Proms 2018: Tansy Davies – What Did We See?; Jessica Wells – Rhapsody for solo oud; Joby Talbot – Ink Dark Moon (World Premières); Georg Friedrich Haas – Concerto Grosso No. 1 (UK Première)

Every year the nature of the works premièred at the Proms – presumably due in part to the festival’s (i.e. the BBC’s) risk-averse emphasis on popularity and familiarity over challenge and provocation – veers wildly between extremes of light- and heavyweight fare. The most recent quartet of new works, considered together, are in many respects a vivid microcosm of this qualitative inconsistency.

However, there’s a world of difference between a trifle and mere triviality. No-one would claim – least of all the composer herself – that Jessica WellsRhapsody for solo oud, given its world première at Cadogan Hall on 30 July by oud-meister Joseph Tawadros, was anything more than a simple miniature workout for the instrument. From a tentative series of arpeggios, like warm-up exercises, the music develops into its main idea: rapid, syncopated music, redolent in style of the instrument’s Middle Eastern provenance, interspersed partway through with a slower episode exploring motifs in a more improvisational way. And that’s all there was to it – but this didn’t matter in the slightest, Tawadros executing the piece with such panache that its relatively narrow scope felt not simply forgiveable but beside the point. It was what it was and nothing more: an amuse-bouche (amuse-oreille?), brief, vivacious, harmless fun.

Unfortunately Ink Dark Moon, a new guitar concerto by Joby Talbot, perpetrated premièred a couple of days ago at the Royal Albert Hall, also was what it was and nothing more. Which we’ll get to in a moment. My contact with Joby Talbot’s work has been minimal (not deliberately so), limited to his contributions to The Divine Comedy‘s output during the late ’90s plus three other pieces: a 2011 arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G minor (which i loved), Camille: a short lovesong for solo piano (which i found charming), and his hour-long choral work Path of Miracles (which pretty much blew me away).

None of these pieces was an adequate preparation for the extended exercise in nothingness that is Ink Dark Moon. For nearly 25 minutes, soloist Miloš Karadaglić and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, directed (one assumes) by Alexander Vedernikov, collectively (r)ambled their way with the most abject vacancy through sequence after sequence after sequence of the most basic, casual, inconsequential, childish noodling. Endless arpeggios, endless swathes of minimalistic mumbling, endless stretches of harmonic stasis overlaid with arbitrary filigree, much of it infected with one of the many strains of the Zimmer filmic virus that continues to inflict such a devastating, terminal toll on so much ‘new’ music. With its title taken from mediaeval Japanese love poetry, one can only wonder whether Talbot was aspiring to reach for the unique, solemn yet whimsical improvisational drift of Takemitsu – yet Takemitsu never leaves one wondering where the music’s going, never taxes one’s patience, never leaves one questioning the point of it all (not just the music, but life itself), never leaves one inwardly screaming at the music to shut the hell up in desperate response to its malignant, crapulence-inducing levels of insubstantial, artificially-sweetened junk. If it didn’t take itself so completely seriously – and Karadaglić is as much to blame for this as Talbot – it would hardly matter (see above) but, incredibly, Ink Dark Moon does just that. As such, the work isn’t just a failure, it’s a sham, a pretence, a fraud: nothing more than the most cretinous compositional ineptitude masquerading as a meaningful musical achievement. Disgusting and disgraceful.

Light years away from such meretricious idiocy was the first UK performance of Georg Friedrich Haas‘ Concerto Grosso No. 1. Depending on the extent to which Haas’ tongue is in his cheek – which at times can be hard to tell – the title (borrowed from the Baroque period) is significant. The conventional group of soloists (concertino) is here taken, rather startlingly, by a quartet of alphorns, which from Haas’ perspective “are not seen as symbols of folklorist culture, but rather as the source of another dimension of intonation (overtone chords), used to create contrast and to expand the traditional twelve tone tuning of the symphony orchestra”. This is in keeping with Haas’ ongoing playful preoccupation with exploring the very stuff of sound – often utilising unconventional sources or techniques – and its concomitant effects. The title also implies (more in hindsight) something about the structure of the piece; of the two kinds of concerto grosso, Haas’ bears some abstracted similarities to the concerto da chiesa, the church-based form in which the music alternates between slow and fast material (i’m not going to draw any conclusions about whether that connection implies any spiritual connotations).

Premièred last Monday by Hornroh Alphorn Quartet with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov, it’s a strange piece, though, from a behavioural perspective, a simple one. The relationship between the alphorn concertino group and the orchestra (ripieno) is something of a parallel one: at times this can be interpreted as being akin to a conversation; elsewhere it’s a less obviously-connected alternation between two disjunct elements. The alphorns are principally concerned with extended, free-form, seemingly pulseless meditations on pitch, their notes microtonally jostling against each other, causing complex beat patterns (echoes of his Trombone Octet). The orchestra places emphasis on rhythm and meter, presenting episodes full of regularity and order, though their pitch content displays the same slithery quality as that of the alphorns, and in time the regularity becomes subject to shifts in tempo. Are the alphorns having an effect on the orchestra? Certainly, the relationship seems much more intimate later on when there’s a lengthy sharing of a soft major 7th chord (which in due course becomes beautifully coloured by the alphorns’ natural harmonics). Haas seems to be clarifying that the ostensibly disparate opening was in fact two facets of the same musical thinking, resulting a little over halfway through in a sequence of such grandiosity and scope that it instantly brings Bruckner to mind, the alphorns resembling the composer’s beloved Wagner tubas. The back-and-forth at the heart of Haas’ Concerto Grosso No. 1 persistently tends towards stasis, giving the impression that the work has simply been extruded directly from the eternal, changeless harmonic series, its rhythmic language the by-product of (often close, dissonant) intervallic relationships, its melodic impulse a temporary deviation from fixed overtone degrees that needs, yearns, for its inevitable resolution. As it so often is in Haas’ music, it’s all, ultimately, about pitch.

Commissioned to mark the 70th anniversary of the Third Programme (which actually began broadcasting 72 years ago), What Did We See? is a cross between a suite and a symphonic poem in which Tansy Davies has referred to, recomposed and otherwise reworked material from her 9/11-inspired opera Between Worlds. The first thing to say is that knowing the opera isn’t in any way contingent on being able to appreciate What Did We See? i can vouch for that personally, as i have to confess i still haven’t got round to listening to my recording of the opera, though hearing this has made me want to get on with that as soon as possible. Furthermore, Davies has described the work as being much more abstract and atmospheric than the opera, implying its focus has moved away from the more direct communication of a clear narrative.

The fact that, despite being detached and abstracted from the opera, What Did We See? is nonetheless linked to an absent narrative results in a highly captivating consequence, creating an inscrutable dramatic shape and demeanour. This prevents the piece from being a direct depiction of and/or comment on the specifics of 9/11, transforming it into a more supple composition that has wide potential for interpretation. It does, though, engage head-on with the actuality and aftermath of tragedy, progressing through four movements: ‘Dark Dream’, ‘What Just Happened?’, ‘Dance of Air and Wire, for Earth’ and ‘Tree of Life’. For good reason, this simple summary of its structure isn’t anything like as clear in the music, which only heightens that inscrutability and tightens its resultant tension. The first movement is lengthy (lasting more than half of the work’s 25-minute duration), yet as a whole, as its title implies, What Did We See? is far more concerned with the human impact of tragedy: the unfathomability of such disastrous immensity, and the stupor and numbness that precede inevitable, infinite pain. The titular second movement – which is practically a paradigm for the work as a whole – is extremely brief, hysteria that almost instantly turns inward. The titles of the last two movements should be read without making too many assumptions. The third movement’s ‘dance’ is barely recognisable as such: at best its remote, terminally unstable pitches manage to develop into something more muscular, but its contortions are blind and desperate, rapidly subsiding into extremely vague, monochrome rumbles and shuffling. And the final movement, though its title hints at hope in a distant (perhaps afterlife) future, is an epilogue that seeks in no way to dispel or diminish the reality of the present, bleak melodies assembling into a knackered counterpoint that abruptly, and unexpectedly – and, on reflection, rather horribly – peters out.

Considering its (implied) subject matter, it seems entirely appropriate that, having listened to the work numerous times, i feel i’m still only just starting to get the measure of it, to get my head around the unpredictability and the enormity of its mode of expression. By necessity, this is not remotely easy music; it demands time. The world première of What Did We See? was given on 25 July, by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Ben Gernon.

Tansy Davies – What Did We See? (World Première)

FLAC [114Mb]

Jessica Wells – Rhapsody for solo oud (World Première)

FLAC [23Mb]

Georg Friedrich Haas – Concerto Grosso No. 1 (UK Première)

FLAC [124Mb]

Joby Talbot – Ink Dark Moon (World Première)

FLAC [93Mb]

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Tansy Davies – What Did We See?

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Jessica Wells – Rhapsody for solo oud

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Georg Friedrich Haas – Concerto grosso No. 1

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Joby Talbot – Ink Dark Moon

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