New releases: Messiaen, Paul Dolden, Richard Uttley, iamamiwhoami, Davíð Brynjar Franzson, Shivers

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Among the crop of more interesting recent releases is a reissue of Messiaen‘s complete organ works that is easily the most affordable currently available. Treasure Island Music has brought together the famous recordings made by Jennifer Bate in the late 1970s/early 1980s—originally issued by Unicorn-Kanchana/Regis—in a 6-CD slimline box set costing around £20, which for 7½ hours of music is an exceptional deal. But it’s not just about economy, these performances were extensively shaped by Messiaen himself, Bate working in close collaboration with him during the recording process. Two of the discs were even recorded at La Trinité in Paris, on the very organ where the works were first composed (and, in many cases, premièred), the remaining discs recorded at Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Beauvais. But it’s not just about having the composer’s imprimatur either; Bate’s renditions of these complex works are navigated with stunning clarity—never is it apparent that these recordings are several decades old—and her fidelity to the scores is in many ways greater than that of Messiaen’s own recordings. Read more

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One more gig

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An event i unconscionably failed to mention in my recent gig article is the latest DIVAContemporary concert, taking place this Saturday, 22 November, at Weymouth College’s Bay Theatre, on the south Dorset coast. These concerts are curated by one of the UK’s most ceaselessly energetic and imaginative composers, Marc Yeats, on this occasion featuring flautist Carla Rees, oboist Paul Goodey and clarinettist Sarah Watts. They’ll be performing music by established figures, Salvatore Sciarrino, Elliott Carter and Violeta Dinescu, alongside works by Yeats and a variety of younger composers selected for the concert series, including Richard Stanbrook, Benjamin Graves, Aaron Holloway-Nahum and Mic Spencer, as well as myself: my work for solo flute, ‘unredeemed’ self-) portrait(in the form of an eagle, one of the pieces to have emerged from my ongoing PhD composition studies, will be receiving its world première.

This concert series has the added bonus of being streamed live over the internet, so if you can’t attend (as i can’t, being nearly 300 miles away in Huddersfield at the time), you can at least be there in spirit. Full information here.

Richard Barrett – Opening of the Mouth (UK Première)

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To bring my little ‘death season’ to a close, a major work that confronts the subject in the most breathtakingly imaginative and radical way. Richard Barrett‘s Opening of the Mouth, composed over a five-year period from 1992-97, is a daunting work even to begin to write about, partly due to its scale—lasting a little over 70 minutes—but perhaps more due to its material intricacies and structural ingenuity, both of which invite various ways to be parsed. From one perspective, the work is a cycle, comprising a host of discrete compositions, many for solo instruments: abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben for percussion solo, CHARON for bass clarinet, Largo for soprano, koto and cello, Schneebett for soprano, mezzo-soprano and ensemble, Tenebrae for mezzo-soprano, electric guitar, ensemble and live electronics, knospend-gespaltener for C clarinet, air for violin and von hinter dem Schmerz for amplified cello, in addition to two electronic works, Landschaft mit Urnenwesen and Zungenentwürzeln. Barrett does not simply tessellate these pieces to make a larger whole—far from it: they occur simultaneously as well as consecutively, sometimes whole, sometimes fragmented, overlapping and interweaving with each other and with new material, Byzantine architecture rendering convoluted music of utmost sophistication.
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John Woolrich – In the Mirrors of Asleep

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A recurring aspect in most of the death-related pieces i’ve recently explored is ambiguity, and that’s even more the case in John Woolrich‘s short work for five players, In the Mirrors of Asleep, composed in 2007. i hope Woolrich won’t take it amiss when i say that what i find most telling is the music’s inconsistent sense of direction and diffuse emotional sensibility. In this context, those are attributes that transcend their inherent uncertainty and speak just as clearly (if not more so) than via direct statement. In essence, the ensemble—comprising flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano—betrays a thoroughly mixed psychological habitat. There’s radiance to be found, at the start, and at the fringes of various subsequent materials, particularly the music’s tendency (one of several) to express itself through slow melodic movement. These passages allude more than they emote, but that’s mainly because they aren’t afforded the opportunity to fully expound (or wallow in) their heavyweight sentiments. Woolrich breaks them off, often with spritely episodes of light, staccato counterpoint that fall into concentric patterns like multiple ticking clocks. Read more

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David Sawer – Flesh and Blood (World Première)

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For Remembrance Day, i’ve chosen a new work from David Sawer that engages with death and loss in a poignant but surprisingly passionate way. Flesh and Blood is a 25-minute dramatic scena for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, setting a text by playwright Howard Barker. Although not staged, the soloists do wear costumes and assume the roles of a soldier and his mother, the two of them exploring aspects of memory and resignation in the face of the Soldier’s imminent, permanent, separation and loss. That’s one way of looking at it, although the nature of the situation is nicely enigmatic; parts of the piece could just as well be taking place in absentia, within the Mother’s imagination, either in the wake of the news no parent wants to hear or with understandable dread at its fatalistic inevitability. Read more

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Hector Berlioz – Grande messe des morts

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Today’s work in my ongoing series on the subject of death is not contemporary, not in the least, but is one which nonetheless still sounds as vital and as daring as it did when it was premièred 177 years ago. The Grande messe des morts was Hector Berlioz‘s epic response to a commission to write a setting of the requiem mass in commemoration of soldiers who had perished in the 1830 French Revolution. Despite being only his fifth published work, the key word in its title is ‘grande’, as it utilises forces on a scale unprecedented in 1837 and almost never equalled since. Berlioz’s orchestral line-up is huge enough by itself, including 8 bassoons, 12 horns, 16 timpani, 10 cymbals, 4 tamtams, and a string section of 108, but this is expanded further with four separate off-stage brass brands (38 extra players) distributed around the performance space; the addition of a choir numbering at least 200 makes for an assembly of performers rather mind-boggling to imagine. And imagine is what most people have to do with this piece; i was fortunate to experience a performance in The Hague many years ago, but for obvious reasons the Grande messe des morts for the most part remains an under-performed curiosity, famous more for its gargantuan size than for the music itself. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF | 2 Comments

It’s November, and i’ll initially skip over the elephant in the month to flag up a very interesting concert series going on in Manchester. Curated by undergrad composer Jack Sheen, it goes by the Excel spreadsheet-friendly title ddmmyy, seeking to make each event literally that, an event, conceived and customised in sympathy with the music contained therein. The next concert in the series is in a little over a week’s time, on Sunday 16 November in the RNCM’s Carole Nash Recital Room, and it promises an interesting selection: a new work from Laurence Tompkins, Larry Goves’ A glimpse of the sea in a fold of the hills and Laurence Crane’s Octet. As all good new music concerts should, there’s a pre-concert talk at 6pm before the kick-off at 7.30pm. Future concerts in February and April next year will be including works by Bryn Harrison, Michael Finnissy and Berio alongside music by RNCM-associated composers. Ambitious and also rather stylish in presentation, it’s clearly a concert series well worth checking out; the flyer with info about all their forthcoming concerts can be seen/downloaded here.

And now, of course, to the pachyderm: in two weeks’ time, this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival will be springing into action for another round of the unexpected, the challenging and the downright discombobulating. i’ll be there for the full ten days this year, and will be reporting back on as much as my mind and ears can cope with. It’s almost nonsensical to single out highlights in a festival where every event is a highlight in itself, but the choice of James Dillon as this year’s Composer in Residence is hugely mouth-watering; both of the festival’s weekends feature his work heavily, the former with the London Sinfonietta and BBC Singers premièring a new large-scale work, Stabat Mater dolorosa, the latter with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra taking on another new work, Physis I & II and an existing piece, Andromeda, before pitting the Arditti Quartet against all seven—that’s all seven—of Dillon’s string quartets. i know, right? i’ll also be particularly looking forward to premières from, among others, Liza Lim, Simon Steen-Andersen (whose Black Box Music remains one of the most astonishing things i’ve seen/heard at HCMF in recent years), Christopher Fox, Naomi Pinnock and Monty Adkins; Adkins will also be presenting his beautiful electronic work Rift Patterns (my review of which is here). One of contemporary music’s most alluringly dark clarinettists, Gareth Davis, will be playing a major new work from Elliott Sharp called Sylva Sylvarum; his wonderful rendition of Sharp’s Foliage at Bristol New Music earlier this year makes this an unmissable performance. Apartment House will be performing Brian Eno, Arne Deforce and Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio will be performing a live version of their interesting recent album Hephaestus, Ryoko Akama will be giving the world première of a new work by the great Eliane Radigue, and nyMusikk Bergen will be tackling Sciarrino’s frankly bizarre opera (of sorts) Lohengrin on the festival’s opening night. But i’m also especially looking forward to music by composers entirely new to me, including Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Joan Arnau Pàmies, Øyvind Torvund, Bjørn Fongaard and Ferran Fages. Unsurprisingly, some of the concerts are by now sold out, but many are still available – full information and bookings here. i trust it won’t leave me wordless, but i fully expect to be left speechless.

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