Artist Led, Creatively Driven

Geoffrey Gordon, composer

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Philharmonia Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins, conductor

Release Date: May 17th

ORC100305 - Mythologies and Mad Songs

Geoffrey Gordon (b.1968)

1. PUCK – fleeing from the dawn

Mad Song (for English horn and orchestra)
2. I The wild winds weep, And the night is a-cold…
3. II Lo! to the vault Of paved heaven…
4. III Like a fiend in a cloud With howling woe…
Dimitri Mestdag, English horn

5. ICE – aut inveniam viam aut faciam

Prometheus (for bass clarinet and orchestra, after Kafka)*
6. According to the first…
7. According to the second…
8. According to the third…
9. According to the fourth…
Laurent Ben Slimane, bass clarinet

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Philharmonia Orchestra*
Martyn Brabbins, conductor
Dimitri Mestdag, English horn
Laurent Ben Slimane, bass clarinet

Mythologies and Mad Songs is the culmination of an intense three year burst of creativity during which I wrote all of the works on this disc. It represents, in that sense, a kind of sonic document – a tangible record of my love of the orchestra and the universe of sound and color it provides, as well as a snapshot of some of the things that inspire me, from Shakespeare, Blake and Kafka (and the mythology and magic of their works) to the extraordinary longing for exploration deeply embedded in the human spirit. I remember the first time I saw David Scott’s Puck Fleeing from the Dawn – a work from 1837 now held in the National Galleries of Scotland. It spoke directly to my love of Shakespeare and that play, but also to the fascinating concept of what might have happened after the curtain came down. Dreamlike. Yet also bursting with energy. The music came quickly (and it isn’t always so obliging….).
Mad Song, the second work recorded here with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, has a similar vibe but a very different source of inspiration. Words not images. But images fashioned from words. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience lit my love of poetry in college. I have been looking for a way to write a Blake-inspired work ever since. And this is it. The text of this Mad Song (included below) speaks for itself – riveting, harrowing, full of passion and madness. Who wouldn’t want to score that? Seize my brain, indeed.
The longest work on this disc is inspired by the shortest text – Kafka’s treatment of the Prometheus legend. I loved his concise retelling of this story from the moment I saw it. Each of the four lines of Kafka’s poetry draws out a movement of this work (with a coda expressing the lingering and inexplicable mass of rock that remained) for bass clarinet and orchestra premiered by the Philharmonia at Royal Festival Hall. It was a magical night for me and in many ways ignited the period of creativity captured on this disc.
The outlier may appear to be ICE – aut inveniam viam aut faciam (I shall make a way or find a way). After all, it isn’t inspired by a work of art – or is it? Think of it as a response to the art of exploration. The extraordinary events surrounding the exploration of Earth’s poles – and the poles themselves, at once magical and supremely unforgiving – have always fascinated me. There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance inherent in the almost frantic race to reach such stoically unchanging destinations. It is also not lost on me that one of the scores I fell in love with at an early age was Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica – a score that somehow sounded cold. I hope mine does, too.
What a privilege it has been to work with Martyn Brabbins, these soloists and these world class orchestras. A special thanks to everyone at the BBC and BBC Radio 3 for their support of this project. I am deeply honoured to share the results with you now.
Geoffrey Gordon, March 2024

PUCK – fleeing from the dawn (for orchestra) (2017)
Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow, is introduced in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the “shrewd and knavish sprite” and “that merry wanderer of the night”, and is the figure in English mythology who personifies the wise and mischievous elf. Magical and charming, the knavery and frolic of Puck is imagined in this exhilarating orchestral tone poem inspired by the 1837 Romantic oil painting by David Scott (1806-1849), as featured on the cover, which fancies an imagined scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that might follow the curtain fall: in the last scene, Puck enters the palace of Theseus after all the mortals have retired for the night and says:
“And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic.”
Emmanuele Bernier of Bachtrack, called PUCK – fleeing from the dawn, “An impressive work, expertly orchestrated and with apocalyptic accents….” on the occasion of its North American premiere.

Mad Song (for English horn and orchestra) (2020)
An early work of English poet, painter, engraver and visionary William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827), Mad Song was probably first published in Poetical Sketches, 1783, and remains one of his best known and most highly regarded poems. The text expresses the deep anguish and spiritual delirium which saturates the Romantic soul. Blake’s poet is tormented by the daylight of a newly dawning day (light doth seize my brain With frantic pain) in a world of grotesquely personified nature (the wild night weeps, the mad winds roar, the earth scorns, clouds are fiends…). And it is from this tormented vision that the music of this Mad Song emerges. The three stanzas correspond to the three movements of Gordon’s highly expressive and virtuosic (for the soloist and the orchestra) work. Mad Song was commissioned and premiered by the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, with soloist Dimitri Mestdag and conductor Eduardo Strausser – Queen Elisabeth Hall, Antwerp, Belgium, 17 and 18 November 2022.
Mad Song by William Blake
The wild winds weep,
And the night is a-cold;
Come hither, Sleep,
And my griefs infold:
But lo! the morning peeps
Over the eastern steeps,
And the rustling birds of dawn
The earth do scorn.
Lo! to the vault
Of paved heaven,
With sorrow fraught
My notes are driven:
They strike the ear of night,
Make weep the eyes of day;
They make mad the roaring winds,
And with tempests play.
Like a fiend in a cloud
With howling woe,
After night I do croud,
And with night will go;
I turn my back to the east,
From whence comforts have increas’d;
For light doth seize my brain
With frantic pain.

ICE – aut inveniam viam aut faciam (for orchestra) (2019)
“Aut inveniam viam aut faciam” – I shall find a way or make a way. This quote is etched into the legacy of explorer Robert Perry, credited with the first successful journey to the North Pole in 1909. A harrowing expedition – the last of a remarkable eight attempts – Perry’s trek to the frozen pinnacle of the Arctic North (an adventure he survived, despite monumental odds against that outcome), links him inextricably – in this work as well as in the history of exploration – with another explorer, Ernest Shackleton, and a journey to the Antarctic begun two years before, in 1907. Although Shackelton, by all accounts, came up just 97 miles short of his destination in 1909 – a point reached two years later by Roald Amundsen – his (and Perry’s) extraordinary spirit of exploration is nevertheless inspirational and is the source of inspiration for this music.
“We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders.
We had reached the naked soul of man.”
Ernest Shackleton, Explorer (1874-1922)

Prometheus (for bass clarinet and orchestra, after Kafka) (2018) is inspired by the short story by Franz Kafka, based on the Greek legend:
There are four legends concerning Prometheus:
I. According to the first, he was clamped to a rock in the Caucasus for betraying the secrets of the gods to men, and the gods sent eagles to feed on his liver, which was perpetually renewed.
II. According to the second, Prometheus, goaded by the pain of the tearing beaks, pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock until he became one with it.
III. According to the third, his treachery was forgotten in the course of thousands of years, the gods forgotten, the eagles, he himself forgotten.
IV. According to the fourth, every one grew weary of the meaningless affair. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.
There remained the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable. Franz Kafka (1917)
This is the recording of the premiere of Prometheus, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra, from Royal Festival Hall, London, with conductor Martyn Brabbins and soloist Laurent Ben Slimane, recorded 19 January 2019. This work was co-commissioned by the Philharmonia, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra. Terry Blain of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, reviewing the US premiere, called the work “striking” and “expressive” – imbuing “an element of dignity on the suffering Prometheus, tracking his gradual obliteration from public memory through a twisting solo cadenza to the unsettling memory-wipe of the piece’s fade-to-black conclusion.”

Geoffrey Gordon

British/American composer Geoffrey Gordon’s contributions to the contemporary music repertoire have been and continue to be exceptional. Intense and luxuriant harmony, passionate melody and superb handling of instrumentation and sonic textures defines his music. His work has been called “darkly seductive” (New York Times), “complex, richly-satisfying” (BBC Music Magazine), “luminous and astringent by turns” (Gramophone), “iridescent and fierce” (The Chicago Tribune), “taut and exhilarating” (Classical Ear), “gripping” (Bachtrack) and “remarkable” (Fanfare). Gramophone points out, “Geoffrey Gordon has built up a substantial and wide-ranging catalogue over the last quarter of a century” and the New York Times notes his “zest for sonic experimentation.” Commenting on his choral setting of John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, recorded Copenhagen in 2020, Music Webb International raves “…there are flashes of vocal writing which recall Britten at his best.” Gordon has worked with and been commissioned by many of the finest ensembles in the world, including The Philharmonia, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic, Malmö Symfoniorkester, Copenhagen Philharmonic, Brussels Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, l’Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, Britten Sinfonia, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, JACK Quartet, Ensemble Meitar, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and the International Contemporary Ensemble. Upcoming and recent commissions include for BBC Philharmonic and BBC Radio Three, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Lausanne Chamber Orchestra and Hong Kong Sinfonietta, among many others. His chamber music has premiered worldwide, including at Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna, the Berliner Philharmonie, the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and Hakuju Hall in Tokyo. In 2023, his new song cycle, At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, setting some of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, premiered at the Oxford International Song Festival.

Martyn Brabbins

Martyn Brabbins is an inspirational force in British music. Music Director of English National Opera 2016-2023, Brabbins has had a busy opera career since his early days at the Kirov and more recently at La Scala, the Bayerische Staatsoper, and regularly in Lyon, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Antwerp. He guests with top international orchestras such as the Royal Concertgebouw, San Francisco Symphony, DSO Berlin and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony, as well as the Philharmonia, BBC Symphony and most of the other leading UK orchestras. He is a popular figure at the BBC Proms, who in 2019 commissioned 14 living composers to write a birthday tribute to him. Known for his advocacy of British composers, he has conducted hundreds of world premieres across the globe. He has recorded nearly 150 CDs to date, including prize-winning discs of operas by Korngold, Birtwistle and Harvey. In 2023 he received the RPS Conductor Award for his “colossal” contribution to UK musical life.

Laurent Ben Slimane
Bass clarinet

Laurent Ben Slimane was born in France where he studied the clarinet at the Conservatoire Superieur de Paris (CSP) with Richard Vieille and the bass clarinet with Bruno Martinez. Laurent joined the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2005 and is also a founding member of Ailleur5 in France with whom he has recorded two CDs for Cristal Records. Laurent has played with different orchestras including the London Symphonic Orchestra, London Chamber Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic of Manchester, Northern Sinfonia, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, Orchestre National de France. He is currently Professor of bass clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music, and Professor at the PonteCultura International Summer Academy in Corsica.

Dimitri Mestdag
English horn

Dimitri Mestdag has been the solo English horn player of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra since 1996. He graduated at the Conservatory in Brussels under Paul Dombrecht and Alex Van Beveren with master degrees in oboe, English horn and chamber music. After masterclasses with Thomas Indermuhle, Alain Denis, Dominik Wollenweber, Ingo Goritzki and David Walter he completed his training at the Rotterdam Conservatory with Emanuel Abbühl. Dimitri a was prize winner of Belfius Classics in 1991 and in 1996 the very first laureate on English horn of the Tenuto competition. In 2020, BIS Records released the world premiere recording of Kalevi Aho’s double concerto of English horn and harp. Geoffrey Gordon’s English horn concerto ‘Mad Song’ was composed especially for him and was commissioned by the Antwerp Symphony and recorded with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Next to his activities as a musician and teacher he is, since 2010, artistic director of Arbanassi Summer Music, a unique chamber music festival in Bulgaria. This festival has become one of Eastern Europe’s most innovative and high-profile festivals. Dimitri leads a thriving English horn class at the Royal Conservatory of music in Brussels.

similar Artists & Albums

Artist Led, Creatively Driven