Jonathan Dove (b. 1959)
In Exile (2020)
Night Song from In Exile
Sir Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Gergely Madaras
Jonathan Dove (piano, Night Song)
rec. live 8-9 December 2021 (In Exile), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK; September 2021 (Night Song), Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
Texts included
Lyrita SRCD413 [38]

In Exile was one of the works which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra commissioned to celebrate its centenary season – the inaugural concert was given on 5 September 1920 and the first symphony concert, conducted by no less a luminary than Sir Edward Elgar, took place on 10 November 1920. Sadly, the Covid restrictions severely compromised the orchestra’s celebrations, and though concerts were given on the exact 100th anniversary of both those dates, the orchestra was obliged to present them – very successfully – online. I don’t know if it was intended that In Exile was to receive its first performance in Birmingham but in the event, it was unveiled in Bucharest in September 2021, with the same soloists as we hear on this recording. This CD preserves the UK premiere, which the CBSO presented three months later.

I learned from Paul Conway’s excellent booklet essay that it was some 10 years ago that Jonathan Dove and Raphael Wallfisch first discussed the possibility that Dove might write a cello concerto. As the project evolved, however, it was decided that the work would feature not one but two soloists: the unusual combination of baritone and cellist. As Conway explains, “the subject matter was suggested by the Wallfisch family history”. In 1937 members of Wallfisch’s family were obliged to flee from Breslau to what was then Palestine. Raphael’s mother, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, herself a cellist, survived the horrors of Auschwitz and Belsen. Bearing all this in mind, Jonathan Dove decided to base his new work “on the universal experience of refugees being exiled from their homeland”. For his libretto he turned to Alasdair Middleton who has collaborated with Dove on several of his operas.

Middleton compiled a libretto that draws on a number of sources. Prime among these is the anonymous 10th century English text, The Wayfarer. Words are also drawn from Dante, from the Irish writer Emily Lawless (1845-1913), from the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), another Irish writer, Douglas Hyde (1860-1949), and from the contemporary Iranian-American author, Kaveh Bassiri; near the end of the work Dove sets a passage from Bassiri’s 2019 chapbook, The 99 Names of Exile.

The notes quote Dove as saying that “In Exile moves through a day in the life of an involuntary exile, waking alone in a foreign land, remembering the moment of banishment, the moment of departure, the voyage, remembering the homeland. The Exile feels the pain of being so far away in his country’s time of need, unable to help his own people. He remembers all the names he has been called in this strange land. He thinks of all he has lost, and longs for home.”  That description sums up the trajectory of Alasdair Middleton’s perceptively selected libretto. From reading Dove’s words, you are probably expecting an emotionally fraught, powerful and expressive piece; you’d be right to do so. In focusing on the travails of an individual refugee, it  seems to me that Dove is following a similar path to the one he explored a few years ago à propos the Syrian civil war in his 2016 work for Tenor and String Quartet In Damascus (review).  

In Exile plays for about 33:30 in this performance. The work is continuous but Lyrita have very helpfully divided it into 11 separate tracks. Usually, the change in track occurs when Dove moves from setting one text to another, but there are also three episodes entitled ‘Cello alone’ which are also separately tracked. The word “alone” doesn’t denote unaccompanied cello, however; there’s accompaniment from the orchestra in each case.

I should say a word about the nature of the two solo roles. The baritone represents the Exile himself. The cello represents the Exile’s alter ego, commenting on, accompanying and enriching the vocal line. I think we might say that the cello is almost constantly at the Exile’s shoulder. I think it was a very sensible decision by Jonathan Dove to include three short episodes in which the baritone leaves the musical argument to his fellow protagonist. That’s very pragmatic because it gives the singer a rest, which is much-needed, both vocally and emotionally. Furthermore, though the two soloists are of equal importance and prominence, the listener’s ear is often drawn to the singer simply because he is enunciating words; thus, it’s good to bring the cello centre stage at times.

The music is powerful; time and again we are reminded that it is the product of a composer highly experienced in writing operas. One episode that struck me with particular force was ‘If I were an ear of corn’ (tr 7), which sets words by Kahlil Gibran. The vocal writing is very dramatic and has bitterness. Paul Conway suggests in his essay that the setting of words from The Wayfarer (tr 5) constitutes the heart of the work. I know what he means, but I’d respectfully argue that the Gibran setting is at least of equal consequence. The choice of a section from Kaveh Bassiri’s The 99 Names of Exile (tr 9) is a bold one because the text consists of single words – nineteen of them, all beginning with the letter “U”. Dove writes jagged music in this section and he seems to me to find just the right way to express each individual word; more than that, the very short orchestral connections between the declamation of one word and the next are ideally judged.  The following section, ‘Where have the horses gone’ (tr 10) returns to The Wayfarer and we hear a soft, insistent march-like orchestral processional accompanying the vocal line. However, when the baritone sings the words ‘Winter howls’, it’s a searing cry and thereafter, until the end of the episode both singer and cello have music of infinite sadness, which Keenlyside and Wallfisch deliver with great expression.

The last section. ‘My grief on the sea’ (tr 11) uses four lines of poetry by Douglas Hyde. Paul Conway describes the way Dove has set this text as “wistfully serene” and I think that hits the nail on the head. In the writing for both soloists there is, I believe, a sense of sorrowful acceptance. The work moves to a hushed, poignant ending in which the voice is silent. Gradually, the cello and orchestra play more and more quietly until the work fades into nothingness.

In Exile is an extremely impressive work. The concept is an important one; Alasdair Middleton’s libretto and Jonathan Dove’s music address it head-on. As ever, Jonathan Dove’s music is accessible and also direct in expression. That doesn’t mean that In Exile is a comfortable listening experience; nor should it be. Simon Keenlyside sings the musical and emotionally demanding vocal part superbly and, as his alter ego, Raphael Wallfisch is equally impressive and eloquent. The orchestral writing is full of imaginative descriptive touches which the CBSO and Gergely Madaras realise expertly. The recording, expertly balanced by engineer Stephen Rinker, enables us to hear all the strands, soloists and orchestra, very clearly.

As a bonus we hear ‘Night Song’ from In Exile. Jonathan Dove has derived this from the music for the final section of the main work and made it into a poignant song for cello and piano. The composer himself partners Raphael Wallfisch.

In Exile is an arresting, important work. I’m glad it has achieved a recording so soon after its premiere. Both music and performance can be recommended without reservation.

John Quinn

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