Bedford In the Voices of the Living NMC D272

Luke Bedford (b 1978)
In the Voices of the Living
Instability (2014-15)
Outblaze the Sky (2006)
In the Voices of the Living, for tenor and orchestra (2017-19)
Concerto for saxophone quartet and orchestra (2016-17)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Arcis Saxophon Quartett
BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen
London Sinfonietta/Geoffrey Paterson
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, Berlin/Ben Gernon
rec 2010-2021, London and 2017, Berlin
Text for In the Voices of the Living included in booklet
NMC D272 (74)

Sadly I never met my late MusicWeb colleague Anne Ozorio but over the years I have repeatedly referred to her reviews of new music CDs and live concerts which can still be found on the site. She really knew her onions and was able to characterise the attractions (or otherwise) of contemporary sounds with empathy, directness and profound clarity – a blend of traits only too rarely encountered in this context. It was her review of a London Sinfonietta disc of Luke Bedford’s innovative song-cycle Or Voit Tout En Aventure which first drew my attention to this composer. That was eighteen years ago: it is no surprise that Bedford’s stock has risen steadily ever since, not least in continental Europe. It’s odd then that to my knowledge, this exceptional new NMC portrait disc represents the first monograph dedicated to him to be issued on a British label. In fact, it’s the enterprising German label Bastille Musique (available via Bandcamp) who have taken the initiative where Bedford is concerned. They have issued both the highly regarded opera Through His Teeth in a production by Opera Factory Freiburg (Bastille Musique – 7) and Besilvering, a recital of duo and ensemble pieces performed by the Holst-Sinfonietta (also based in Freiburg) under the direction of Klaus Simon. If nothing else, both discs illustrate the esteem in which Bedford is held in Germany.

Frankly I would be disappointed if this new issue fails to trigger a fresh surge of interest among other British labels. Bedford creates music which seems consistently novel, approachable and memorable; each of these four works yield increasing rewards with repeated listening. Whilst Bedford proves himself to be a master of pacing and arrangement; as Anne Ozorio acknowledged in relation to Or Voit Tout En Aventure his appreciation of language in his writing for solo voice is especially remarkable in the cycle which gives this new collection its name.

The album kicks off with a big orchestral piece fully deserving of its strikingly unambiguous title. Instability lacks nothing in its ambition, its instrumental requirements and ultimately in its massive sonic impact. Originally, it comprised five distinct movements. Tim Rutherford-Johnson (another stylish and communicative critic) tells us in his booklet note that Bedford thought better of this. He re-worked its structure, shuffling the components and their contents into an edifice which is at once volatile, abrasive and remarkably appealing. I think the allure of the piece lies in its extremes. Extremes of register – an ethereal string chord contrasts wonderfully with the rumbling bass of the organ at the start of the piece. The latter re-occurs intermittently and elicits a literally visceral effect through my speakers –I can’t imagine how it must have felt for the punters in the Albert Hall at the Prom, where the piece was recorded. At the other end of the spectrum, wind and especially brass emit other-worldly shrillness. Bedford also immerses his audience in extremes of tempo, with rapid phrases whose content seems somewhat indecipherable as they seek to navigate passages of glacial stillness. Not to forget Bedford’s extremes of clarity, whereby timbral and tonal precision evaporates into muddy, microtonal swamps. These traits coalesce to elicit enormous variations in mood – Bedford constructs orchestral violence of a particularly abrupt kind through remarkably confident, even diffident application of colour and rhythm. This seems to expose contrasting moments of calm as illusory – so that conflict which sounds distant on the surface is actually never far away. Instability emerges as a brilliant, uncategorisable show-piece which deserves regular exposure and the attentions of other conductors and orchestras. Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic play this unusually disarming piece for all it’s worth.

Outblaze the Sky is ten years older; briefer, calmer yet orchestrated with equal skill. The strange portamenti heard in the strings and muted brass seem sad, even pained, as if they’re holding back a melody which is seeking to escape. Rutherford-Johnson’s reference to Mahlerian intensity is well-placed; Bedford was apparently inspired by imagery in the opening chapter of the late novelist D.M. Thomas’s once controversial White Hotel; and whilst the unfulfilled yearning involved in the string textures is considerable, any implied eroticism seems less apparent. Outblaze the Sky is clever and deeply involving. It also provides an apt addition to the late Oliver Knussen’s extensive discography.

Bedford’s music exudes confidence. Whilst he has fashioned an individual style which appears to go down a storm with European audiences, his brilliantly crafted song-cycle In the Voices of the Living seems remarkably English in its textures and melodic contours. This is arguably the most accessible music on the album; it’s certainly the most affecting in its impact. There is profound humanity in its sophisticated accessibility. Bedford’s textures are the embodiment of lightness (the same could be said for the concerto which concludes this disc). He has selected five texts: each of them somehow allude to the various means through which the past can communicate to us in the here and now. The cycle’s title was inspired by the words which Bedford sets in the first number; these have been drawn from Stephen Greenblatt’s literary critique entitled Shakespearean Negotiations, in which the author refers to ‘a desire to speak with the dead’. This haunting song, with its obsessive harp figurations anticipates the fragmentary settings of Petrarch, James Joyce and Leopardi which follow, whilst the final text is a selection of nine phrases from Shakespeare himself, all of which begin with the same two words, “after the…..” That this cycle has been so beautifully rendered here by the incomparable Mark Padmore speaks volumes for its quality. The London Sinfonietta’s tactful accompaniment is ideal.

And Bedford’s sureness of touch is there again in the earworm phrase that launches his Concerto for saxophone quartet and orchestra. Nothing flashy or showy here – every sound and silence is there for a reason. As Tim Rutherford-Johnson contends, the concerto seems to seek consensus and accommodation rather than rely on the typically adversarial nature of the genre. The homophonic entrance to movement 2 (marked ‘Expressive’) provides a good example. Empty virtuosity is a no-no throughout. Even more impressive is the fourth movement ‘Still’ with its mild quasi-electronic effects – nothing really seems to happen, yet it digs unexpectedly deep. Is this really a concerto?

Bedford’s formidable colouristic skills are to the fore in the fifth movement (the longest) marked ‘Tense’ which recalls the unpredictability of Instability. Although here it never evolves into anything so violent and indeed dissolves into tranquility before an even mellower and elusive finale, marked ‘Tender’. This is a skilfully wrought, beautiful sounding concerto, performed with affection, grace and restraint by the Arcis Quartet and the DSO Berlin under Ben Gernon. Like all the offerings on this album, it’s absorbing, agile and eminently likeable.

These four live performances, given by different ensembles in diverse venues over twelve years, yield remarkably consistent sound. Even by the standards of NMC, this is an outstanding disc which deserves the widest currency. Hopefully they will waste little time in following it up with more of Luke Bedford’s dazzling, communicative oeuvre. Assuming other labels don’t get there first.

Richard Hanlon

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