A Bridge of Dreams
01 February 2012
International Record Review
This is an intriguing disc of barely known and often very beautiful music by composers from Australasia, the United States and China.
It would be hard, I think, to imagine music more transparent than that of Lou Harrison' s Mass for Saint Ceciiia's Day (1983). Harrison's music was always influenced by non-European traditions (particularly the gamelan), as well as that of the Middle Ages, and this Mass is a captivating mixture of western chant style and oriental scales, with improvised instrumental contributions, here from Andrew Lawrence-King on harp, psaltery and hurdy-gurdy. It was commissioned, as Paul Hillier's fascinating and detailed notes inform us, by the Saint Cecilia Society for the Preservation and Restoration of Gregorian Chant and Peking Opera! The music's transparency and longbreathed quality give every opportunity for the voices of Ars Nova to shine in a very particular way, really as chamber soloists.
Sacred Kingfisher Psalms, written for Ars Nova by the Australian Ross Edwards (best known to British audiences for the 1988 Proms performance of his Piano Concerto, which The Times noted was 'the sort of piece that gives A major a bad name'), also conjoin the oriental and the occidental. Latin psalm texts are mixed with Aboriginal names for birds in an exotically colourful, virtuosic work that may well suggest an aural analogue to the darting of the kingfisher. Less obviously active, but still with much underlying movement, belying their title, are the Five Lullabies by the New Zealand composer and polymath Jack Body. These set invented languages and refer to the musical traditions of the Dong and Hani people of China. The composer notes that these 'vocal polyphonies ... certainly do not follow the "rules of good counterpoint" of Western music', but the beautifully blended sounds produced by Ars Nova certainly bring them here at least halfway back round the compass. This is intriguing, quietly original music that leaves a powerful impression.
For me, the superimposition in this context of Kevin Crossley-Holland's translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer and music for psaltery by the Chinese composer Liu Sola does not quite work, though I imagine it would have a rather different effect experienced live. The piece that gives the disc its name, As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, probably the best-known work by the Australian composer Ann Boyd, is given a stunning performance. This hauntingly beautiful, Japanese-influenced piece was actually a 1975 Radcliffe Musical Award commission, premiered by the John Alldis Singers. I remember falling under its spell on BBC Radio 3 some years later and that memory has stayed with me: it is a real pleasure to renew the music's acquaintance here. There is a performance available by the excellent Sydney Chamber Choir under Nicholas Routley on Tall Poppies TP127, recorded in 2000, which I have not heard, but it is very difficult indeed to imagine a more outstanding rendition (or one so clearly and lovingly recorded) as that by Ars Nova Copenhagen.