Brian Elias performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on NMC

Brian Elias (b. 1948) spent his early life in Bombay before moving to London. Three of his later orchestral works – all performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under three different conductors – are presented on a recently released disc on the British based NMC label. NMC Recordings ‘is devoted to the promotion and preservation of Britian’s musical heritage through acclaimed recordings of music by the best of today’s composers, performed and recorded to the highest standards.’ This recording fulfils that aim with confidence. ‘The House that Jack Built’ (2001) – conducted by Sir Andrew Davis – displays Elias’ sense of drama in realizing the playground that is the scene for this work and skilful orchestration; there are references to nursery rhymes  through brief melodic fragments yet these are darkened through evocative timbres and orchestral colourings. This is an engaging recorded performance that highlights Elias’ control of structure and orchestral sound. Elias’ sound is distinctively modernist and British yet remains unique among others of his generation such as Anthony Payne and David Blake.

‘A Talisman’ (2004) – conducted by Martyn Brabbins with the bass Tim Mirfin – was a Cheltenham Festival commission. The text comes from an amulet inscribed with Hebraic text – a gift given to the composer’s mother. The text, as the composer writes in the beautifully presented liner notes, is not all translatable but for him ‘the amulet was, above all, an object of devotion and a heartfelt, passionate and most moving appeal for help.’ The work is certainly passionate and the vocal line is never obscured in the delicately scored opening; the long fluid vocal lines and declamatory moments are powerfully sung by Mirfin. The trumpet is prominent in this work and as Elias writes in the notes ‘as the text is so dominated by angel names, I have given the trumpet, an instrument very strongly associated with Gabriel and other angels, a prominent part’. The work is structured to reflect the amulet and as such is in two sections. This is a colourful performance which shows Elias’ characteristic skill at capturing real drama in his orchestral writing.

The CD has a more recent orchestral work ‘Doubles’ (2006) as the final work on the recording. This six-movement work – conducted by Jiri Belohlávek shows much more of a darker and vibrant approach to orchestration and its writing is as virtuosic as the performance. The title refers not only to the doubling of the first three movements by the last but refers also to the French term ‘double’ which referred to a variation in 18th century keyboard works. There are some beautiful sonorities in this work that demonstrates a penchant for solo brass and brass-ensemble timbres. The  consistency of the orchestral writing shows Elias has a soundworld that is unique and worthy of exploration. NMC’s release is worth exploring, as is other works by the composer.

Brian Elias/BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Jiri Belohlavek, Martyn Brabbins, Sir Andrew Davis, conductors /Tim Mirfin, bass / The House That Jack Built (NMC) – Buy on Amazon

Steven Berryman is a composer and teacher working and living in London. He is currently completing his PhD in Composition at Cardiff University (2011). Follow him on Twitter: @Steven_Berryman