Gavin Bryars Refines Style with Piano Concerto

I’ve always liked Gavin Bryars‘ music, although I admit I was always more familiar with his earlier works, such as “Jesus’ Blood Ain’t Failed Me Yet,” and “The Sinking of the Titanic.” The latter was almost a study in sound landscapes and non-tonal sonorities, crafted to deliver a visceral emotional wallop. Bryars has continued growing as a composer, delving even further into the nature of sound, while refining his musical language.

All of that’s beautifully illustrated in this new recording from Naxos. Pianist Ralph van Raat presents three of Bryars’ recent compositions for the instrument, two of which are dedicated to van Raat. All three works share certain similarities. There are these long flowing arpeggios played with the damper pedal down. This causes these layered chords to overlap each other, creating an additional voice as sonorities fade in and out.

At first listen, I was reminded briefly of Philip Glass’ music — but only briefly. While flowing diatonic chords are prominent, that’s where the similarity ends. Bryar isn’t concerned with gradual changes over time. He’s more interested in what’s happening at the moment. His chords change quickly, although each chord often has several notes in common with the one before it. The result is music that organically flows from point to point, much like a vine.

While the two solo piano works on the album, “After Handel’s Vesper” and “Ramble on Cortona” are compelling listening, the piano concerto is a real masterwork.

Subtitled “The Solway Canal” it takes the Edwin Morgan poem as its starting point and basis for organization. Like Smetana’s “Ma Vlast,” the piano concerto takes the listener down the canal, presenting scenes along the banks that drift past. The solo piano part isn’t especially virtuosic, but it is the glue that holds the work together. The piano plays almost constantly, with the orchestra and chorus organized around its shimmering chordal cascades.

I would be hard-pressed to precisely describe the structure of the work, but I don’t think it matters. “The Solway Canal” pulled me along from the first note to the final chord, and everything just seemed to fall into place.

If you think modern music has to sound like a toolbox descending a staircase, give Bryars a listen. You won’t hear pretty little melodies, but you will hear compelling, accessible music that draws you in emotionally. And really, isn’t that the point?

Highly recommended.

Gavin Bryars: Piano Concerto; After Handel’s Vesper; Ramble on Cortona
Ralph van Raat, piano; Capella Amsterdam; Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic; Otto Tausk, conductor

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