Friday, February 07, 2003


Album: 'Orchestral Works'
Composer: Elisabetta Brusa
Catalogue: Naxos 8.555267
Released: September 2002
No of CDs: 1

The problem for much neo-tonal concert music these days is not so much the concept (we seem, partially at least, to have transcended the fruitless ideological stand-off between tonality and serialism) but how to realise substantial and memorable compositions in a world of recorded sound where classics abound. Composers like James MacMillan succeed in reworking tonality not just by eschewing musical orthodoxies but by developing an approach which is recognisably their own - while aware simultaneously of the inheritance of 'classical' tradition and the opportunities afforded by the European (particularly) avant garde. But the more commitedly you write in received traditions the more demanding the task of saying something singular becomes.

Elisabetta Brusa, who works with consciously traditional orchestrations, is at the epicentre of this challenge. A good overview of her work is provided by the Naxos 'Orchestral Works' collection, which features six pieces. Her sound world is eclectic, emotional and full of light and shade. 'Firelights' (1992-93) calls to mind Stravinsky's 'Fireworks' and other compositions written for festive events over the centuries. 'Adagio' (1996) is inspired, says the composer, by Mahler, Rodrigo, Barber and Albinoni. It also has lingering echoes of a more brooding Lutaslawski. 'Wedding Song' (1997) is a celebratory but formal ode. 'Requiescat' (1994), dedicated to Brusa's late London teacher and guide, Hans Keller is a musical invocation ending in a chorale Amen.

The two concluding works are the timbrely rich 'Suite Grotesque' (in four short movements) from 1986, which inevitably calls to mind Berlioz, and 'Favole' (Fable) from 1982-3. The latter is a seven-part suite based on phantasmagorical folk stories and aimed, in a somewhat old fashioned way, at 'young people', a la Prokofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf'.

Brusa is a composer of some imagination. She has significant technical resources and is able to blend a variety of lucid melodic approaches with contrapuntalism, a good feel for colour, dynamics and texture, and occasional brushes of dissonance. There is a even a faint hint of the blues somewhere in the midst of 'Favole'. But the pull of the nineteenth century is very strong indeed. And no matter how brimming full of ideas this music is it still feels uncomfortably familiar. It is virtually impossible not to play the 'sounds like...' game, and I wonder how many re-visits it would seriously pay. The mannered pleasantness gets, well, just too ‘pleasant’.

Still, if a certain kind of traditional tonality is your thing you will find a home here. The companion volume (Naxos 8.555266) contains another five works, 'Florestan', 'Messidor', 'La Triade', 'Nittemero Symphony' and 'Fanfare'. Intriguing, but I think I'll pass...

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