Album review: Terrific Raymond Yiu portrait disc with the BBC Symphony joined by Andrew Watts and Roderick Williams

Although it is only February, I find it safe to say that Raymond Yiu’s new portrait album on Delphian Records, The World Was Once All Miracle, will be a strong candidate in the contest for the recording of the year, as far as contemporary music releases are concerned.

The new disc is a generous triple-bill, bringing together invigorating BBC Symphony Orchestra performances of some of Yiu’s most compelling 2010s scores for a large orchestra. Two of the works here feature substantial parts for solo voice, dazzlingly sung by baritone Roderick Williams and countertenor Andrew Watts.

All three works are conceived as brilliant fusions of diverse musical strata into genuinely original musical language. Both engaging and challenging, the new album is one of those disc that get better and better upon each listen, as any good music does. References to tradition are plenty and wide, but never self-indulgent.

Over the past hundred years or so, symphonic portraits of urban life have developed into an intriguing subset of the tales from our industrialist (and post-industrialist) milieus and mindsets.

Sir Edward Elgar’s cinematic portrayal of Edwardian London in Cockaigne (In London Town), Op. 40 (1900-01), Ralph Vaughan Williams’s captivatingly vivid narrative of A London Symphony (1911-13), George Gershwin’s iconic twenties soundscape An American in Paris (1928), Steve Reich’s New York documentary City Life (1994-95) and John Adams’s epic symphony-but-name City Noir (2009) all have turned iconic cityscapes, both physical and metaphysical, into splendid sonic imagery.

Yiu’s eighteen-minute sonic canvas, The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured (2012), aptly subtitled symphonic game for orchestra, is a brilliant new member to the club, with its spellbinding musical dramaturgy and sheer invention for orchestral sonorities. The piece’s title comes from an eighteenth-century pamphlet by the Scottish-born, London-based bookseller and publisher Alexander Cruden’s, written in protest to his asylum treatments. 

Checkered as the city itself, The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured is a journey through a cosmos of musical ecosystems that converse, overlap, merge and collide throughout its sonic arch, yielding to a cascade of musical delights and surprises.

Bet it the rush-hour buzz of orchestral (hyper)activity or the thrilled anticipation of a nocturnal hue, woven with divisi strings and percussion, including the most gorgeous tuned gongs, The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured is an orchestral love-affair par excellence.

As the score unfolds, Elgarian references and jazz-tinged sonorities are joined into a symphonic spectacular. The music feasts on rhythms and sonorities, making extraordinary use of the full scope of an orchestra.

Recorded in conjunction with the concert performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson on 15 May 2019 at the Barbican, The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured is given a tremendous outing here, one well served by the focused engineering and post-production.

Ever at home with contemporary music, the musicians of the BBC SO plunge into the symphonic maze of Yiu’s score with astounding craft and conviction, resulting in the most inspired take imaginable. With Robertson at the helm, the music is formidably layered and admirably balanced, without compromising the city heat inherent in the fabric.

In terms of both the music and the performance, one couldn’t possibly imagine a better opening track than The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured.

In similar vein, the album’s closing piece, Symphony (2014-15) for countertenor and orchestra, is a well-chosen one, regarding to both the overall dramaturgy of the disc as well as the gravitational pull of the score itself.

The concept of a song-symphony, as devised by Gustav Mahler, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich, to name but a few prominent examples, is endlessly fascinating, yet one not without challenges. At first glance, the essential attributes of a song and a symphony may appear as polar opposites; One embraces brevity and fine detail, whereas the other harks towards extended statements and gradual development.

Yet, it is precisely this ambivalence that makes the whole idea of a song-symphony worthwhile.

Yiu’s Symphony is cast in five movements, four of them setting texts by Walt Whitman, Constantine P. Cavafy, Thom Gunn and John Donne. The second movement is written for the orchestra alone and the last two movements are bridged together by an instrumental interlude.

Symphony is set in motion by the soloist uttering the first syllables from Whitman’s Song of Myself, imitated by percussion. The procedure of fusing the basic ingredients of words and music echoes the opening of Luciano Berio’s Circles (1960). As a motto, the Symphony is thus given a spot-on opening.

As reflected by Whitman’s text, the opening movement is both about statement and introspection, clad in marvellous music. The soaring vocal line and the elaborate orchestral part constitute a compelling sonic whole, resolving into the instrumental meditation of the second movement.

Coming in the heels of a series of transcending orchestral wanderings, the solo voice returns in the nocturne-of-a-slow-movement. Filled with sensuous longing, the setting of Come Back by Cavafy results in a mist-hued tableau for voice and orchestra, subtly enthralling the listener.

Setting a text derived from Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats (1992), the fourth movement is conceived as another night-time scene, with its funky seventies lyricism worthy of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (1971),contrasting the ethereal nocturne of the previous movement. A scene reflecting the AIDS and drug-induced fantasies and nightmares of the era, the movement merges the exalted and the profane with its powerfully evocative vocal line and riveting orchestral setting.

Following a short orchestral interlude, Symphony closes with a sublime setting of Donne’s The Anniversarie. On the final pages of the fifth movement, the soloist repeated musings on the word ’everlasting’, escorted by delicate orchestral scoring, pays homage to Mahler’s similar meditation on the word ’Ewig’ in Das Lied von der Erde.

As the last bars of Symphony fade into silence, one but marvels the luminous journey transpired in music. Recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall, the performance by countertenor Andrew Watts, the BBC SO and Edward Gardner is a fine one indeed. Awash with expressive detail, the orchestral textures are laid out in extraordinary brilliance and colour by the BBC Symphony, with Gardner’s delicate balancing and apt pacing.

Andrew Watt’s mastery over the terrific solo part is simply stunning. The transitions from one idiom to another come off ever in a natural, quasi-improvisatory manner, resulting in a gripping musical narrative, clad in myriad vocal (and emotional) detail.

Bookended by The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured and Symphony, the recording of the title piece, The World Was Once All Miracle (2016-17) comes from its fabulous Barbican performance back in the spring of 2018, with baritone Roderick Williams as soloist and Sir Andrew Davis conducting the BBC SO.

Written for commemorating the centenary of Anthony Burgess, the six-movement score takes its motto from Burgess’s saga novel on the twentieth century, Earthly Powers (1980): ”The world was once all miracle. Then everything started to be explained. Everything will be explained in time. It’s just a matter of waiting.”

Although best-known as a writer, Burgess was also a (mostly) self-taught composer, with a surprisingly expansive catalogue of works, ranging from one-page sketches to his thirty-minute Symphony in C, written in 1975.

In the course of the six movements of The World Was Once All Miracle,fragments from six poems by Burgess give rise to quasi-symphonic entity. The stage is set in the brief, provocative opening movement, building up to a dazzling fantasy for voice and orchestra.

Two slow movements ensue, constituting a twofold nocturne, with fantastic dreamscapes and nightmares interwoven into one, ever-expanding realm of imagination. These are followed by a splendid scherzo, a tour-de-force for the soloist and the orchestra, with references to Debussy, Beethoven and Purcell found in the fabric, among others.

The fifth movement takes its cue from one of Burgess’s sketches, containing a twelve-tone row. An ominous reflection of the carnage of the two world wars, the soloist and the orchestra evoke dark-hued images of times past, present and the future.

The sombre mood of the fifth movement is contrasted by the jazzy finale, carrying the music off into a night-club sundown in an aptly surreal manner.

Superbly sung by Williams, the intriguing vocal lines of The World Was Once All Miracle resound ever so astoundingly with the top-shape BBC SO under Davis. Perhaps more sublime in its contrasts than the two other works recorded here, Yiu’s Burgess tribute is definitely one benefiting from repeated listens. Upon each iteration of the engaging performance, the wealth of invention and art put into the score keeps on amazing the listener again and again. 

An album of delights, The World Was Once All Miracle presents us with one of the most imaginative and talented composers of our time, with impeccable craft and gorgeous visions. Well-devised by the Delphian Records team, from sound engineering to album presentation and liner notes, this is a terrific disc that should find its way to each and every contemporary music lover’s collections.  

BBC Symphony Orchestra

David Robertson, conductor

Edward Gardner, conductor

Sir Andrew Davis, conductor

Andrew Watts, countertenor

Roderick Williams, baritone

Raymond Yiu: The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured (2012) – Symphonic game for orchestra

Raymond Yiu: The World Was Once All Miracle (2016-17) for baritone and orchestra

Raymond Yui: Symphony (2014-15) for countertenor and orchestra

Recorded at the Barbican Hall in April 2018 (The World Was Once All Miracle) and May 2019 (The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured) and at the Royal Albert Hall in August 2015 (Symphony)

Delphian Records DCD34225 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio  

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