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.