I confess to not knowing the name of Steve Elcock before Toccata Classics released this first volume of his orchestral works, none previously recorded. Elcock is English, born 1957, and studied music at school to A-level and also learnt the violin to Grade 7, but he is largely self-taught, and has been composing regularly since the age of fifteen, seemingly writing in solitary confinement (although he has a day job); shades of Havergal Brian.
Although the booklet is documented with extensive annotation, typical of Toccata Classics, I read only a few words of biography from the composer. Reacting to these three works is entirely personal then, as it would be anyway, but without any knowledge of what inspired their composition or what they may be about.
So, I started with the final work on the disc, the Festive Overture (1997), longer at eleven minutes than the title might suggest, and also more intricate. That said it is a very accessible and enjoyable piece, exuberant, witty, lyrical, colourful and uplifting. The opening fanfares might recall Panufnik’s Sinfonia sacra (his Symphony No.3), then a darting motif will perhaps put you in mind of William Mathias’s Dance Overture, and there is also a French quality in evidence, reminiscent of the hustle and bustle of Jacques Ibert’s music (his Ouverture de fête). These are but references, however, for there is an individual and likeable personality present, brought to the page with skill.
I turned next to the Symphony, Elcock’s No.3 (2005-10), in order to be chronological. It’s a three-movement affair lasting close on forty minutes, the final ‘Passacaglia’ being of a similar length to the first two movements combined. It too opens with brass, striding force, contrasted by glacial strings. This is music of elemental force and eerie atmosphere – Robert Simpson’s Fifth comes into the equation – and proves to be a gripping narrative, very potent and, one suspects, generated from entirely personal and deep feelings, an unstoppable juggernaut if an organised one. The second movement ‘Ostinato’ continues the agitated outbursts, an emotional exorcism one wonders, but then bassoons introduce a nursery-rhyme-like ditty that suggests something schizophrenic while continuing to be nightmarish. (If I have a doubt, maybe twenty minutes of high-octane relentlessness is too much, but there is no doubting the power and passion of it all.) The Finale brings some respite, if not in intensity, but overall this is a fascinating piece if though with a sameness of contrast and eruption that is too evident too soon and then continuing; there is much unrelieved despair present, quite a shock after the Festive Overture.
Choses renversées par le temps ou la destruction (2013) is also in three linked movements, “a dark symphonic triptych where fragile beauty is constantly at threat from the forces of ignorance” (I borrow from the label’s précis). There’s plenty of tension here too, and not tempered by a harpsichord doing its Baroque thing. Brooding and bizarre, you can cut the sinister ambience with a knife – this is the middle of night when ghouls appear and things go bump – and, once again, Elcock aims for the jugular in terms of disparity, but the differences become predictable, although I loved the mellifluous Finzi-like clarinet solo in ‘dernier homme debout’ until it too is dismissed under a welter of anguished fortissimo. This isn’t ‘difficult’ music but it does put the listener under considerable pressure. However, roll on Volume Two ... this first is well-recorded, certainly vivid and dynamic, excellently played and conducted with conviction.