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CD Review

Gavin Bryars

CBC Records 5223

I have heard it said that a spirit enters…

  • I have heard it said that a spirit enters
  • Planet Earth
  • The Apple
  • Violin Concerto "The Bulls of Bashan"
  • The Porazzi Fragment
  • By the Vaar
Holly Cole, vocalist
Gavin Bryars, double bass
Gwen Hoebig, violin
CBC Radio Orchestra/Owen Underhill
CBC Records SMCD5223 DDD 73:38
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Gavin Bryars's booklet notes to this CD begin with the words, "On being almost Canadian…," an allusion to his frequent visits to the Great White North in the 1990s. Most of the music on this CD was either written in Canada or premièred there. Bryars even met his wife Anya in British Columbia in 1998.

This CD is an important addition to the Bryars discography. I think only By the Vaar has been recorded before. All of the music is substantial, and typical of the composer in being more dependent on atmosphere than on contrast. Bryars's music is seldom fast and seldom loud, yet it captures one's attention with its dark, muted, and ever-shifting beauty.

Holly Cole is a jazz vocalist possessed of a voice as innocent, yet as deep and as clear, as a pool in a forgotten Canadian forest. Bryars wrote the three songs that open this CD for her between 1998 and 2002, choosing texts by Canadian authors. This is evocative stuff – simple, yet emotionally resonant. No doubt Cole's jazz background helps her to make a big impact out of tiny nuances.

Rather than explain why the Violin Concerto (2000) is subtitled "The Bulls of Bashan," I'll settle for saying the subtitle has something to do with string mutes. Again, this is a predominantly slow and lyrical work, and although it is a concerto, the soloist's role is not ostentatious. As in a Baroque concerto, she leads from within. Quotations and near-quotations from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons lend the concerto a dreamlike, déjà vu quality – it is like seeing the face of a loved one through an opaque window.

The Porazzi Fragment also alludes to the work of an older composer – this time, Richard Wagner. In Palermo, the Piazza dei Porazzi is where Wagner composed what might have been, in the words of his wife Cosima, his "last musical thoughts." These thoughts are a 13-bar melodic fragment, begun in the late 1850s, but not completed until 1882. Bryars's evident fascination with this scrap from Wagner's workbench makes for another moving work; it is only as the 13-minute work draws to an end that Bryars "uncovers" Wagner's fragment, like a mortician tenderly lifting the sheet from a corpse.

By the Vaar is scored for double bass, strings, bass clarinet, and percussion. A long, contemplative work, Bryars wrote it for Charlie Haden, the jazz bassist whose playing Bryars has admired since he was very young. Haden recorded it in 1995; here, it is played by Bryars himself, who was a professional bassist long before he made his name as a composer. As the work contains improvisational passages, no two performances are likely to be identical, and so Bryars's excellent performance takes nothing away from Haden's, and vice versa.

Recorded in July 2002, apparently in the composer's presence, these performances feel definitive and sound absolutely gorgeous; Bryars is nothing if not restrained, but his music is sensuous nonetheless. The engineering is excellent, although I think Bryars's bass is too prominent in By the Vaar.

Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle

Trumpet