Malcolm Riley
August 2017

Signum Classics’ advocacy of the music of Jonathan Dove continues apace with this superb new chamber/vocal release, recorded in the summer of 2016. It follows the live recording of There Was a Child, a passionate choral-orchestral cantata with the combined CBSO forces, and For an Unknown Soldier with the London Mozart Players et al , both discs displaying Dove’s innate ability to convey—with memorable eloquence—dramatic narratives, a skill honed through the composition of over two dozen operas.

Seldom does a mixed vocal and chamber programme such as this hang together so perfectly, each successive work tightening the ratchet of intensity towards a final, despairing and pertinently contemporary anguish. It helps that all of the performers are at the top of their communicative powers. The UK-based Sacconi Quartet make light work of Dove’s technical challenges, producing a tight and sweet unity of purpose, aided by a close recorded balance. Charles Owen has the happy knack of providing just enough pianistic support when the strings are to the fore and Mark Padmore brings his full emotional range to the disc’s largest work.

We begin with the Piano Quintet (2009). This was a Spitalfields Festival commission to celebrate the 80th birthday of a festival patron, George Law. It makes a highly satisfying start to this landmark disc. Composition started in 2008, during a much-needed sabbatical sojourn, and was partially inspired by the rolling hills of Umbria. Cast in three accessible movements, the work’s energetic outer branches neatly enfold a slow movement of scintillating warmth and beauty. The opening 'Energetic' is a tautly driven span, by turns gritty, rapturously lyrical, sparkling and luscious (think of the melting modulations in John Adams’s Harmonielehre), with a ruminative development section that grows so naturally and agreeably that one wishes it were even longer.

In the 'Very spacious' second movement, pianist Charles Owen makes the most of Dove’s various ‘bell’ effects, sometimes distant, at other moments clangorously strident, when he interrupts the strings’ hazy somnolence. A southern-European languor is abruptly banished by the 'Lively' finale. This post-minimalist helter-skelter is a bundle of chunky, metrically challenging fun. Petrushka pops up for a very brief glimpse, as does some Bartókian bitonality, before romping home with a breathlessly joyful élan. With this delightful work Dove has refreshed the piano quintet genre; it is worthy of admittance to the canon of great examples by Brahms, Dvořák and Elgar.

The earliest work on the disc, the string quartet Out of Time (2001), has been described by its composer as ‘a serenade for someone I never met’. A Vanbrugh Quartet commission, this ‘pure’ piece is something of a mosaic, cast in six short(ish) movements, with little folkish fragments contrasted with snippets of quasi-plainsong, all carried through in a pulsing vein. It is full of striking contrasts. The opening owes something possibly to Adams’s Shaker Loops, although Dove conjures up some extraordinarily exquisite filigree textures later on. The third (and shortest) movement, 'Stomping', should have the listener leaping up into the air in terpsichorean delight, while the concluding, wistfully elegiac 'Gently moving' somehow suspends time itself.

This last movement sets the scene perfectly for In Damascus, a harrowingly vivid setting (in Anne-Marie McManus’s translation) of verses from Ali Safar’s A Black Cloud in a Leaden White Sky, published in Syria Speaks in 2014. The texts alone are sufficient to provoke outrage and intense sorrow at the plight of ‘a nation where the sun had burned out’, but when they are expressed and reinterpreted through the medium of music the sense of grief is almost too much to bear. Dove gives the string quartet several roles, including accompanist (in the recitatives) and gear-grinding combatant as well as a reflective type of chorus. Traversing a huge emotional range—from the bleakness of Warlock’s Curlew, if you will, to the hypnotism of Reich’s Different Trains—this half-hour-long masterpiece should leave the listener utterly exhausted. There are 10 vocal sections divided by an angrily dissonant instrumental interlude. This work was tailor-made for Mark Padmore, who summons up every iota of his immense interpretative powers to steer us through this reflective testament.