Dark Clouds in Life is a rare creature, an album about depression that isn’t depressing. Through it all ~ and especially in the album’s core, “Natalie’s Suite” ~ the composer remains empathetic and above all, hopeful. Due to its approach, the suite is the antithesis of Max Richter’s lovely Three Worlds, which honors Virginia Woolf but closes on her suicide.
The impetus for the album is a second generation of addiction and depression. Years after struggling with these illnesses himself, Mark John McEncroe watched helplessly as his own daughter Natalie fell prey to the same diseases. Thankfully, both are on the mend. But as the liner notes make abundantly clear, one never fully conquers these demons; they lurk beneath the surface, waiting for an opportunity to reemerge.
The first few notes of “Facing the Demons” are as stark as can be, striking from the left side of the piano. No time is wasted establishing the somber mood. But within minutes, the suite enters a series of swaying segments, meant to convey shifting emotions, ups and downs, false starts and apparent ends. McEncroe writes that by embracing the same key, he establishes a “tragic soundscape.” But there’s more at play here, perhaps even more than the composer realizes. “Natalie’s Suite” may come across as a boat on the waves, but it also implies the cradling of a child and the comfort of another’s arms in a time of need. The orchestra conveys hope, heartbreak, and most of all, love. Even in its most assertive moments, the suite shies away from dissonance, and its gentlest moments are as tender as the unspoken wishes of a parent for a suffering child. Such moments are punctuated by small sounds ~ for example, an intake of breath seventeen minutes into the first piece. This is a human work, inseparable from the personal element.
Two musical forces dominate the suite. While one is numerically dominant, the other holds its own. The awful grandeur of the struggle is conveyed by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, imitating the thickness of the dark cloud. But the loneliness ~ and to some extent, when healing begins, the nobility of the struggle is reflected in the emotive ivories of Helen Kennedy. Often the orchestra draws back like a tide, exposing the vulnerability of the solo performer. The tug of addiction is set against the pull of a brighter life. Not until the third movement (“Moving Into the Light”) does conductor Armore allow one force to step in front of the other. At this point, the orchestra drops its dark cloud persona to become the sun, reflecting the cover of the album and its overall message.
After “Natalie’s Suite” and Kennedy’s loving piano reprise, “Natalie’s Theme”, two additional pieces round out the set. Each spotlights one of the preceding forces: Kennedy and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra. On any other album, these might have been highlights, but it’s hard to compete with a suite that’s strong enough to become a theatre production. The benefit of these additional pieces is that they allow the relief to sink in like a sigh. Dark Clouds is a love letter to the composer’s daughter, but is encouragement for all who struggle: keep fighting the good fight, and know you are not alone. (Richard Allen)
Release date: 10 March