In misquoting the opening sentence of Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, it appears that not a day passes over the Earth that David Hackbridge Johnson is not writing music, an observation prompted by the opus numbers of the three works recorded here. Johnson (born 1963) has waited some time for his music to reach an audience. Considering the reception accorded his Ninth Symphony (link below), it has been worth it – a view fully reinforced by this second release.
It has been worth it because of what Johnson’s music conveys to the attentive listener. It is gorgeously rich, fastidious and powerful: everything within it is perfectly imagined. It is truly remarkable that so refined an ear, occasionally exhibiting influences from composers who are more interested in ‘texture’ than in living musical thinking, should yet be capable of creating works with massive and original structures, consistently composing without any immediate prospect of performance and driven by a natural inner creative urge that will not be gainsaid. When Johnson is at his best – as in the three recorded Symphonies – he achieves so much more than those simplistic composers.
The Symphonies recorded to date – 9, 10 and 13 – are outstanding works of art. In parts of the Tenth and Thirteenth (composed respectively in 2013 and 2017) we encounter passages of great cumulative strength which no other living composer in my experience can approach. There are a number of subtle and refined passages in both Symphonies which these magnificently committed performances reveal as inevitable musical sequences. But the essential characteristic which runs throughout both works is a genuine creative spontaneity, carrying the listener forward at all times.
In a phrase, we want to know what is going to happen next – not at all a modern example of the “too-easy style in which anything can happen” (as Basil Lam so described C. P. E. Bach’s music), but an engrossing argument which logically illuminates our expectations – and when ‘what happens next’ occurs, we find our expectations are not predictably met – far from it – for that which does happen is logical and fulfilling; fine musical art on large canvases.
The Tenth Symphony is deeply and inherently tragic in expression but never morbid or morose, confronting that which it chooses to face as it cleaves its way towards emotional resignation (i.e., acceptance) – far removed from what a lesser composer would offer as easy salubriousness, never for one moment suggesting easy or shallow optimism. The titles of the movements – Preludio tragico, Marcia funèbre, Scherzo spettrale, Epilogue (Mesto) – give an idea of the work’s emotional content, and Johnson rises to the considerable challenge he has set himself: the Scherzo, in particular, is the product of a fabulous creative imagination. Hackbridge Johnson’s experience as an orchestral player underpins his orchestration, at times searingly virtuosic, but is always practical and placed at the service of the music.
The Thirteenth Symphony is in three movements, and notwithstanding its inherent seriousness, music such as this is a genuine tonic in these uncertain times. The music is virtuosic, but not brilliant in any superficial sense. The momentum is fast purely because of the emotional and expressive nature of the ideas and their constant development. Johnson, a master of his chosen temporal forms, does not shun a high degree of complexity yet is not afraid of passing touches of the clearest tonality, occasionally clothed in harmonic thinking of an underlying refreshing diatonicism, qualities which at all times reflect the emotional narrative threads inherent in the music. The utter originality of the closing pages drew my astonished admiration.
We could do with a lot more music like this. This composer’s natural vitality (without shunning tragic aspects, which he faces fearlessly) gives it real individuality. Motet No.6 (2015) is more elliptical; I should not be surprised to learn that it was written straight off at one sitting. The composer’s concentration is impressive; after several hearings the work comes across as a kind of twenty-first-century equivalent of Sibelius’s The Bard – with Johnson giving us a window on his ever-vital and fluid muse. Its avowed religious background may give some notion of the original inspiration, but in today’s ungodly flight from such subjectivism, the composer risks incomprehensible disdain from many. In which case, my advice is to listen to the music qua music, whereby the concentration endemic in the juxtaposed events reveals another expressive facet of this impressive composer.
The recording quality and presentation of this release are excellent. I understand a third volume of Johnson’s orchestral music is underway. I, for one (amongst many, I hope), cannot wait.