey's analytic sound essays. The final work on this compilation, Solo (for Trombone and Orchestra) comes from Luciano Berio, a composer of the preceding generation whose work was as different from his own contemporaries as MacMillan's was from Verbey's. Berio's works for voice and compositions for solo instruments are well-known and have been frequently recorded, but he was also an accomplished orchestrator of his own and earlier composers’ music. (I was fortunate to attend a concert in Los Angeles of Pierre Boulez conducting Berio’s orchestral piece “Formazioni”, of which there are, sadly, very few recordings in the catalogue.)
“Solo” is a single-movement piece that pits the solo trombone voice against a complex, continuously shifting orchestral texture. In the album’s liner notes, Berio writes: “…the trombone and orchestra share the same central pitch, but they don’t really “speak” to each other. And so SOLO is less of a concerto than a meeting of two individuals.” That may have been the composer’s intention, but in performance the proposed wall between soloist and ensemble seems more translucent than opaque, a lightly-curtained window that permits the contours of the trombone to shape the orchestral movement.
The three concertos on this SACD were previously released on three different RCO Live Horizon SACDs:
James MacMillan: Horizon 08 - van Rijen, Dervaux, Abdulla, Fischer, Wigglesworth, Brabbins
Theo Verbey: Horizon 01 - van Rijen, Stenz
Luciano Berio: Horizon 04 - Roth, Ogrintchouk, van Rijen, Zagrosek, Stenz, Spanjaard, Robertson, Mälkki
Although originally recorded by producer-engineer Everett Porter at different resolutions, on the BIS compilation there are no jarring sonic dissimilarities from work to work. The MacMillan piece was conducted by Ivan Fischer; the Verbey by Markus Stenz; the Berio by Ed Spanjaard. What this selection of performances highlights are the differences of style and temperament among the three composers, and the consummate skill of Jörgen van Rijen.
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