The latest spate of Proms premières have made for an interesting contrast in terms of abstract versus concrete ideas. At the former end of the continuum—where else would you find him?—was Anders Hillborg and his latest orchestral piece Beast Sampler; at the latter end was Raymond Yiu‘s Symphony, a large-scale work for countertenor and orchestra; somewhere in between was Bergen’s Bonfire, a new symphonic poem from Alissa Firsova.
There’s a certain kind of logic to the title Symphony for Raymond Yiu’s new song cycle; the piece brings together diverse poetic texts, forcing them to ‘sound together’ (one definition of the word ‘symphony’); the five movements that comprise the piece are similarly disparate, and the first of the texts refers to “all sounds running together”. Another definition of the word refers to a ‘harmonious concord’, and in this respect Yiu’s work proves more detractive. Its overall aim is to dive deeply into and explore the mélange of emotions and memories associated with love and loss, arising from the looming threat brought about by the AIDS crisis that began in the 1980s; Yiu’s inspirational trigger was the suicide of a close friend in 2006. This is all very specific and concrete, but the most curious thing about his Symphony is how intangible much of the music feels, perpetually at something of a distance. This is curious because the music is hardly lacking in terms of lyricism; from the outset, it feels almost ‘hyperlyrical’, the countertenor wildly articulating Whitman’s reference to “strong music”. Yet this bold, declamatory opening is about as telling as the piece gets; in part this is due to the instrumental second movement, which acts to nullify much of the initial momentum, receding via hints of Scarlatti into a strange waltz, pastiche heard through the familiar contemporary gauze of kinks and distortions. The third movement goes some way to restore depth, its gentle vocal line betraying hints of the work’s urgent subtext. Yet, once again, the modestly rich sense of romance created here by Yiu is then frittered away in a, frankly, ghastly fourth movement that seemingly intends to allude to ’70s disco but ends up as the kind of cringe-worthy end-of-the-pier cheese-laden light music encountered on cruise ships. Yuck. The strong final movement is the only time when Yiu’s music feels truly free, but by now it’s too little too late. On the one hand, emphasis on memories perhaps inevitably leads one to draw on music that colours and permeates practically all of our life experiences; on the other hand, Yiu’s ersatz imitations and allusions both fetter and founder the piece; its lovely, dream-like conclusion only makes one wish that the preceding half-an-hour had sounded more honest. The integrity of Yiu’s inspiration is unimpeachable, but that of his Symphony is emphatically not. For all the specificity of its aims, the music could hardly be more wanting for something clear, tangible and, ultimately, authentic.
At the opposite end of the continuum, few are able to describe and depict things intangible as convincingly as Swedish composer Anders Hillborg. In Beast Sampler, Hillborg has created something of a sibling to his outstanding 1994 Liquid Marble, eschewing percussion entirely to focus on the possibilities of wind, brass and strings. The relationship between pitch and noise is the key characteristic of the work, beginning with weird, aerated sounds within which one can make out pitches momentarily, the orchestra eventually becoming a kind of monstrous squeezebox. Hillborg continually frustrates any notion of a ‘pitch centre’ through articulations that work against it: sharp staccatos, rapid ascending and descending gestures, trills and tremolos; nothing is fixed or straight, everything is in a state of flux. Being in the midst of such abstruse impossibilities as these is riveting, even more so when Hillborg eventually throws elements of stasis into the mix. The brass protrude, the winds cry out, the strings for the first time become focussed, moving as one; in Hillborg’s music, though, an increase of clarity usually means the opposite of resolution, and that’s true here, ramping up the sense of an orchestra poised. This begins to find its release when the pitch focus dies away, passing through an exotic aviary of sliding calls into a music that seems to be undergoing a constant crescendo, embellished with a vast network of rising, overlapping woodwind lines like an inverted waterfall. Wonderful stuff, proving once again that Hillborg is one of the masters of the modern symphonic poem, the hypothetical essence of his music enabling one’s imagination to run absolutely riot.
Something rather more devastating than a riot forms the basis for Alissa Firsova’s piece written to commemorate the 250th birthday of the Bergen Philharmonic (one of the world’s oldest orchestras). Bergen’s Bonfire began as an apocalyptic dream she had, “where I could see the Moon and Sun in one landscape, before the Sun exploded”. Firsova wedded this idea to the Norse mythological Ragnarök, in which the world is annihilated and then reborn. Her music walks a delicate line between outright evocation and more abstract allusion; it’s best when caught up in destruction, Firsova making the orchestra shriek and howl, engendering a kind of dialogue of screams. To some extent she taps into Mahlerian dynamic extremes, abruptly shifting into a soft, wistful pensivity, finding a lyrical beauty and tenderness that, at times, is admittedly a whisker away from becoming saccharine—but she avoids it, arriving at a Takemitsu-like warmth. Bergen’s Bonfire is weakest when the fires are out, settling into more conventional notions of consonance and resolution that make the sense of renewal feel somewhat trite, like a Hollywood blockbuster ending. But that’s only because what went before was so cogent, and it’s not enough to mar the work as a whole; Firsova’s abstract depiction of overwhelming devastation is marvellous and memorable.
The first UK performance of Hillborg’s Beast Sampler was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Yiu’s Symphony was premièred by countertenor Andrew Watts, again with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, this time conducted by Edward Gardner. The Bergen Philharmonic gave the first performance of Firsova’s Bergen’s Bonfire, under their outgoing chief conductor Andrew Litton.
Anders Hillborg – Beast Sampler (UK Première)
**The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.**
Anders Hillborg – Beast Sampler
- Loved it! (24%, 8 Votes)
- Liked it (38%, 13 Votes)
- Meh (26%, 9 Votes)
- Disliked it (6%, 2 Votes)
- Hated it! (6%, 2 Votes)
Total Voters: 34
Raymond Yiu – Symphony (World Première)
With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums,
I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons.
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
II. Strong with Cadence Multiply Song
(instrumental; title taken from an ode by Basil Bunting)
III. (Constantine P. Cavafy, Come Back – Yiu has used a slightly different translation)
Come back often and take hold of me,
sensation that I love come back and take hold of me—
when the body’s memory awakens
and an old longing again moves into the blood,
when lips and skin remember
and hands feel as though they touch again.
Come back often, and take hold of me in the night
when lips and skin remember…
IV. (Thom Gunn, In Time of Plague)
My thoughts are crowded with death
and it draws so oddly on the sexual
that I am confused
confused to be attracted
by, in effect, my own annihilation.
Who are these two, these fiercely attractive men
who want me to stick their needle in my arm?
They tell me they are called Brad and John,
one from here, one from Denver, sitting the same
on the bench as they talk to me,
their legs spread apart, their eyes attentive.
I love their daring, their looks, their jargon,
and what they have in mind.
Their mind is the mind of death.
They know it, and do not know it,
and they are like me in that
(I know it, and do not know it)
and like the flow of people through this bar.
Brad and John thirst heroically together
for euphoria–for a state of ardent life
in which we could all stretch ourselves
and lose our differences. I seek to enter their minds: am I fool,
and they direct and right, properly
testing themselves against risk,
as a human must, and does,
or are they the fools, their alert faces
mere death’s heads lighted glamorously?
I weigh possibilities
till I am afraid of the strength
of my own health
and of their evident health.
They get restless at last with my indecisiveness
and so, first one, and then the other,
move off into the moving concourse of people
who are boisterous and bright
carrying in their faces and throughout their bodies
the news of life and death.
V. (from John Donne, The Anniversary)
When thou and I first one another saw:
All other things to their destruction draw,
Only our love hath no decay;
This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.
Raymond Yiu – Symphony
- Loved it! (23%, 8 Votes)
- Liked it (11%, 4 Votes)
- Meh (23%, 8 Votes)
- Disliked it (23%, 8 Votes)
- Hated it! (20%, 7 Votes)
Total Voters: 35
Alissa Firsova – Bergen’s Bonfire (World Première)
Alissa Firsova – Bergen’s Bonfire
- Loved it! (30%, 8 Votes)
- Liked it (30%, 8 Votes)
- Meh (22%, 6 Votes)
- Disliked it (4%, 1 Votes)
- Hated it! (15%, 4 Votes)
Total Voters: 27