What does the Concerto's subtitle 'The Solway Canal' refer to?
It’s actually a poem by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan [one of three sung by the choir in the Concerto]. They are strangely impressionistic texts, but very contemporary. They deal with a boat trip on the real Solway Canal and all the colours and mystic landscapes that one goes through.
Can you describe the piece for us?
When I spoke to Gavin Bryars for the first time about the piece, he said it would be the first concerto that's just one big slow movement. He's not interested in competition between the soloist and orchestra, but something different. The piano has the role of a tour guide, giving the themes in their bare, naked forms. It leads the audience through different colours and moods; the real impression of the landscape is done by the orchestra. The challenge for the pianist is to shape all the lines. It was so incredibly bare that when I first saw it I thought Bryars might want to add something in still! But it was intentional, and very unorthodox.
How does Bryars use the choir?
Bryars was very decided about this in the early stages. Vocal music has been one of his focuses for at least the past decade, and he wanted to stress the human quality of lyricism in this piece. In many 20th-century compositions, the piano is often used as a percussion instrument. I thought it'd be interesting for a composer to redefine the piano as a lyric instrument. The choir, singing three poems by Edwin Morgan, adds a human dimension and gives it a meaning people can relate to in a very direct way.
What was it like to make this recording at the second live performance of the Concerto?
It's completely live – there weren't any rehearsals recorded. This recording is, luckily, quite precise. There's very much the spirit and the excitement of it being only the second performance. Contemporary music is never standard repertoire for orchestra, so it’s always exciting, but this gives some extra feel to it.
In your blog about the performance, you write that 'the reactions of reviewers to this work have been very different and opposite'. Do you think that's the fate of all new pieces?
The funny thing is I always think there’s a clash in the tradition of modern music between critics and audiences. When audiences love things you often read very average or even negative reviews by critics in the newspapers, and the other way round, when the audience doesn’t react so warmly, you can read amazing things in the newspapers.
Bryars has such a distinctive voice, proclaiming his ideas about spirituality, consonance and lyricism, that I expected the reactions would be very opposite and extreme. The Guardian, for instance, wrote that it was like music for a TV shampoo advert! Critics can be very harsh, but the audience was very enthusiastic. It's always a bit shocking how people can react so violently toward music but funnily enough maybe it’s a good thing as the composer is making his point. You love the music or you hate it, but there's something specific to react to. For me this is a special piece.
Two works for solo piano complete the rest of the CD. How do they relate to the Concerto?
Ramble on Cortona is a work Bryars wrote for me during the same period as he was working on the Concerto. It's a set of variations, and you hear a rising phrase similar to one you hear in the Concerto. This is the first real piano piece he wrote, partly as a pre-study to the orchestral work.
The other piece on the disc is actually for harpsichord. After Handel's Vesper is more Baroque-like in its ornamentation, and generally the textures are a bit thinner than in his piano writing. In the later Ramble on Cortona it's much lusher, and although it has Baroque elements the piano is used as a lyrical instrument.
Interview by Rebecca Franks
Ralph van Raat's latest disc is out now (Naxos 8.572570)
Audio clip: Bryars: Piano Concerto (The Solway Canal)
YouTube: Gavin Bryars and Ralph van Raat discuss a piano concerto, filmed by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust