Fermata

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This morning i’m setting off for the Arctic Circle, to the small town of Bodø in the north of Norway, where i’ll be for the rest of the week at this year’s Nordic Music Days. Words to come about that early next week (once i’ve thawed out), after which a few days later i’ll be heading not-so-far north to catch a few days of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Stuart MacRae – Prometheus Symphony (World Première)

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i’m concluding this brief look at three recent new symphonies with one by another Scottish composer, Stuart MacRae. As in James MacMillan’s latest symphony, MacRae has also turned to mythology for inspiration, drawing on the ancient Greek tale of Prometheus. According to legend – as recounted by 8th century poet Hesiod – Prometheus created humanity from clay, and then gave to them fire that he had stolen from the gods, in order to enable their development towards civilisation. Zeus, king of the gods, retaliated by punishing Prometheus by binding him to a rock and each day sending an eagle that would devour his liver, which would rematerialise overnight. An immortal being, Prometheus’ fate was therefore potentially an eternal one, though – spoiler alert – he would subsequently be liberated, several years later, by Heracles.

That final part of the tale falls outside the scope of MacRae’s Prometheus Symphony, which briefly features the words of judgement from the gods before focusing almost exclusively on Prometheus’ lengthy soliloquised response to them. Structured as a diptych, the first half utilises excerpts from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound as translated by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in addition to MacRae’s own words, while the entire second half is a setting of Goethe’s eponymous 1774 poem. In essence, then, the symphony is a protracted expression of bitter lament and angry resolve, given bifurcated voice via soprano and baritone soloists.

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David Briggs – Symphonie Improvisée on Three Welsh Themes (World Première)

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One of the minor passions of my listening life, which i rarely write about here, is organ music. It doesn’t come up very often in the world of contemporary music, but it did a couple of months back in the gala recital at this year’s OrganFest at Llandaff Cathedral. Performed by David Briggs, on the cathedral’s newly-installed instrument, the entire second half of the concert was given over to a brand new symphony completely improvised by Briggs, grandly titled Symphonie Improvisée on Three Welsh Themes. i’ve been fortunate enough to experience a number of Briggs’ live performances, and i’ve never heard any organist who has wowed me more – both his abilities at improvisation as well as his astonishingly effective transcriptions of well-known works of orchestral music (especially his Mahler symphony arrangements). The use of French in the title of this new improvised symphony connects the work to the 20th century French organ school tradition, though due to its three movement structure, and the nature of those movements, it resembles less the suite-like symphonies by the likes of Widor or Louis Vierne, being more closely-related to those of Marcel Dupré. Read more

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James MacMillan – Symphony No. 5 ‘Le grand Inconnu’ (World Première)

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Symphonies – one minute you think that no-one’s really writing them anymore, and then suddenly three of them turn up in quick succession. Of course, in reality the apparent lack of them may well be more to do with the fact that composers today are reluctant to title a work ‘Symphony’ (embodying as it does such an accumulation of historical connotation and baggage) in favour of something more personal and snappy, and less to do with a reality in which music that could be described as ‘symphonic’ is becoming a thing of the past. Either way, in the last few months three works bearing the name ‘Symphony’ have received their first performances, which i’ll be exploring in my next few articles.

James MacMillan‘s Symphony No. 5, premièred in August, takes as its theme the religious notion of the Holy Spirit. To this end, MacMillan structures the work in three movements each of which is devoted to one of its mythical physical attributes: wind (or breath), water and fire. The subtitle of the work, Le grand Inconnu (the great unknown), is an associated term, borrowed from the French because MacMillan could not find an equivalent in English. It’s a choral symphony, involving both a chamber choir and a chorus, but instead of directly setting a text MacMillan has taken words from the Bible, John of the Cross, and the 9th century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus to form a composite text mingling English, Latin, Hebrew and Greek. Read more

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Jakob Ullmann – Fremde Zeit Addendum 5; Stefan Fraunberger – Quellgeister #3 Bussd

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i’ve been spending time lately with new releases from two composers towards whose work i’ve hitherto felt almost universally positive. There’s something a little nerve-racking about this, inducing anxiety – and, to an extent, incredulity – that the unfamiliar new will be able to live up to the marvellous old. That’s especially true in the case of Jakob Ullmann, for while i’ve been fascinated and engrossed in all of the discs of his music steadily put out by the ever-dependable Edition RZ label – in addition to occasional (but too few) performances of his work – i’ve nonetheless always found myself wondering what’s left to explore in Ullmann’s edge-of-audibility soundworld.

The latest disc of his music, Fremde Zeit Addendum 5, reveals that there’s actually quite a lot – though its nature is rather surprising. The album features a single hour-long work of Ullmann’s, Solo V for piano, though describing it as “for piano” doesn’t even begin to hint at the reality of what this piece does, or is. As with the other solo works released by Edition RZ, the piano is situated in a vast space, becoming a microscopic presence within a seemingly infinite macroscopic universe. This bears strong similarities to the way the bassoon is perceived in Müntzers stern (one of my best albums of last year), though there’s much less sense here of the solo instrument causing the environment to resonate. Read more

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Radio recordings: methods and formats, past and future

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Since the inception of 5:4, nearly 12 years ago, whenever i’ve been writing about a particular composition and there’s no professional recording available, i’ve often shared a radio recording of the piece from my archive. i began making these recordings when i was still at school, and in the intervening years the method and format i’ve used have changed a lot. Originally, i recorded from analogue radio onto audio cassette – or, if the broadcast was longer than cassettes could cope with, onto videotape. Around 15 years ago, i switched from analogue to digital, recording first cable and then satellite broadcasts, which has been my approach ever since. i’ve never been entirely happy with this method, though, and at the start of the year i began to investigate whether it could be improved.

The way i’ve always archived these recordings is in FLAC format. For recordings made from an analogue broadcast onto an analogue medium, this makes sense, as it preserves the original recording without losing anything meaningful. But in the case of recordings made from digital broadcasts it doesn’t make sense, as the original broadcast is in a lossy format (AAC) whereas FLAC is of course lossless. The reason i’ve always used FLAC is simply because i’ve recorded the broadcast in real-time as a WAV file, which i’ve then edited as necessary and then, in order not to reduce the sound quality further with additional lossy compression, converted to FLAC. But the inevitable upshot is that there’s a lot of redundancy in this method, with file sizes much bigger than they need to be. Read more

Chaya Czernowin – Once I blinked nothing was the same (UK Première)

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As i know i’ve remarked previously about compositions, size isn’t everything. Apropos: i’ve been spending time recently with a short work by Chaya Czernowin which, though it was premièred four years ago, only received its first UK performance last month. Once I blinked nothing was the same has a duration of little more than three minutes, but the enormity of what happens in that time span is considerable, hinted at in Czernowin’s enigmatic subtitle for the piece: “A large scale miniature for orchestra”. Read more

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