Veni, Veni, Emmanuel
by Ray Chowkwanyun
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CD: Catalyst 9026-61916-2
James MacMillan: Composer
Evelyn Glennie: Percussion
Jukka-Pekka Saraste: Conductor
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Engineer: Mike Ross-Trevor
The audiophile standard for percussion albums has long been Music for Bang, Baaroom and Harp (Black Dog LSP-1866).
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel is a modern day contender with the old dog for the title of best percussion album. I've heard some outstanding percussionists: Billy
Cobham, Airto, Bill Summers, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and Zakir Hussein. None of them has quite the same breathtaking speed of attack as the
percussionist on this album, the Scotswoman Evelyn Glennie. Must be in the wrists. (Editor?)
(Editor and longtime percussionist Steve sez it is in the wrist but also
in finer movement as it works the spring-like motion of the sticks/mallets).
The other joy of Veni, Veni, Emmanuel is that it is a genuinely worthwhile piece of music whereas Bang, Baaroom and Harp is a collection of numbers that only an audiophile could love. I mean
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel has actual ebb and flow and structure. While the focus is clearly on percussion, it is woven seamlessly into the larger picture of the rest of the orchestra. The composer is James
MacMillan, a young whippersnapper born in 1959. There are elements of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Ravel here but he speaks with his own distinct voice to summon forth order out of the initial (bracing) clanging crashing dissonant morass.
Indeed, I opens with a brass fanfare and clashing dissonances, overlaid with Glennie's four armed Shiva act on the drums. You'll find it hard to believe there's only one percussionist at work when you hear the carpet of sounds she lays down with her arsenal of instruments, some of her own manufacture. The percussion part is all written down - somehow. Especially on some of the homebrew instruments, I can't imagine how this is done, but I do know she plays from the sheet music. It's not something that's made up on the spot even though the performance has a wonderfully fresh improvisatory feeling.
After the freneticism of I, II is slower and gentler, though still dissonant. With III, we move into high gear with a nervously insistent
chunka, chunka, chunka beat reminiscent of the Rite of Spring. The music gels more at this point and becomes more
focussed, jumping and swooping from climax to climax, each one topped by Glennie's superfast cymbals. Did I mention she has an attack that has to be heard to be believed?
IV is a real showcase for the brass and woodwinds. Some lovely marimba work leads to the contemplative V: plaintive wailing violins, echoed later by the woodwinds, give the listener a well-earned break from the preceding onslaught of modernism. With VI and VII, the onslaught resumes and we're back to the
chunka, chunka rhythms of III. Brass fanfares, piping woodwinds and pinpoint percussion engage in tense, heated exchanges. The piece finishes with some savage drums in VIII that are tamed by the low brass, finally ending with soft tinkling chimes and the triumphant peal of bells.
The sonics? One could easily forget the sonics, while submerged in the enjoyment of this music. Nevertheless this album is clearly in the top drawer of what can be expected from modern recordings but no way is it close to beating the legendarily spacious doggie sound of Bang, Baaroom and Harp. Still, check out the tympani whacks in the first minute. You can really hear the skin on the drums and there's a terrific bass drum whack at 1'20" into II. The beginning of IV has deliciously low growling strings and brass. Or the drum barrage at the two minute mark in VII. Or the chimes and bells that end VIII. Brass are generally rendered with weight. The strings sound a bit wiry. A fairly aggressive bell cut at 2 Khz with the Massivo EQ works wonders but don't expect the string section of the Vienna Philharmonic.
Two recording venues were used for this album with Veni, Veni, Emmanuel recorded in one and the rest of the album in the other. The string tone sounds considerably warmer (and in my book, better) on the rest of the album - kudos to engineer Ross-Trevor for capturing the distinct sound of each hall. It's too bad they couldn't have recorded the whole album in this second hall because it clearly had the superior acoustics.
Oh yeah, lots of pinpoint imaging effects for those who like that sort of thing. Personally, tonal quality and dynamics are my bag.
While Veni, Veni, Emmanuel is undoubtedly the money track, the rest of the CD contains some interesting chamber pieces.
After the Tryst is a gentle, yet edgy duet between the composer's piano and the soaring emotive violin of Ruth Crouch. "… as others see us …" runs the gamut from the medieval sounding Henry VIII with its low woodwind sonorities and militaristic rat a tat tat drums (Neil Foster replacing Glennie on percussion) to the highly experimental Gordon and Wordsworth with its hesitant start and stop style. Thomas Eliot finds the composer in a jazzy Gershwin like mood.
Three Dawn Rituals was originally composed for Balinese Gamelan and later transcribed for western instruments in hopes of finding a wider audience. It doesn't sound like the usual Gamelan despite the presence of vibes. Very minimalist and twitchy, I'd say. However, I'm sure the musicians of that island paradise would approve of the search for new styles.
Untold is a soft rumination for brass and woodwinds with fluttering flutes and gentle brass fanfares. It has a bubbling, optimistic mood without becoming all sappy. Music to see the sunrise by. A nice way to end the album and send the punters home happy after the intensity that has gone before.
Unfortunately this CD appears to have been deleted but is still available from the Glennie website
100 = Furtwängler's wartime Ninth
30 = Offspring
0 = Muzak)
Sound Quality: 80
(Sound Quality scale:
100 = Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein
95 = Shaded Dog Pictures or Scheherezade
20 = Da Boss in Staples Center (cavernous concrete pit, home to the Lakers)
0 = Muzak in elevator)