Proms 2010: Hans Abrahamsen – Wald (UK Première) plus Knussen, Bedford and Benjamin

So, where were we? Ah yes, The Proms; my catchup starts with the concert that took place on Friday 6 August, given by the splendid Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

Oliver Knussen‘s Two Organa is a work all the more engaging for its entirely lopsided nature. The first ‘organum’, “Notre Dame des Jouets”, could perhaps best be described as “sugar and spice and all things nice” (although without very much spice); exploring just white notes, it’s derived from an earlier incarnation, composed for a diatonic music box, and while undeniably rather fun, there’s little more going on beyond froth and fancy. The latter movement, on the other hand, could not be more different, drawing heavily on Knussen’s more characteristic, harmonically rich palette. In the wake of such a frivolous predecessor, the dense, concentric lines at work here come as something of a shock, given gravitas by the imposing presence of deep gongs. But it restrains itself from becoming ponderous, swiftly reducing into a sparser mixture, the lines given more room to move, fragments of the imagined organum sliding in and out of view.

The première at this concert comes from Hans Abrahamsen, the first UK performance of his Wald. Following the initial plain diatonicism and even the wider chromaticism of Knussen’s work, Abrahamsen’s use of microtonality instantly explodes the compositional scope of the concert. Essentially a set of increasingly convoluted variations (rooted in an earlier work of his, Walden), Abrahamsen’s piece revolves around the horn, exploiting—as many have before—its out-of-tune harmonics within a diverse, delightfully unconventional ensemble. The juxtaposition from one variation to the next is often abrupt, and the connections can at times seem momentarily hard to follow, but Abrahamsen always brings the central ideas back into focus, chiefly the restless, fluttering material that seems hell-bent on skittering across the surface of the music as much as possible, regardless of whether it’s strictly the right time and place to do so. It’s a real treat that we’re allowed twenty minutes of Hans Abrahamsen’s deft imagination; Wald is a work that not only merits, but—in my experience—requires and indeed greatly benefits from repeated listenings.

Luke Bedford, whose short work Outblaze the Sky was heard just a couple of weeks before, returns to the Proms in this concert with a more extended work, Or voit tout en aventure for soprano and ensemble, with Claire Booth taking the solo rôle. Bedford’s texts are from an assortment of 13th and 14th century sources, happily archaic in their linguistic style, even more happily pertinent in their content; depending on your interpretation, they either take increasingly determined pot-shots at the vagaries of contemporary idioms (each ending with the refrain, “certainly, ’tis not well done”), or—as Bedford suggests—perhaps even defending them. These ideas occupy the odd-numbered movements, and immediately, the textures that don’t so much accompany as lurk with intent behind the soprano’s declamatory lines are remarkable, wheezing into life like a tired squeezebox, but before long, becoming something substantial, odd and actually rather unnerving. This is taken a stage further in the third movement (“Nos faysoms contre nature”), continuing the textual theme, the ensemble now much more demonstrative, although continuing to allow the soprano dominance over them. In between these two is a brief, dark, glowering space which is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it second—instrumental—movement (“O dolce melodia”), which foreshadows the even-numbered songs to follow. And there are, indeed, shadows everywhere in the fourth movement (“Je chante ung chant”), out of which an impassioned lament rises. It is astoundingly beautiful; for all its melancholy, this is simply ravishing music, deeply poignant and utterly capturing the profound plangency of the text. Full credit to Claire Booth for her amazing delivery of such emotionally demanding material. After such elevated sentiments, the revertion back once again to more intellectual notions (“L’art de Marquest n’a mesure”) makes them sound even more earnest than earlier, and even a touch cantankerous, in no small way enhanced by Bedford’s unrelenting use of the soprano in her uppermost register, the ensemble all the while gathering around her like a bloodthirsty lynch mob. Thankfully, they’re quickly despatched by the work’s ascent into the soft, spacious, sixth and final movement (“O tu, cara scienza, mia musica”), which returns to the gorgeous delicacy of “Je chante ung chant”. Emotion returns to the fore, and although after a time i found myself wanting the soprano, just for once, to descend into a lower register, the ensemble ultimately comes to her aid, amply bearing her aloft. This is a brilliant work, the highlight of the concert for me and by a long margin. To mis-quote Bedford’s refrain: certainly, ’tis extremely well done.

The concert ends with George Benjamin‘s Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra. Composed in the mid-1990s, it’s a work i know well; as an undergraduate, i was fortunate enough to conduct it in early 1997. The first two movements are, within this concert, most closely related to the kinds of restless textures found in Knussen’s work. The opening invention, in memory of Messiaen, is initially disarmingly simple, laying out its component parts with almost child-like naïvety; the entrance of the flugelhorn moves things in a new direction, however, one that finds short, sharp punctuations protruding more and more through the surface, the resultant sustained chords akin to light streaming through the holes punched by them. It concludes in Benjamin’s trademark fashion, seemingly poised to go somewhere new before abruptly ending. The undedicated second Invention cranks up the pace, with a highly rhythmic semiquaver/triplet motif becoming a prominent secondary idea behind the raucous collection of solo lines that wildly dominate the foreground. The programme note speaks of it being placed at a turning point in Benjamin’s output, and that seems certainly true in the case of the third Invention, dedicated to Benjamin’s other former tutor, Alexander Goehr. This final movement is a world away from its siblings, situated within a dark and dangerous sonic habitat, occupying it for a longer period than both previous movements combined. It’s Benjamin at his best, for the most part casting aside his penchant for superficial thrills and spills, and allowing in something far more genuinely weighty. At first, the sporadic fortissimo thuds seem just bizarre, but they gradually become a familiar aspect of this unashamedly weird place, where the contrabassoon is made cantabile, and a chorus of gongs and drums sound out a call to some hellish rite. The occasional ‘chimes’, which would have been so at home in the foregoing movements, are entirely out of place here, but they serve, if anything, to show just how different this is from Benjamin’s usual fare. Julian Anderson’s programme note gets too carried away by describing the ending as “a gesture of shocking violence”—calm down, it’s just a couple of bass drums banging for goodness’ sake—but all the same, this is, for George Benjamin, a surprisingly violent creation, successful in its own terms, and by far the most engaging part of the larger work. For anyone interested in a little more info about the Three Inventions, i’ve posted a link below to a scan of an article from the November 1995 issue of The Musical Times, that discusses it in the context of Benjamin’s output.

Oliver Knussen – Two Organa
Programme Note

Hans Abrahamsen – Wald
Programme Note

Luke Bedford – Or voit tout en aventure
Programme Note

George Benjamin – Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra
Programme Note

Musical Times article

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