HCMF 2013: Séverine Ballon

Today’s first concert was given by French cellist Séverine Ballon. Her recital comprised UK premières by Hèctor Parra and Mauro Lanza and a world première by Rebecca Saunders, together with a classic of the repertoire, James Dillon‘s Parjanya-Vata, composed in 1981. It was especially good to hear this again; it’s a long time since i have, and Ballon’s spectacularly fiery commitment to the work’s whirlwind climax left me wondering why i’d left it so long. Hèctor Parra’s electroacoustic tentatives de réalité is an exercise in frenetic action. Parra’s programme notes always go to great lengths to inform as to the extra-musical points of origin, but on this occasion intention and result seemed insufficiently interconnected. In short, one never felt as involved as Ballon clearly was. The material establishes a kind of monotony that wasn’t especially helped either by the nature of the electroacoustic interaction—cause and effect a-go-go—or by its sonic fingerprint, which in many ways felt like an amalgam or catalogue of a multitude of all too familiar tried and tested (and tired) ideas.

Mauro Lanza’s la bataille de Caresme et de Charnage, on the other hand, appeared at first to be the kind of thing from which i instantly recoil, modestly absurd antics caught up in a continuous state of revolution. But it became rather engrossing to hear the work’s opening pitched utterances becoming increasingly frustrated and thwarted. As the level of implied strain intensified, the cello was reduced to a pathetic figure, grinding out increasingly flatulent parps and guttural blurts (the inclusion of a foot-powered whoopee cushion couldn’t have been more apposite). This extended episode was followed by a short, enigmatic epilogue comprising lightly tapped sounds—hard to rationalise but strangely effective.

Three times Rebecca Saunders has explored the implications arising from a complex variety of double trill (in Fletch, Ire and Still); now, she has added a fourth work, Solitude. The trill itself doesn’t appear until around two-thirds through the piece, and then only fleetingly; most of the duration is concerned with far darker and more heavyweight material, much of it founded upon the special timbres of Saunders’ regularly used de-tuned C-string. The title may invoke loneliness, but the music is certainly not inactive. Unlike some of her work, there is very little silence in Solitude, lending a desperate and somewhat manic quality to the cello’s unstoppable railing. In keeping with Saunders’ keen interest in destabilised sounds, almost nothing in the piece sounds remotely grounded or sure; however, an incredibly poignant exception to this occurs shortly before the end: a snatch of perilously-aligned double-stop unison melody. It’s a very moving moment, all the more so as the music then lapses back into the C-string’s blankest low sounds, played such that they become ridden with overtones, destroying their coherence. Séverine Ballon’s rendition of this highly wrought material was brilliant, as was Saunders’ compositional achievement, yet again following her intuitive nose and discovering shockingly new frontiers of possibility.

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