The final concert yesterday took place, once again, in St Paul’s Hall, featuring Ensemble Linea, conducted by Jean-Philippe Wurtz. It featured three new works, by Brian Ferneyhough, Raphaël Cendo and James Clarke.
Ferneyhough and Clarke appear at first to come from different points of origin; Ferneyhough states that he cannot begin work without a title, whereas Clarke has avoided descriptive or allusory titles for many years in order not to “interfere with or assist” the listener. However, Ferneyhough’s employment of titles is, to some extent at least, a conceit (on his own admission), providing a context of sorts but not really determining what takes place in any kind of meaningful way. Indeed, his work Liber Scintillarum (“book of sparks”), here being given its UK première, continues a strain of compositional thought that Ferneyhough terms ‘involuntary scherzi’, the material deriving from elements of unpredictability and (one assumes) spontaneity, rather than according to an intricate, pre-organised scheme. A connection between that evocative title and the resultant material was, at times, hard to grasp. Composed for six instruments—three strings, three winds—the density of material initially made it difficult to fathom anything with certainty. But gradually (and this may be as much due to ‘listener acclimation’ than development in the music), interconnections became apparent; first, the mere fact that they share a conductor, and a common tempo; next, that their general dynamic levels were more-or-less matched. Eventually, the behaviours of these two groups of three felt stylistically aligned too, and there was a potent sense of mutual cohesion. That’s not to suggest that Ferneyhough’s material miraculously at this point shed its layers of complexity—far from it, and an abrupt switch to strict tempo at one point came as a real shock. For me, what projected most through the tense out-working of the piece was its numerous splashes of lyricism. and splashes they are, never lingering long enough even to be regarded as the makings of a sentiment—they momentarily emote and move on, yet their impact lingers. Despite these soft extrusions, Liber Scintillarum is emphatically a work of absolute music, tough in some ways, but a challenge worth taking on.
James Clarke’s 2013-V, receiving its world première, was almost as long but felt very much shorter. There’s a clarity to Clarke’s writing, a conciseness and economy of material that makes the music very approachable. Irvine Arditti joined Ensemble Linea and proceeded to become their leader, beginning with a bold presentation of his idée fixe, comprising fast downward glissandi and sharp pizzicato notes. i call Arditti the ‘leader’, yet the relationship both between him and the ensemble, and the members of the ensemble among themselves, was nicely ambiguous. Certainly, the brass and woodwind were an incorrigible influence at the back, setting themselves apart through surly growls and thrusting low notes. Sometimes these seemed to extend into lengthy deep basslines, weird fauxbourdons, and at other times the rest of the ensemble assembled on top of these, combining to sound like blurred chorales from the mouth of Hades. The occasions when the ensemble coalesced into a single sonic entity were exhilarating, twice establishing sequences of queasy roiling surges, coming in waves. All told it was a rather delirious experience that in no way suffered for want of a title.
Raphaël Cendo is a composer new to me, but on the strength of Rokh I, also receiving its first UK performance last night, i want to hear a lot more. Proving overwhelmingly how less can be more, Cendo takes the seemingly limited forces of bass flute, violin, cello and prepared piano and enables them to create one of the most extreme, ferocious soundscapes i’ve heard in ages. Cendo deviates from Ferneyhough and Clarke in having a demonstrative poetic inspiration, the title referencing the mythological bird of prey featured in the One Thousand and One Nights. The sense of a vast, feathered form was abundantly apparent in the work’s material, which was genuinely astonishing to witness. In this context, conventions of performance felt like a half-forgotten memory; extended techniques were the norm, with no sense of being avant-garde. On the contrary, Cendo has managed somehow to make his panoply of hectic textures riddled with as many onomatopoetic noises as you can imagine sound both normal and necessary. It’s an achievement as impressive as the incredible skills required of its performers—none more than Anna D’Errico, whose rendition of her gymnastic piano part was nothing short of heroic.