April 10, 2017

  • Life's Dark Clouds: New Large-scale Work for Piano & Orchestra

     Dark Clouds in Life
    Helen Kennedy, piano
    Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra/Anthony Armore
    Navona Records 6082
    Total Time:  66:18
    Recording:   ***/****
    Performance: (*)**/****

    Large-scale works for piano and orchestra tend to be fairly rare occurrences but Australian composer Mark John McEncroe has created a rather massive work that comes out of his own struggles of addiction and depression finding expression in Natalie’s Suite: Three Faces of Addiction.  The album also includes a couple of solo piano works performed by Helen Kennedy, and a brief symphonic poem.

    To say that Natalie’s Suite is a massive work is an understatement.  Each of the movements explores different aspects of addiction and the first two have a playing time of about 20 minutes each.  The first movement, “Facing the Demons”, begins with an impassioned piano opening that moves into darker orchestral presentation of the thematic material.   This is big, cinematic-like romantically-tinged music with an almost Shore-like orchestral style.  The thematic idea moves through the orchestra with different instrumental colors and textures that unfold and continue the thoughts presented by the soloist.   The music is quite beautiful, often shifting into bits of melancholy as the first movement pushes and pulls forward from one episode to the next.  Interestingly, there are moments when things seem to provide a bit of light but the darkness and struggle soon reappears to pull the music back down into the darkness.  That will continue into the second movement, “Into the Dark Spaces”.  The music has a slightly more dramatic feel from that of the first movement but continues some of the same general style and lyrical writing of the first movement.  A touching moment for solo violin and piano creates a rather bittersweet shift that eventually has an ascending crescendo building to a climax that pulls back for solo wind lines ending in reflective quiet.  The movements are sort of stream of consciousness like a large-scale review of themes and scenes from a film.  The music is often quite gorgeously orchestrated and sort of reminded this listener of Arnold Bax’s Winter Legends.  The final movement, “Moving Into the Light” has a bit more of a lilt.  The piece as a whole features some nice thematic development.  The music could use some rhythmic variety and perhaps a few tempo shifts to add some contrast and energy.

    “Natalie’s Theme” follows and is essentially the music that served as a source for the large-scale orchestral work that precedes it.  Both it and the final solo work, “The Pendulum,” come from a previously release album of McEncroe’s music.  It is a languid, Impressionistic-like work with a Satie-esque quality.

    The two solo piano works bookend the orchestral symphonic poem, Echoes from a Haunted Past.  The piece feels like it is a shortened study in preparation for the opening suite.  There are some nice little harmonic arrival points that occur in between the long, lyrical line that has an almost folk-like quality.

    The Janacek Philharmonic does a great job performing these moody extended works with their long, thematic unfolding.  They lend the music a richness and commitment that communicates the emotional content well.  The overall balance works quite well.  McEncroe’s style is fairly traditional in harmony and orchestral approach with thematic lines that tend to unfold across wide expanses.  The pieces do tend to draw the listener in initially and maintain interest due to the warm ideas.