The first day of my weekend at HCMF ended back where it had begun, in St Paul’s Hall, for a late-night concert by Ensemble Resonanz, conducted by Peter Rundel. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 and comprised just three pieces, all focusing on strings, two of which featured solo cello, played by Jean-Guihen Queyras.
It began with the UK première of Rolf Wallin‘s Ground, the title of which alludes to the cyclic Baroque form of divisions, whereby a repeating bassline (the ground) is gradually overlaid with layers of faster material. That description probably suggests a certain amount of mayhem, but Ground is a decidedly pensive piece—Wallin describes it as “about finding rest”—in which the solo cello is closely surrounded by the rest of the strings, together forming a close collaboration. Furthermore, while the work has no repeating bassline (seven chords are the indiscernible equivalent here), it is highly episodic, exploring an extensive cycle of moods and atmospheres. A collaboration it may be, but it’s an intrepid one, bringing to mind a gradual descent into the earth (a connotation of the title?), passing through increasingly dark and ambiguous layers of strata. What makes the piece particularly interesting is its central melodic identity; Wallin allows tension to manifest itself in diffident, unstable music, but it never comes off the rails, preserving the sense of a pre-planned mission, rather than a mystery tour. At the work’s conclusion it enters its most cryptic episode; bordering on a stasis, both soloist and strings arrange themselves into a dense web of gently wafting notes. It begs the question: is this the ‘rest’ Wallin was striving for? or is the mission not yet completed?
Next came the world première of Claudia Molitor’s Schnalz, a title referencing finger snaps. Such a percussive word as that belies how pitch-based the work actually is; the central motive, rethought, reworked and re-examined, is a series of surly, harmonically aloof fragments. Molitor uses these to move the piece from place to place, coming to rest in an assortment of sonic ‘zones’ that are essentially static, their surfaces occasionally flecked and tickled by dry, hard-edged sounds. As episodic works go, it’s interesting enough in a superficial sense, but any attempt to grasp onto something more fundamental leaves one frustrated. Schnalz is ultimately flat and directionless, and proved very disappointing.
Anything but a disappointment was the final work in the concert, the world première of Rebecca Saunders‘ Ire. A master of succinctness, Saunders almost invariably gives her works one-word titles; the programme note merely clarifies the meaning—”anger, wrath, rage”—before citing a passage from Kierkegaard:
One must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.
Convoluted indeed, and yet the core of this piece—as in all Saunders’ work—is essentially very simple, the physicality of sound itself. In Ire, as in its siblings Still (reviewed here) and Fletch (review coming soon), the point of origin is the trill, which Saunders describes as “[an] essentially unstable and unpredictable timbral fragment”. While not exactly tautology, there’s a timbral thread running through most of Saunders’ music, a thread that, while tapping into the epicentre of avant-garde practice, is primarily emotional and instinctive. Within profound darkness, her pieces wrestle with the fabric of sound and silence, producing an unnerving music in which stillness and violence are both present and important. Low-pitched instruments are common, and on this occasion, writing for solo cello, strings and percussion, she goes so far as to tune the C string down an octave, resulting in a weird, rich timbre like a repressed growling, used extensively in the first half of the work. Saunders has an uncanny gift for making disparate sounds feel integrated, part of a larger instrumental entity, and in the earliest stages of the piece, the tam-tam and strings are made to feel like like resonances and harmonics emanating from the cello’s grim struggle; indeed, for quite a few minutes (shutting one’s eyes) it was practically impossible to work out which instruments were playing. Only gradually does some sense of separation become perceptible, made more apparent through dialogues and interactions between the soloist and various members of the ensemble. The way Ire unfolds is about as organic as music gets, adhering to no obvious formal plan but driven instead by the force of its inner fury (which, incidentally, is another Saunders title, by no means unrelated). The trill connection renders all pitched material moot, Saunders slowly opening the flood gates on what finally becomes an effluvial tirade that could barely have been imagined at the outset. Spring coils—struck repeatedly, sending overtone sparks all over the string textures—lend an air of obsession, even semi-madness to this outpouring, which is hardly lessened as it fizzles into a strange wraith-like coda. Ire is an astonishing work—but then, Saunders is an astonishing composer.
It goes almost without saying, but Ensemble Resonanz gave outstandingly clear performances of all three pieces, and Jean-Guihen Queyras—whom i had not heard before—was breathtaking in both the Wallin and Saunders pieces, making their respective darknesses startlingly vivid. It’s a privilege to be present at a concert of this calibre.