Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Howard Skempton - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner NMC Roderick Williams

Another hit for NMC, specialists in modern British music: Howard Skempton The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with Roderick Williams and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Martyn Brabbins. This recording breaks new ground, its appeal reaching beyond  new-music circles.

Samuel Taylor  Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner intrigues because there's nothing else quite like it in English verse. Though its tone suggests ancient saga, its subject was unequivocally modern, in the sense that it caught the Zeitgeist of the Romantic era's fascination with the "Gothic". The Mariner breaks unspoken  rules and kills the Albatross. He and his shipmates are cursed, dying of thirst though there's "water, water everywhere" around them.  Two centuries later, the Rime still haunts. The Mariner's journey is a descent into the darker unconscious. Like the wedding guest, we "fear thee, ancient Mariner! I fear thy skinny hand!"

Howard Skempton's setting grows from the ballad so symbiotically it seems a "living thing". The vocal part reflects the strange obsessive nature of the text, which draws the listener in as if hypnotized.  The cadences rise upwards and down, at a pace which suggests a hard march. Coleridge began the poem while hiking on the moors.  Roderick Williams is a remarkable narrator, capturing the demented undercurrents in the verse. The lines run like a form of Sprechstimme, not recitation, yet not quite singing. This nightmare does not let a voice take full flight. Williams has a gift for natural, direct communication, without theatrical histrionics. He makes us sympathetic to the Mariner as a mortal man, which makes his fate all the more tragic.

The voice is accompanied at first only by the cello, legato drawn drone-like, as if it were some ancient, primitive instrument, or, indeed, a force of nature, like a sinister wail.  The cello carries the music for a while, until other voices join in in subtle combinations. The double bass quietly murmurs, suggesting sinister depths.  The viola leads the violins, an aptly quirky reverse of "natural order". When the ship is becalmed -- "As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean" -- the music hovers almost imperceptibly, as if listening out for a breeze. When things change, the piano and other players create a tumult.  When the visionary figures appear, the high violins at last take flight.  Coleridge  writes movement into his lines, which Skempton translates into abstract sound.  We listen, as if spellbound, to the strange, unworldly atmosphere.  Maurice and Sheila Millward, who suggested the setting and commissioned the piece, had insight. Skempton's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a remarkable work which needs to become part of the canon of British music.

Like an earworm, this music burrows into your subconciousness.  The cadences in the text haunt the music, reflecting, perhaps, the tides of the ocean, and the pulse of the human body.  You're mesmerized, absorbing the surreal atmosphere so it seems almost natural. Though you're hypnotized, almost against your will, you keep listening, fascinated by the detail and inventiveness concealed within the relentless pulse.  The wedding guest must have felt the same way! It's a tribute to Skempton's skill that his music adds greatly to the effect of the poetry, enhancing its effects without overwhelming its strange personality.

On this disc, Skempton's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is paired with Only the Sound Remains, taking as a starting point an idea from Edward Thomas's The Mill Water.   The mill is gone, and its sounds have fallen still.  Yet "In calm moonlight, Gloom infinite, The sound comes surging in upon the sense:".  Thus there's no need here for a voice part: the orchestral sounds evoke the sounds that once might have been heard, though the men and machines who made them are now long gone.  John Fallas's booklet notes for NMC explain further. "Skempton's pervasive but pervasively disguised/transformed nine-note scales are the secret code generating everything, from the spare, angular counterpoint into dramatic minor chords or sudden outbreaks of warm, major key consonance". The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in particular is a tour de force, not at all easy to perform, so treasure this recording. It will become a classic.

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