Toccata Classics Review

Robin WALKER (b. 1953)
Orchestral Music
Great Rock is Dead: Funeral March (2007) [9:46]
Odysseus on Ogygia: Prelude (2011) [5:27]
The Stone King: Symphonic Poem (2005) [11:18]
The Stone Maker: Symphonic Poem (1996) [31:42]
Novaya Rossiya Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker
rec. 2-5 September 2015, Studio 5, Russian State TV, Kultura, Moscow.

I have had a brief history with one of the four compositions on this new CD. I know that sounds like I’m confessing to an affair. In a way, I am. Back in 2011 at a concert in London, I met Robin Walker in the company of English composer David Matthews, about whose music I intended to write (and did in Surprised by Beauty). As a consequence, I got to hear a private recording that Walker possessed of the 2009 premiere of the The Stone King, performed by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by James MacMillan. As I subsequently discovered,this workindelibly impressed itself in my memory from my first exposure to it.

After long periods of not listening to it, I would detect a melody roaming through my head. All on its own, the music would slowly emerge from my unconscious or semiconscious state, and then slowly assert itself to the point where I would have to ask myself: what is that? I would then listen with closer attention and exclaim in recognition – The Stone King! I discovered that this work is so deeply embedded in my mind that it is always there at some level. I know this is a highly subjective judgment, but only extremely good music affects me in this way. How many compositions do that to you?

I became an advocate for this music. I wrote to the head of one of the largest classical music enterprises and asked him to listen to it. He did, and responded that it was, indeed, as I had promised, superb music. Next, he contacted his marketing people in Great Britain and was told that no one had heard of Walker, at least not to the extent that they could successfully market a CD of his music. In a vicious circle, the lack of Walker’s renown became the cause of his obscurity. Then to the rescue came Martin Anderson and Toccata Classics with this first all-Walker release. From it, I now have evidence that The Stone King was not a one-off, as the other works are of comparable quality.

Aside from a few comments, I am not going to analyze these four compositions separately because they are all of a piece; they share the same language and sound world, and even some thematic material. They develop differently, but offer aspects of the same thing. As Walker said in the notes, he “was undertaking something mythopoeic.” With his stone metaphors, he mythologizes some of the fundamental human experiences – the fathering of things, i.e. their creation against all odds (The Stone Maker); the nobility of the father, creator and sustainer (The Stone King); and the loss of the father (Great Rock Is Dead).

He states that these pieces “have been made out of a prevailing impulse to overcome…” And that is what we hear: the struggle to overcome and its achievement. Walker can sustain a musical span over an extraordinary length and build to a climax of stirring magnificence. Your heart will be in your mouth waiting for it. If you stay with this music, it will bring you to a level of exaltation. It achieves a Sibelian grandeur and conveys a deep sense of mystery.

Its orchestral language is inimitable. Massive brass yawps, chthonic guttural rumblings from the basses rend the earth, like sonic birth pangs, as if the earth, pregnant with some great revelation, is bringing forth a prodigious object, which slowly ascends, thrusts upward into the light and finally lets itself be seen in its full glory – a giant living stone monolith. This is visionary music of primordial utterances, breathtaking in its scope and visceral in its impact. It exposes vast horizons. It contains moments of delicacy but the tension never slackens nor is it ever less than monumental in stature. Sibelian swells roll through the music, which is draped with giant sheets of Nordic string sound. The music is infused with the spirit of Sibelius and sometimes even his sounds – especially so in Odysseus on Ogygia and The Stone King. It is therefore no surprise that Walker should say in the CD notes that, “I identify with Sibelius more than anybody else.” In Odysseus, the build to the first statement of the main theme and then its delivery are magnificent.

In The Stone King,orchestral balances are somewhat different from what I heard in the BBC recording. On the Toccata Classics, the ostinatos seem to be in front of the melodies instead of behind them. (It reminds me of the way Sergiu Celibidache interpreted Sibelius.) Of course, this could be merely a matter of the recording mix, rather than an interpretive stance. For sure, we hear a much greater wealth of orchestral detail than in the BBC version.

The Stone Maker is the single longest work at half an hour. It is also the earliest and the most roughly hewn in its wildness. The unleashing of what Walker calls “turbulent forces” in the first part of this composition is harrowing. In the violent tumult, it is as if the music is slamming up against itself. At other times, it sounds as if we are at Thor’s forge. It expresses a powerful sense of titanic struggle. Various leitmotifs and ostinatos seem to depict striking or chiseling stone. This is the only piece that I thought required recourse to the composer’s programme notes to understand exactly what is going on in its narrative. The others are musically self-explanatory.

David Fanning calls The Stone Maker “one of the outstanding achievements in British music of the 1990s.” Drop the appellation “British” and the temporal specificity, and I would not hesitate to claim the same anywhere for the other three compositions on this CD.

I don’t know how long conductor Alexander Walker (no relation) and the Novaya Rossiya Symphony Orchestra had to learn this challenging music, which they performed in the presence of the composer. It is so richly orchestrated and, in places, so tumultuous that it must take a feat of coordination to keep it together. But these forces do far more than that; they really lean into it with complete conviction and expressive power. The performances are thrilling. The Toccata Classics recording is stunning. The sheer physicality of the sound is close to overwhelming in its impact. You may need to put on your seat belt auditioning this.

Albeit within traditional tonal means, Walker is a man who has thought and heard things anew. He is a singular voice and has created a unique sound world. From listening to these four pieces, I have no doubt that I could easily identify a composition I had not heard before as his within a few bars.

How can anything this notable have been so long neglected? This CD release alone justifies the existence of Toccata Classics, which proves once again that it is indispensable. May there be many more Robin Walker releases.

Robert R. Reilly


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