Gary Carpenter (born 1951 in London) has the knack of writing music of wide appeal without one ever thinking that it is contrived to be liked, or that he is second-guessing the audience; the result is music that is immediately engaging and satisfying yet with something saved for return listens. It also paints pictures; music for the imagination.
Fred and Ginger (2011, composed for the LSO and Daniel Harding) has a whiff of a 1930s’ dance sequence surreally re-imagined; it’s a pulsating if (to my mind) quite sinister score as the famous couple dance across a haunted ballroom, large orchestra in attendance.
SET, a Saxophone Concerto, is in five short movements and opens in punchy/jazzy style (leaning Stan Kenton’s way). It’s an appealing start and inspiration is maintained over what follows, whether intensely romantic or pulsating with purpsoe. Iain Ballamy is quite brilliant (so too Sophie Hastings on drum-kit) on his smoky-sounding tenor in this very enjoyable – foot-tapping and lyrically enticing (nightclub bluesy) – Concerto.
In Willie Stock (2016, commissioned to mark the centenary of World War One, and premiered by Oliver Knussen), at the opening one might sense a misty, grey-cloud morning, and the soldiers’ trepidation before “going over the top”. Then greater activity is apparent (the orchestration is similar to Berg’s awesome Opus 6) – one might imagine the troops advancing slowly, their boots caked in movement-sapping mud – as conflagration becomes horrific before settling to ghostly flecks of sound, including a distant trumpet fanfare and a long funereal roll on a side drum; it’s a haunting piece. In reality Willie Stock existed and was killed, aged twenty-five, at The Somme and was the composer’s uncle.
Dadaville (commissioned for BBC Proms 2015, the premiere led by Sakari Oramo) was inspired by Max Ernst’s “relief” that is housed in Tate Liverpool. As music Dadaville connects in its pictorial proposals and increasing activity, and also through colourful scoring and dynamic contrasts, and with musical growth being seamless; and towards the end do I hear the two notes that open Beethoven 9? I believe I do.
These are all impressive and rewarding pieces, heard in excellent performances and first-class sound, yet are overshadowed by Love’s Eternity (initiated in 1992 and since revised), a quite wonderful set of songs that owe in one way or another to Roberts Browning and Schumann and to Heinrich Heine, and that really touch the heart and send shivers of appreciation down the listener’s spine. If I were asked to ‘guess the composer’ I would have come up with Ned Rorem, André Previn and Leonard Bernstein as possibilities – there is something outgoingly American here (the final number, ‘Reunion’, had me thinking it would find a place in Bernstein’s Candide). Carpenter has produced something special here, deeply affecting settings (as he says, as much to do with Death as the cited Love) and in which Kathryn Rudge excels. Sometimes, listening to music can be so devastating on the emotions. There is beauty and solace here.