Cheltenham Music Festival: Love Songs

Last night saw the second concert of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival to be almost completely devoted to contemporary music. i described the previous one, with E STuudio Youth Choir, as being “a mixed bag of confections”, and the same applies to this event, a piano recital titled ‘Love Songs’ by William Howard. The location and context were perfect: the Pillar Room in Cheltenham’s grand Town Hall, a relaxed space that, following a sweltering day, throbbed with humid heat.

Howard has commissioned an assortment of composers to write short works that could be described as love songs, but a couple of points about the outlook of this project are immediately problematic. First, Howard makes some decidedly odd introductory remarks, claiming that, due to the associations of the ‘song without words’ form with the Romantic era, to “commission a piano love song from a living composer might seem eccentric, or, in the case of a composer who writes abstract music, a meaningless or impossible challenge”. This was backed up by composer David Matthews’ programme note, which alleges that the “Romantic musical language of the 19th and early 20th centuries was ideally suited to the love song, far more than the various languages of our own day”. Both of these statements are the rankest fallacious nonsense. The expression of love, i would venture to aver, has been around for rather longer than the brief Romantic era, and does not have to come pre-packed with its aesthetic, style, manner and content already determined; when it does, it’s as impersonal and generic as a Hallmark™ greeting card. Second – and in light of the first point, this becomes more understandable – the range of composers chosen by Howard, though diverse, is demonstrably conservative in style, and while this is not a slight on any particular composer featured, it does a disservice to the much wider range of composers working today who presumably find no difficulty in being of a more ‘abstract’ musical disposition while still being able to both experience and express love.

In spite of these ludicrous assertions and their concomitant concerns, the concert contained much to enjoy. Both Judith Weir and Michael Zev Gordon explored light cheerfulness: in Weir’s fragile, this lilting whimsy alternated with big, rich triads, projecting a musical relationship of play and grand gestures – initially as counterpoints, later cohabiting – whereas in Gordon’s For Fiammetta (dedicated to his wife, and receiving its first performance), it acted to frame a richly-developed epicentre displaying definite traces of heat. In Solitary Highland Song, Howard Skempton displayed the ‘unsimple simplicity’ that’s unique to him, the work’s folk-like melody uncannily disarming in the way its apparently childish demeanour progressed in a modestly unexpected, mature fashion. Similar was Joby Talbot‘s Camille; inspired by Talbot’s eponymous eight-month year old daughter, while its language felt just a touch too basic and/or cliché here and there, the honesty of its charm was undeniable. As one might have anticipated, charm was a quality overtly exhibited by many pieces in this concert, and it’s a tribute to Howard’s skill and interpretative nuance that at no point did this feel milked or in any way indulgent. It would be pushing it to call his performance ‘matter of fact’, but not by much, and this only worked to the advantage of the programme overall.

David Matthews‘ imaginatively-titled A Love Song continued to express his desire to have been born a century earlier; i’m sure any number of early 20th (or even late 19th) century critics would have found his piece perfectly acceptable. More trying still were Richard Reed Parry‘s Fast Cloud: a love song and Elena Kats-Chernin‘s Roses in a Box, the latter a world première. Both pieces were so clearly derivative as to make it impossible to take them in any way seriously. Parry opted for a GSCE-level exercise in pastiche in the form of a neo-impressionistic wash of arpeggios; though more accomplished, Kats-Chernin’s music was equally basic with rented mannerisms, making its intended earnestness ring entirely hollow.

Included in the recital were three earlier works, by Schubert (arranged by Liszt), Josef Suk and Enrique Granados, and i’m tempted to say that Suk’s Píseň Lásky was the high point of the evening. Composed when the composer was in his late teens, it displayed something essentially absent from virtually all of the works in the concert: passion. Of course, there was a variety of ‘loves’ being expressed here, but the emphasis on tenderness and delicacy as a kind of default position became overwhelmingly obvious following the searing intensity of Suk’s music. Only two pieces really sought to make fire. The first performance of Piers Hellawell‘s Love on the Escalator (easily the best composition title i’ve encountered in ages, conjuring up some interesting mental images) was a masterful slow-burn. However, at first there wasn’t even the remotest sign of a spark, Hellawell starting in a place of indifference, before these aloof overtures warmed up, got excited and then—well, let’s leave it there, except to say that this was the only piece of the evening to give off a distinct post-coital glow at its close. It’s worth stressing that many aspects of this piece are decidedly abstract, yet the music’s potent immediacy – shouting its subtext to the ceiling – was undeniable. Cheryl Frances-Hoad went still further, opting to switch off her good taste and politeness attributes to compose A Love Song for Dusty, the most wildly exuberant work of pianistic audacity i’ve heard since Jan Erik Mikalsen’s 2014 homage to Liberace, Too much of a good thing is wonderful. One might also apply that title to this piece, Frances-Hoad positively revelling in her grandiloquent tribute to Dusty Springfield, piling on the gestures and allusions with unchecked ebullience, unafraid even to sprinkle a little cheese over it all, but the piece proved to be as tasty as it was honest.

The composer whose music most transparently and eloquently spoke of love – despite being in almost every respect the most ‘abstract’ of the evening – was Nico Muhly. Muhly’s programme note happily contradicted the earlier foolish pronouncements, stating very simply that “anything can be a love song, when sung with intent”. To prove it, his Falling Pairs (another world première) did just that, Muhly placing pairs of pitches as though they were particles floating in a fluid, being gently moved and caressed, re-positioned and juxtaposed – dancing, in fact – by unheard pulses moving through this unseen liquid. Simultaneously on a microscopic and a cosmic scale, here finally – devoid of anything begged, borrowed or stolen – was music that managed to fully capture the reality of love: intimate, intricate, infinitesimal, infinite.

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Premières
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19 Responses to Cheltenham Music Festival: Love Songs

  1. Chris L

    It sounds like RRP would be better off (quite literally – Lord knows how much it’ll have netted him by now!) sticking to the day job – on the strength of last Thursday night’s gig in Manchester, I’d say that’s where his true vocation lies…

    • 5:4

      As rock generally figures pretty low in my interests these days (’twas not always thus…), i’ve never given Arcade Fire any meaningful time; and on the ‘strength’ of this piece, i’m not particularly inclined to give them any now!

      • Chris L

        The de gustibus principle prevents me from making the obvious rejoinder about whose loss that might be…! ;-)

        I will, however, point out that there’s (luckily, by the sound of things!) a great deal more to AF than just RRP’s contribution (there tend to be c.8 of them at any given moment, after all), and that they lean far more towards electronica/dance than rock these days, if that helps to pique your interest in any way.

        • 5:4

          Okay, okay, when i get a chance, i’ll check out Reflektor

          • Chris L

            My work here is almost done! Before I leave you alone, though, [aims pistol at foot] IMHO Reflektor is lyrically the weakest of the four albums released to date and you’d be much better off with its predecessor, The Suburbs…but [wavers over whether to pull trigger] that is just MHO…

          • 5:4

            Well, i gave them both a bash: The Suburbs was way too Radio 2 for my liking, very vanilla, and while i liked the first few tracks of Reflektor a little better, it still wasn’t really holding my interest.

          • Chris L

            Fair enough; if their stuff doesn’t do it for you, it doesn’t do it for you, and I’m glad that you graciously gave it a chance. Have you had an opportunity to listen to that Jane Weaver album as well?

          • 5:4

            i did, listened about a month ago: so-so.

          • Chris L

            Now then, you see, there was something that I felt sure you’d lap up hungrily! Your refusal to be bound by “genre” in your critical responses is indeed admirable, but I can see how the very unpredictability it engenders must have driven your more “tribal” school peers nuts…

          • Chris L

            By the way, I notice that you gave Radiohead’s latest effort the lowest mark of any of the albums in your “complete list of ratings”. I’ve just been listening to it again, and…I’m tempted to agree. The first two tracks and the last two are wonderful (True Love Waits contains one of the most heartrending vocals Yorke has ever recorded, IMHO), but too much of the rest is “generic Radiohead”, with glimpses of greatness (while still present) too few and far between. Definitely their weakest post-Pablo Honey album, taken as a whole.

          • 5:4

            i was appalled by A Moon Shaped Pool to be honest. It seemed regressive, even fraudulent, by which i mean it felt that Radiohead were trying to do or be something different, whereas in their earlier work there’s an inevitability about it (even on Pablo Honey, which i’m not keen on), it’s natural, it’s the way they want to speak and the way the music wants to sound (i hope that doesn’t sound precious). A Moon Shaped Pool is nothing like that; obviously, i’m all for experimentation, trying new things, but little about it felt natural, or indeed interesting, which was a genuine shock to hear.

  2. Daniel Pett

    As much as I agree with your sentiment, Matthews’ and Howard’s comments are still understandable. Interesting to see you enjoyed Muhly’s piece so much. I’ll test his comment by serenading my heart’s desire with Sequenza 6 and see if it works.

    • 5:4

      No, i don’t think their comments are remotely understandable: they’re clearly stating that expressions of love are intimately bound-up in the specifics of Romantic-era musical style and aesthetic, which is patently absurd. Matthews, in particular, is simply trying to extend his own compositional predilections into a generalisation about all music, which is as sad as it is stupid.

      • Daniel Pett

        Taken out of their context, their comments don’t seem to suggest that the love song is ‘intimately’ bound up in older musical aesthetics, more that it’s more commonly associated with such aesthetics but to use that as an excuse is, as you say, stupid. If such an association, however unfounded or weak it may be, didn’t exists, a concert of new commissions that are all love songs might not have the novel (but not trivial) appeal that I thought it did. I would have gone if I had been free.

        I’d love to know of any other contemporary love songs that you can suggest. The only pieces that come to mind are opera arias, Nyman’s 8 Lust songs and Turangalila, although you could hardly call that contemporary.

        • 5:4

          i can recommend a double CD by Ensemble Recherche from 2014, called Liebeslieder and devoted to ‘love songs’ they’ve commissioned from a much more genuinely diverse collection of composers. It’s on the Wergo label, and you can find it on Amazon here. There are 30 pieces in total, and in my opinion the best ones are by Hans Abrahamsen, Georg Friedrich Haas, Enno Poppe, Rolf Riehm and Jörg Widmann, but there’s not really a duff one among them. My (rather too brief) review of the album is here.

          Beyond this, there’s Claude Vivier’s wonderfully unhinged Love Songs (on this disc); last year’s ECM disc of Gavin Bryars’ music includes his Two Love Songs, the second of which – ‘Solo et pensoso’ – is really lovely; and then of course there’s Michael Finnissy (whom William Howard should definitely commission!): the Folklore disc includes his ‘My love is like a red red rose’, which is gorgeous, and there’s three more love-inspired pieces on the Gershwin Arrangements/More Gershwin album (my review of those is here).

          Those should keep you going for a while :)

          • Daniel Pett

            Thanks for such a wide ranging list.

            If there’s a composer whom I’d wish Howard to commission a love song from, it would be Ferneyhough, mainly to see the kind of programme note he’d write.

  3. William Howard

    May I pitch in here, to say how grateful I am to you for writing about my Cheltenham concert last Sunday. I am also grateful for any debate that arises from my commissioning project, but I am surprised to be accused of claiming that expressions of love belong exclusively to the Romantic Era. In the introduction that you quote from, I wrote: ‘Love songs can be found, of course, in music across the world and across the centuries, but the idea of songs without words for piano conjures up an image of something belonging far more to the nineteenth century than to the twenty-first’. Could you be a bit more specific about why you feel that statement is ‘the rankest, fallacious nonsense’, given that I am talking about a particular genre of piano music, not about love music in general? If there is a repertoire of contemporary piano pieces out there that can be described as ‘love songs’ maybe you could point me in the right direction. Google hasn’t taken me much further than Richard Clayderman….

    I am glad to hear about the Ensemble Recherche album that you mention, which, although not a solo piano album, does feature love songs without words. It seems that the Ensemble’s mission statement is quite unequivocal. The ‘product description’ goes as follows:

    ‘During preparations for their 25th anniversary in 2010, the ensemble recherche came to the conclusion that there are no love songs anymore!’ So they requested such pieces for the celebration from various composer friends.’ I wonder what you make of their claim…

    My own project to commission a large number of piano ‘love songs’ from living composers (which, incidentally, took me hundreds of unpaid hours of fundraising and administration before I started learning them all) is in fact motivated by a desire to show that composers DO write about love these days. It is an attempt to open a door for people (I have met many) who believe that contemporary music doesn’t engage the emotions. As a performer I have been involved in over 100 commissions and have spent over 35 years trying to bring contemporary music to a wider audience. Suggestions of how I can do this better would be welcome, but please don’t attribute views to me that I don’t actually hold!

    • 5:4

      Hi William, thanks for your comment. i don’t believe i’ve mis-attributed any views to anyone. Your own remark, which i – and you – quoted, says very simply, “the idea of songs without words for piano conjures up an image of something belonging far more to the nineteenth century than to the twenty-first”. No it doesn’t – at least, not to me. There’s a very clear implication here – reinforced by David Matthews’ assertions in his programme note – that musical expressions of this sort are anachronistic beyond that historical context. Or, to put it another way, contemporary music is qualitatively different such that expressions of love/songs without words seem fundamentally out of place/unsuitable. This is a complete fallacy, one that far too many people would no doubt mistakenly believe to be true, even more so when implied/asserted in a concert situation such as yours. And if i responded strongly to this, it’s because – particularly at a festival such as Cheltenham, ever teetering on falling back into complete conservatism – this kind of thing needs to be swiftly and robustly challenged. And also because, being myself a composer of what some might call ‘abstract music’, i know how compatible this is with composing music expressing all manner of deeply-felt emotions. (i’ve love to prove this by writing one for you!) Music – indeed, any art – of any age is just as capable of expressing love or formulating what we might call ‘songs without words’ as any other. The 19th century was merely one incarnation of it. Not necessarily the best or ‘truest’ one.

      Concerning Ensemble Recherche, i think what they said about there not appearing to be any ‘love songs’ being written for ensemble was no doubt true (for the most part), but this is a quantitative observation not an implication of qualitative difference. This is a vital distinction.

      But what matters most is that what they and you are doing in commissioning these pieces is a very good thing indeed – i’m sure in this respect we are in absolute agreement!

      • Chris L

        Sorry, me again. It strikes me that the “offending” choice of words above is “…belonging…to…”, which may not have been intended to imply that the song without words for piano should be considered an exclusively 19th-century phenomenon, but certainly can be read that way; and that if this were replaced with something much more clearly value-neutral, such as “…associated…with…” (which in fact paraphrases you, Simon), the essential sense of William’s statement would be preserved without giving rise to grounds for dispute.

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