Mark John McEncroe: Symphonic Suites 1 & 2 A Medieval Saga
Navona Records

More than anything else, two things in particular distinguish the music presented on Mark John McEncroe's Symphonic Suites 1 & 2: mood and melody. An interesting corollary is that the compositional style also largely sounds as if the twentieth century never happened; as far as stylistic influences go, movements such as serialism and minimalism are wholly absent, the Australian composer instead opting for a tonal style redolent of the nineteenth century and the Romantic tradition. Further to that, the thirteen parts presented on the two-CD set hew to a narrative that immediately aligns the work to the long-standing tradition of programmatic composition. For those so inclined, it's possible to conjure a story-line that connects the parts' titles to the instrumental content within them that alludes to events and characters.

All that being said, it's perhaps not entirely accurate to say the work has no connection to twentieth-century composition. A few moments during the first half, for instance, call to mind the music of Shostakovich, and parts of the second suite sound to these ears at least rather Copland-esque. Still, it's hard to deny that the suites feel more like nineteenth- than twentieth- or even twenty-first-century musical creations, especially when themes appear and then reappear in a manner that recalls Wagner.

Interestingly, though the material was recorded at The Hall of Culture in Ostrava, Czech Republic with Anthony Armoré conducting the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra, the suites were recorded at different times, the first in June 2015 and the second January 2016, rather than in a single marathon session; no major difference in sound arises between the parts, however. As with Natalie's Suite on the composer's previous Navona release, Dark Clouds In Life: Natalie's Suite & Other Works, McEncroe composed material which was then orchestrated by Mark Saliba. The latter unfailingly brings the former's music to life in vivid manner with the full range of orchestral resources used to serve the composer's vision, as “A Call For Peace,” to cite one example, demonstrates so beautifully. As serious as he no doubt is about the work, his wry choice of subtitle for its first part, “Just Another Medieval Tale,” suggests a playful sensibility intent on mitigating any solemnity such a choice of thematic material might impose.

In keeping with the title, McEncroe invests the writing in the first suite's opening part, “Entrance of the King,” with the pomp and circumstance of royal pageantry. Strings and horns work in tandem to evoke the stately majesty of a royal gathering, while orchestral percussiontimpani, snares, and cymbals, primarilyundergirds the material with a heaviness appropriate to the scene. The programmatic dimension remains in place thereafter, with cheeky rhythms convincingly conveying the colourful character of “Strutting Peacocks – Hangers on at Court,” for example, and subtle undercurrents of anxiety and anticipation audible within the second part's ponderous “The Night Before the Battle.”

Dynamic contrast is fundamental to the ninety-minute work, with robust, horns-heavy passages countered by woodwinds-driven sections of a quieter disposition. In terms of thematic material, tension between the economically challenged peasants and the wealthy royals drives the narrative of the first suite, whereas uprising and battle leading to the king's overthrow is the narrative thrust in the second. It hardly surprises, then, that the “Rising Discontent” and “Peasants Uprising” movements are marked by agitation, even if lyrical solo passages also appear. Though the story is set in medieval times, it's McEncroe's contention that, human nature being what it is, such events occur and then re-occur, history endlessly repeating itself; certainly there's no shortage of current evidence at hand to support the view.

If at an emotional level these Symphonic Suites don't reverberate quite as powerfully as the pieces on Dark Clouds In Life: Natalie's Suite & Other Works, it's not because the suites aren't reflective of the composer's style but more simply because of the ultra-personal character of the earlier release with its focus on the addiction struggles experienced by both McEncroe and his daughter. That dimension gave Dark Clouds In Life: Natalie's Suite & Other Works a visceral punch that's understandably not as strong on the new release.

That the suites currently are being developed into a ballet is fitting, given the work's strong narrative dimension; in that regard, McEncroe's Medieval Saga is reminiscent of an equally programmatic work such as Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. The dramatic sweep of the material also suggests that, were he so inclined, McEncroe could also make a successful stab at a side-career as a film soundtrack composer.

August 2017