McNeff: Sinfonia

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Stephen McNeff
LABELS: Dutton Epoch
ALBUM TITLE: McNeff: Sinfonia
WORKS: Sinfonia; Heiligenstadt; Weathers; Secret Destinations
PERFORMER: Bournemouth Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Dominic Wheeler
CATALOGUE NO: CDLX7301

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You have to warm to a composer who can mark the first movement of a substantial Sinfonia ‘Quietly and oddly’. In fact the oddity in this colourful and beguiling work is far from being of the attention-grabbing kind. It’s more a case of gently quirky unpredictability, offset by appealing tunefulness. Some listeners may be reminded of Malcolm Arnold, especially in the fleeting echoes of pop-lyricism.

Darker seriousness enters very effectively in Heiligenstadt, in which fragments of Beethoven’s songs blur and blend uneasily in a depiction of Beethoven’s own struggle to come to terms with growing deafness and depression. Both of these works are well structured, though understanding of the whole gains from repeated hearings. I found the larger sense of the three-movement Secret Destinations, a memorial tribute to the poet Charles Causley, harder to grasp – though the title should have prepared me for that.

Performances are generally confident, energetic and expressive. But in the choral Hardy settings, Weathers, the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus sound as though they’re only just on top of the notes – the sense of line is a bit weak. Or perhaps it would have been better if McNeff had given some of the more elaborate melodic lines to solo voices? The recordings are excellent.

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Stephen Johnson