ritchie symphony rattle

Anthony Ritchie (b.1960) 
Symphony No.6 (2022)
Underwater Music (1993)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Hamish McKeich
rec. 2015/22, New Zealand
Rattle RAT-D143 [52]

One of the enduring pleasures of the last eleven years of reviewing for MusicWeb International has been encountering the music of New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie.  The first disc of his music I heard included his Symphony No.2 and since then I have written about his other four symphonies and now, with the composer passing his 60th birthday, we have reached Symphony No.6.  As with the previous release, the Rattle label have made the entire work streamable from their website here which is both a generous and useful option for those who wish to sample the music before committing to a purchase.

Looking back across the group of six symphonies it is now possible to perceive common threads both musical and non-musical that inform these works.  Perhaps worth quoting the composer himself here; “Someone recently asked me how I define a symphony in 2020, and why do I write them. For me, writing a symphony is like painting on a large canvas: it is spacious and allows for a different sort of musical narrative. The way we listen to a long piece of music is very different to listening to a short piece; ideally, we become absorbed in the aural journey, forget the passing of time, and open the possibility of a deeper emotional engagement. There are other aspects of a symphony that I think are significant: its emphasis on organic growth, and cyclic events which echo Nature; its richly varied sound palette. But essential to it all is the ability to convey meaning and emotion through lengthy musical engagement. This is why I continue to compose symphonies”. 

There is an enduring argument about whether music alone can “mean” anything.  That might well be the case, but it seems clear that Ritchie often starts a work from a non-musical narrative or concept.  This new symphony, although not explicitly so-titled confronts the certainties of mortality and death.  As usual, Ritchie contributes an enlightening and valuable liner note to accompany the disc; “In 2020, the Covid pandemic engulfed the world…. it was a stressful time but the quiet calm of lockdown was somehow conducive for creativity and I found time to start a new symphony.  It was informed by a sense of crisis that was pervading the world, not just in terms of the pandemic, but also the political ructions in the USA and elsewhere……  The symphony explores ideas around love, death, the afterlife, and our relationship to the environment….. The symphony is not specifically programmatic: the listener can use the titles of the movements as cues for developing their own thoughts and reactions.”

This is a substantial four movement work running to just shy of forty minutes total playing time.  The movements are titled in order; Crisis, Meditation, Spirits, Grieving.  Although the symphony does follow some traditional compositional practices with movements linked by recurring motifs and significant keys as well as the outer movements being more substantial than the inner pair, in other ways this feels more like a sequence of studies or musical reflections based on the broad implications of the movement titles.  Again Ritchie’s liner note is a valuable guide.  “The opening theme on the saxophone is intended as a ‘love theme’… This… is developed in the second movement [and] in the third movement [where it] is also suggested by motifs on flutes and piccolo that sound like bird calls…. The love theme also reappears in the coda of the fourth movement played on tuned percussion with strings.  This symphony is also unified by the tonality of E flat minor, a dark tonality that symbolises death.  Unifying themes is hardly a new concept in symphonic literature and indeed it is a device that Ritchie has used very effectively in his other symphonies.  But Ritchie’s great skill – again evident across numerous scores – is clarity.  This applies equally to the musical thought throughout a work but also his handling of a large orchestra.  Ritchie’s orchestration is unfailingly lucid, uncluttered and effective.  This allows the listener, even at a first encounter, to get a clear sense of the musical direction and narrative.

The opening movement Crisis is, at 13:35, by some way the longest in the work.  Ritchie’s “love theme” is a pensive lyrical melody beautifully played here although if I had to characterise it, it would be more reflective or yearning than ‘love’ although that is surely part of Ritchie’s admonition that the listener should develop their own thoughts.  After what might be termed a ‘slow introduction’ lasting just shy of four minutes a stalking bass motif launches the main development of the movement.  Here and throughout the work the playing of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Hamish McKeich is genuinely excellent; alert and focussed with solos skilfully and expressively taken.  As with the previous symphony, I did wonder whether the engineering slightly inflated the orchestral picture which certainly allows the meticulous detail to register but at the cost of a natural sound-stage and percussion in particular sounding rather outsized.  Although this makes for an exciting and vibrant aural picture it does diminish to a degree the subtle atmosphere of Ritchie’s writing.   Given that this work as a whole is more reflective and muted than some of Ritchie’s previous scores this loss of atmosphere as well as making orchestral pianissimi harder to achieve was noticeable. 

The pair of central movements do not take on the roles of traditional scherzo/slow movement, instead feeling more like musical panels examining aspects of the wider narrative of the work.  Second is Meditation with a series of solos for various instruments on melodies with a chant-like character.  In the liner Ritchie notes that the tonality “vacillates between E flat minor and D minor as a symbol of duality” although he is more elusive about what opposites he is contemplating.  Interestingly, on the very first Ritchie disc I heard/reviewed here in 2012 [a disc worthy of a “Recording of the Month” status] there was a work called Revelations Op.82 (1998) that specifically deals with death and what comes after.  That thirteen minute score is more turbulent and explicitly dramatic than this new symphony.  Perhaps significantly the earlier score was Ritchie’s reaction to/treatment of another person’s near-death experience, this new work seems to have been at least in part impacted by Ritchie’s own hospitalisation requiring emergency surgery alongside the pandemic.  Perhaps the duality is simply doubt – in direct comparison the earlier score has sense of certainty which the new score – quite deliberately I am sure – does not. 

The third movement Spirits is “elusive” in Ritchie’s own words.  This is a brilliant study in musical half-lights and shifting landscapes.  This is the movement that to my ear benefits least from Rattle’s rather forensic and up-close engineering.  Flickers of percussion and hints of birdcalls should emerge from the musical mists I feel – as recorded here the mystery is diminished.  The scoring is genuinely wonderful but the effect as recorded here feels less atmospheric and evocative than I suspect it should.  That said it is still a beautiful movement played with security and brilliance by the New Zealand SO – who also made light work of the considerable demands of Revelations a decade or so ago.  A reappearance of the ‘love theme’ acts as a bridge to the final movement Grieving.  This movement seems to confront most directly the reality and consequences of death with a chord that Ritchie describes as “a musical tombstone” unrelentingly present [this is an E flat minor triad with an added 4th note – A flat].  Again there is a sense that this is a first-person experience and one that has left the writer bereft rather than hopeful.  Melodies from earlier in the work are revisited much as one might recall life memories.  Powerful muscular passages have often featured in Ritchie’s other scores but there seems to be little place – or perhaps energy – for them here.  The sheer elegance and detail of the orchestral writing remains but the emotional landscape feels daunted.  In the liner Ritchie mentions that towards the end of the work in the coda of the symphony the actual key signature of E flat minor – which is written on every stave of music from that point on – appears for the first time, representing I imagine the approach of inevitable death.  Ritchie notes another recurring gesture, a slow upwards glissando/slide on the upper strings which he suggests represents “spirits ascending”.  The symphony ends with a faltering heart-beat on the timpani, ascending bird-call trills in the strings and a final death chord on the low harp fades into silence.

As with all of Ritchie symphonies this is not a work that quickly reveals its secrets and deeper meanings.  Indeed elusive is a word that seems apt for the entire work – a “love theme” that could represent loss as much as love (or indeed other emotions), a work focussing on death but with little certainty about what that will ultimately mean.  That this is a deeply personal response to the world which Ritchie found himself in in 2020 is not in doubt and the ‘honesty’ of the writing is both powerful and moving.  His great craft as a composer is as evident as ever but the motivational certainty, the reason why is less assured.  That is no criticism – instead a very human reaction to the challenges, individual and collective, of recent times – and Ritchie flags this ambiguity in his advice to listeners to develop their own “thoughts and reactions”.  So a powerful and searching addition to Ritchie’s symphonic canon.  If it is not as immediately engaging as some of his earlier works in this form that is a reflection of the time and place in which it came into being.

The coupling is a much earlier work, playfully illustrative and light-hearted.  The Underwater Music for Chamber Orchestra is now thirty years old but shares with so many of Ritchie’s scores the happy knack of utilising the timbral potential of an orchestra to maximum effect but using minimum textural complexity.  In three movements the works plays for just over thirteen minutes with each movement given the title of a sea-dweller so Seahorses, Sting Rays and Dolphins respectively.  Ritchie uses the simple but effective device of focusing on a single characteristic of each animal.  Seahorses are represented by a gently undulating movement, Sting Rays by a slow repetitive rhythm suggesting the stately sweep of the animal’s wings.  Lastly Dolphins are predictably energetic and playful.  The concision and effectiveness of the writing is a recurring pleasure and again well-played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.  The performance is a live one – although there is no audible audience noise at all – with the engineering and production less forensic than for the symphony to the music’s benefit.

The Rattle presentation and packaging is very attractive if a little unusual and copies the style of the earlier release of Symphony No.5.  The disc is presented in what might be termed a hard-back book with the CD in a plastic tray glued to the left hand cover of the ‘book’ with the liner glued to the right.  The English-only booklet is fairly brief with Ritchie’s usual personal note of great value to the listener (and reviewer!).  Certainly this disc helps to build Ritchie’s reputation as New Zealand’s most important symphonic composer albeit by giving the listener new insights into his mind and creative impulses.

Nick Barnard

Availability: Bandcamp