HCMF 2016: Mark Knoop + Juliet Fraser

My final concert at HCMF 2016 was in St Paul’s Hall in the company of pianist Mark Knoop and soprano Juliet Fraser, who presented the UK premières of two song cycles, Michael Finnissy‘s Andersen-Leiderkreis and Bernhard Lang‘s The Cold Trip, part 2. Despite the fact that some of the Finnissy was not in English, it was unfortunate that we were not given the texts for either piece, as it was often unclear precisely what was being sung (more to do with St Paul’s Hall than with Juliet Fraser), a real shame considering the fact that these were both substantial vocal works. Regardless of this, though, The Cold Trip, part 2 made its intentions really very clear within the first few minutes: using Schubert’s Winterreise as its inspiration (in this case, being ‘part 2’, focussing on the latter half of that cycle), Lang’s text comprises cut-up minute quotations, allusions and references to the Schubert in conjunction with a live piano part and piano samples executed by a laptop. This, Lang contends, creates a ‘meta-composition’ in which the sampled elements establish a palimpsest of the Schubert. It really and truly does not. The laptop samples—often barely recognisable as a piano anyway and certainly never recognisable as having the slightest connection to Schubert or anyone else) are used almost solely to create percussive, metric elements as a foundation for the live piano and soprano music above. The piano part is by turns also highly metric (mirroring the laptop) or featuring bursts of lyricism, the soprano stammering and continually restating the cut-up text like a cross between a corrupted audio file and a knackered vinyl record. Every now and again the piece approached something modestly interesting, usually as a product of Fraser’s tilt shifts between an emotional vacuum and overload (by far the most engaging aspect of the piece), but for the most part its relentless ploughing of essentially the same furrow was less indefatigable than downright bloody minded.

Finnissy’s cycle, drawing on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, offered altogether more both to entice and contemplate. The accessibility of the songs came as something of a surprise. Generally speaking (and of course there are exceptions), Finnissy’s work in recent years seems to have made its references to other music more immediate, and the tone of his compositions, even the politically-charged ones (such as Third Political Agenda, performed by Philip Thomas the previous Monday) seem less to project anger than sadness. While I wouldn’t exactly call the combined effect of this ‘mellowing’, they do nonetheless constitute a perceptible shift, one overwhelmingly apparent in the overall tone of the Andersen-Leiderkreis. Indeed, it’s tempting to think of it as a kind of post-neo-romanticism, rooted as it is in allusive idiomatic references to music of the later 1880s, particularly that of Grieg, Schubert and Schumann. Despite the lack of textual certainty, the range and extent of its emotions were strikingly apparent, Finnissy sometimes fracturing melodies with fourth wall-breaking bursts of speech. The first four songs were overall very restrained, Fraser’s part kept relatively simple, only building significantly in drama in the last of these opening songs; furthermore, Knoop’s hands seemed to be chained to the centre of the keyboard, hardly ever venturing beyond into outlying regions. The middle three songs run continuously, in every way expanding what had gone before, and developing a more complex mode of expression (encompassing all registers of the piano), though restraint still felt endemic, with pensive hesitance passing to a lilting triple metre (from which the complexity emerged) to the eighth song’s plain prayerfulness, approaching about as close to the soundworld of (dare I say it) mainstream contemporary music as Finnissy ever has. Of the final four songs, the ninth, exploring the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes was perhaps not Finnissy’s finest hour; its oversimplistic superficiality suggested a piece written with an audience of children in mind (I know, I know, can’t it appeal to the child in all of us, etc., etc.?—yes, maybe, but it just didn’t). One felt something of a sense of going over the same musical ground in the tenth and eleventh songs, though the twelfth and final song was something else entirely, Fraser and Knoop united in an immense (but even here understated) burst of deep, romantic passion, making for a powerfully moving conclusion.

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF, Premières
Tags: ,

6 Responses to HCMF 2016: Mark Knoop + Juliet Fraser

  1. Alan Munro

    Well done Simon, another great cycle of reviews. Enjoy a well earned rest!
    I think the quality of the printed programme has declined in recent years. No text now seems standard and short biographies of performers are no longer available. Is this due to more information being freely available online? Is it general cost cutting? I strongly believe sung text and translation should always be provided. A good Festival then? Not a great one? I still felt like i was leaving a party far too early when i left.

    • 5:4

      Thanks for the kind words Alan – it was good to see you again! i’m not fussed about the short performer biographies – they’re all so generic and interchangeable that i stopped reading them years ago. But the lack of sung text is a real problem, although HCMF regularly gives separate handouts for some concerts, including the complete (very long) text for Haas’ Hyena on the opening Saturday night. Because of that i expected the same to happen for the Finnissy/Lang concert, so it was a real shame (and frustratingly inconsistent!) that they didn’t. As for how good it was overall, i’ve just written some reflections about that…

  2. Chris L

    Simon, the “Hear and Now concert” from the second Saturday night is well worth investigating on iPlayer if you missed it. Touchingly, it was dedicated to Pauline Oliveros mere hours after news of her death broke.

    • 5:4

      Rest assured both broadcasts were recorded in my absence (I never use iPlayer!) – and I quickly edited down the second one yesterday morning, really looking forward to it.

      • Chris L

        I was unexpectedly able to attend, after being given a last-minute offer of childcare. Perhaps surprisingly for such a long HCMF gig, there were no real duds IMHO, although I guess the Pursglove/Stronen improvisation might not be to everyone’s taste.

        • 5:4

          I’m glad Peyee Chen got to perform those two songs by Finnissy – her performance of them in Edinburgh last month was really excellent. It’ll be great to hear them again.

Add a Comment

Anti-Spam Quiz: