This disc represents music written over the last twenty years.
In the early 1980s I undertook two study-visits to India, to the far north to hear the music of the Buddhist Temples and to the south to experience the Hindu dance of Bharatanatyam. The rhythmic liberation I felt as a result of these visits is the most notable element of Dance/Still (1982), a chamber work in two parts which expresses concurrently a ritualised vitality and a religious stillness.
The organ work Dances with Chant and Chorales (1986) contrasts and enfolds the dynamism of dance with the formalised yearning of religious melody. As a chorister of York Minster in the 1960s I daily thrilled to the organ-playing of my first music master Francis Jackson, and have never forgotten his control of the Minster organ’s Full Swell and it’s power to evoke religious awe and solemnity.
Mr Gilbert dines at the Modern Hindu Hotel (1994) is one of ten pieces I have written for the Manchester recorder player John Turner. It celebrates the composer Anthony Gilbert’s 60th birthday and recalls his experiences in a Bangalore hotel, where his Brahmin fellow-diners turned away from him in order to preserve caste while dining.
The organ piece Invention (1994) exposes and develops a number of musical objects within an aesthetic which pays homage to the great Romantic tradition of French organ music, particularly that of Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) whose compositional virtuosity is without parallel within this tradition.
The short string quartet I Thirst (1994) takes for its starting point one of the Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross. Out of this context comes a ritual of solo melody, homophony and biting figuration whose desiccation is in due course quenched by waves of natural harmonics.
The pianola piece Halifax (1995) celebrates a great town in my native Yorkshire – its erstwhile carpet mills, its markets, the striking structure of Gilbert Scott’s All Souls’ Church – in a mechanical fantasy appropriate to this under-rated instrument. The pianola’s natural ability to purify and objectify sound is in sympathy with my own aesthetic purpose, so far as reconstituting emotion in musical terms is concerned.
The piano piece At the Grave of William Baines (1999) was written for the centenary of the birth of this Yorkshire composer – born in Horbury 1899, died in York 1922. The passionate classicism of William Baines’s music, predominately for the piano, is the guiding spirit of this work’s response to his creative life and tragically early death. He was a composer who lived in his own reality, was solaced by Nature, and composed with a wild spirituality that always retained musical integrity.
His Master’s Voice (2001) is a recorder and piano piece written for David Lumsdaine – my composition teacher of long standing – on his 70th birthday. Lumsdaine has provided the intellectual backbone for many young composers, and I owe him a great deal for his promptings and warnings, and also for being a spiritual liberator. The sonorities of the piece remind me of his own poetic inventions.
Robin Walker was born in York in 1953 and studied at Durham University. There he encountered David Lumsdaine, who not only helped him to acquire the craft of composition but also furnished examples of music’s power to embody mythic experience while using the most economical forces, as in his Aria for Edward John Eyre, which chronicles an early exploration of Southern Australia’s inhospitable Nullarbor Plain and which Walker was later to champion as conductor. Philosophical themes of this kind have remained a constant concern for Walker, even as his style has undergone dramatic evolution. A clear statement of his musical credo may be found in his contribution to the recent symposium Reviving the Muse, edited by Peter Davison (Claridge Press, Brinkworth, 2001).
After Durham, Robin Walker did three years of postgraduate research at Keble College, Oxford (into the effect of Wagner on French music before the First World War) interspersed with a short period at the Collège Franco-Brittanique in the University of Paris. He continued his studies at the Royal College of Music, lecturing part-time at King’s College, London and at the Royal Academy of Music before taking up a full-time appointment at the University of Manchester in 1980. Here he founded and co-ordinated the New Music/Old Music concert series, directed the Electronic Music Studio and conducted numerous student and professional performances.
In 1981 his Dance/Still for chamber ensemble brought his first Radio 3 broadcast; this piece showed an affinity with late Stravinsky in its fine balance of opposed states of motion. At the same time, however, Walker was casting the stylistic net wide, producing, amongst other things, a haunting re-composition of the Kink’s Waterloo Sunset and the violent ritualised-minimalist meditation of Seven Last Words for electric guitar and percussion. In the summer of 1983 he travelled to Bangalore to learn the art of drumming in traditional South Indian dance. Among creative spin-offs of this visit were the solo viola piece Age/a gita, performed by Yuko Inoue at the Purcell Room.
Since resigning his lectureship in 1987, Robin Walker has lived in Delph, near Oldham, on the edge of the Saddleworth moors, patiently exploring new directions in a small number of carefully crafted works. Of these The Stone Maker, a glowering 30-minute symphonic poem performed and broadcast in 1996 by the BBC Philharmonic under Elgar Howarth, is undoubtedly the most ambitious. This profoundly impressive work re-engages with the kind of large-scale symphonic momentum mastered by Sibelius, Tippett and Robert Simpson, yet without denying Walker’s previous interests in the sound-worlds of Boulez and Birtwistle, and in its fusion of the ascetic and the ecstatic The Stone Maker is one of the outstanding achievements in British music of the 1990s. Still more traditional in its harmonies and textures are the string orchestra piece Hold Hands Across the Years, premièred in March 1998 by the English Chamber Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the chamber opera The Bells of Blue Island.
Robin Walker has also been drawn to projects outside the classical mainstream, including pieces for the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, various ballet and theatre productions, and a school opera based on the Odysseus legend. His music has been heard at various Festivals in this country and abroad. Future plans include a three-act opera along the Wagnerian lines: The Return of Odysseus
Review by Andrew Mayes in The Recorder Magazine
Recorder players are most likely to be familiar with Robin Walker’s A Book of Song and Dance (both the edition published by Forsyth Brothers and a recording of the collection have been reviewed in The Recorder Magazine) pieces from which have been included in grade exam syllabuses. This CD provides an opportunity to hear two more of Walker’s recorder pieces together with a selection of other instrumental works composed during the last twenty years.
Mr Gilbert dines at the Modern Hindu Hotel for descant recorder and piano was composed in 1994 to celebrate composer Anthony Gilbert’s 60th birthday. Lasting a little under three minutes and certainly an occasional piece, it is nevertheless a significant work, exploring textures and sonorities found also in Rite in A Book of Song and Dance composed at around the same time.
His Master’s Voice for sopranino recorder and piano was written in 2001 for Walker’s composition teacher David Lumsdain on his 70th birthday. It proceeds in alternate calm and energetic sections that achieve further contrast by setting the recorder very effectively against the piano’s higher and lower registers. This and the above are two recorder works striking in their originality that leave you eager to hear more of walker’s work for the instrument.
His years as a chorister in York Minster under the direction of Francis Jackson clearly gave Walker a strong sense of organ sonorities that is very evident in two impressive works for the instrument, Dances with Chant and Chorales and Invention. The earliest composition on the disc is Dance/Still for the unusual ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, guitar and percussion (two players) written in 1982. Here, the influence on Walker of his study-visits to India is particularly evident in the rhythmic freedom and expressiveness.
The piano piece At the Grave of William Baines was written for the centenary of the Yorkshire composer (1899-1922). Lasting nearly fifteen minutes, it captures something of the spirit of Baines’ own works for piano, but also reflects Walker’s own response to the instrument. In total contrast is the work for pianola, Halifax. The composer describes it as a mechanical fantasy, and as the piece progresses, an almost musical box-like quality takes over from and contrasts with the heavier almost mill-like sounds of the opening.
The most personal work on the disc is the short, single movement string quartet, I Thirst, from 1994. Walker reflects on one of Christ’s Seven Last Words in a work of extraordinary atmosphere, beginning and punctuated with viola solos and making use of chords in quiet harmonics for the entire quartet.
The performances by all involved are impressive. Walker’s music engages the performer (and the listener) and is clearly born out of inspiration rather than formulation. This is something in which Walker believes passionately and about which he has written in his contribution in the symposium Reviving the Muse, (edited by Peter Davison and published by Claridge Press).
A disc revealing a very original musical personality who composes for the recorder with the same creativity he brings to all his instrumental works – Andrew Mayes
Review by Roger Carpenter in The British Music Society
In an age when so much – too much – new music is hardly more than soulless note-spinning striving for effect, Robin Walker stands apart, a classicist at heart, who writes from the heart in a wholly contemporary idiom, at once distinctive and attractive; in short, he is that modern rara avis, a composer whose music leaves you wanting to hear more. This impeccably produced, performed and recorded disc presents a conspectus of his developing work over two decades, ever subject to experiment and expansion into new fields, ranging from Dance/Still, the chamber piece which first brought him to public notice, to the neatly titled His Master’s Voice, a 70th birthday tribute to his composition teacher, David Lumsdaine.
One could say that Walker is Robert Simpson’s natural successor in his command of large organic structure juxtaposing vitality with stasis in the true sense of both words. Like Roussel, following two study visits to India he has drawn inspiration, particularly rhythmically, from the culture of that continent, and overall one senses a French provenance (or as the composer himself puts it, a precession), matching the timeless strength of Varèse, Messiaen and, to my ears particularly, Koechlin. Remarkably Robin himself is not familiar with Koechlin, yet he aspires to the same fusion of energy and stillness; listen to the opening of the second part of Dance/Still – for a moment, it could almost be from Le livre de la jongle. This comes across again awesomely in the organ work, Dances with Chant and Chorales, filtered through the prism of childhood recollection as a York Minster chorister of the grandeur of the Minster organ’s Full Swell, and equally in the string quartet, I Thirst, with its clouds of natural harmonics.
A further organ piece, Invention, takes as its starting point a very different French idiom, that of the virtuoso tradition of Dupré et al, not to mention Walker’s first and much revered teacher at the Minster, Francis Jackson, whilst Halifax, written by contrast unusually and most effectively for the pianola, reveals an unexpected vein of Yorkshire humour beneath its celebration of a native heritage. Living as he now does just across the Pennines in Lancashire, it is no surprise that Walker has responded to another more recent virtuoso tradition, that established by the Manchester-based recorder player, John Turner, for whom he has written ten pieces; two of these, stunningly played, are included on this CD.
Readers of British Music volume 21 may recall Robin’s account of how he grew up on the very road in York in which William Baines had lived and died at the age of 23 some thirty-odd years before. The spiritual affinity between these two composers of different eras goes far deeper than that simple coincidence, and the extended piano work, At the Grave of William Baines, is a direct response to a pilgrimage made to the grave on the 100th anniversary of Baines’s birth. There is no superficial homage here replete with quotations – this is pure Robin Walker, albeit infused throughout with Baines’s spirit, and the emotion is intense, filled with frustration, and ultimately resignation, at the waste of creative instincts thwarted by ill health. It is played magnificently by Peter Lawson. David Fanning calls Walker’s half-hour symphonic poem The Stone Maker “one of the outstanding achievements in British music of the 1990s”, and, objectively setting aside my own Bainesian associations, I cannot but think that the same applies to this piano work, at least as significant in the context of 1999 as was the impact of Baines’s own Paradise Gardens exactly eighty years previously.
Where next? There are hopes of a recording of Walker’s 40-part madrigal, recently broadcast by the Tallis Scholars on BBC Radio 3, and meanwhile the world of opera beckons.
This review was written by Roger Carpenter for the September 2003 issue of The British Music Society, and can be found on-line at http://www.musicweb.uk.net/BMS/index.htm