rissmann wonderland lso live

Paul Rissmann
Wonderland: The Alice Sound
Wonderland Suite (2015)
Through the Looking Glass (2022)
Emily Dickens (soprano), Joanna Harries (mezzo soprano), Richard Pinkstone (tenor), Neil Balfour (baritone), Paul Rissmann (narrator)
London Symphony Orchestra/Lee Reynolds
rec. 2022, Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
LSO Live LSO5129 [48]

There are many types of snobbery. My own personal affliction sees me looking down my nose at any contemporary classical music which isn’t sufficiently modern. By rights then, I ought to have looked down haughtily at this album of works inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Instead, I was completely entranced.

The Scottish composer Paul Rissmann’s style might be described as film music deluxe. Think of the music for the Harry Potter films and you will get some idea of the genre though Rissmann is much more inventive and playful. In other words this is tonal music which deploys the full riches of the Romantic symphony orchestra. Two qualities redeem these two scores from the risk of Hollywood pastiche – Rissmann’s gift for genuinely memorable melodies and his slyly subversive sense of humour.

The latter isn’t just there in the way he weaves arch references to nursery rhymes through both works. It is more of a case of the way he subverts the Hollywood style by sometimes stepping somewhere unexpected- a sassy harmony here, a melodic twist here, a rasping orchestral detail in the midst of the lushness. It is the musical equivalent of the topsy turvy world of the Alice books where nothing is quite what it seems.

Both pieces are aimed at children but like the best music for children it has plenty to satisfy the grown ups whilst encouraging the older and none the wiser to recall their own sense of childlike wonder. Again like the best works for children, there is sufficient darkness to prevent the music from cloying. Rissmann’s writing has enough saltiness and anarchic energy to offset its warmth. His prodigality with musical ideas recalls the extravagance of the young Britten or Shostakovich, both of whom threaten from time to time to emerge out of this pair of works. It is very much an everything but the kitchen sink kind of an affair all held together by Rissmann’s infectious and joyous humour. He writes with the glee of a child playing with Lego.

Only very very occasionally does the writing stray too close to the vapid vocal writing of modern musical theatre but not so often as to disturb my listening pleasure. Mostly, he gets the balance right between genuinely operatic vocal lines and singing that can be easily followed by a novice audience of kids – or, as was the case with the original performances of both works, to be performed by the kids themselves.

Another point of reference is the Ravel of L’enfant et les Sortilèges which made me look forward to the day Rissmann is let loose on a full length opera. Clearly he has a fantastic sense of the theatrical and I would imagine both pieces went down a storm with parents and children alike in the concert hall.

Performances possess all the razzmatazz that such scoring requires and the singing is excellent and avoids any hint of the irritating children’s TV presenter. The composer himself narrates in exemplary fashion.

This pair of works are more than just ephemeral pieces for kids and can be enthusiastically recommended to lovers of Peter and the Wolf or The Young Person’s Guide – or to anyone who finds contemporary classical music anathema. Or perhaps I should say it can be enthusiastically recommended to anyone who likes joyous, irreverent, brilliantly scored music!

David McDade

Availability: LSO Live