Premières

Chiyoko Szlavnics – Materia/Immateria (World Première)

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Due to various compositional projects, i’ve not been able to give 5:4 much focus in the last few weeks, but now that i have some breathing space, it’s time to catch up on the more interesting recent premières and new releases.

As well as being interesting, one of the most unlikely premières took place as part of Glasgow’s marvellously leftfield Tectonics festival. Born in Canada, based in Berlin, Chiyoko Szlavnics‘ music is heard extremely rarely in the UK, and i suspect this is more than a little in part due to the nature of her mode of expression. Szlavnics begins each composition with a drawing; they tend to combine aspects that would seem at home in technical drawings—grids, charts, measurements—alongside elements that are more fluid and improvisational (examples can be seen on her website). The drawing is then ‘translated’ into sound, pitches and durations being derived from the way the drawing presents itself on the page. The result is material composed for the most part of slithering individual lines, each moving slowly, sliding up and down, sometimes hovering, over long periods of time. It makes for an aloof, bald aesthetic, sufficiently challenging that it is hardly surprising (although disappointing) that her work isn’t featured in British concerts more often. Read more

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Helen Grime – Near Midnight (World Première)

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At last year’s Proms, Helen Grime’s focus was on the night; her latest orchestral work—the first in her rôle as Associate Composer to the Hallé Orchestra—continues that theme, in part taking its inspiration from a poem by D. H. Lawrence, title ‘Week-night service’, which begins thus:

The five old bells
Are hurrying and eagerly calling,
Imploring, protesting
They know, but clamorously falling
Into gabbling incoherence, never resting,
Like spattering showers from a bursten sky-rocket dropping
In splashes of sound, endlessly, never stopping.

It is to Lawrence’s striking bell-imagery that Grime is most drawn in her work Near Midnight, although less in the guise of obvious peals than in insistent material and a decidedly restless mood. Where both are concerned, i suppose one should dispatch an obvious bugbear at the outset. Writing about Night Songs last August, i described the obvious similarity of some of Grime’s music to that of her teacher, Oliver Knussen, and if anything that comes across even more forcefully in Near Midnight. Various choices of orchestration, the way certain sections of the orchestra interact as well as the treatment of the work’s principal motif all smack so heavily of Knussen that it actually becomes something of a distraction. This doesn’t cause the work to founder, as such, but the episodes where traces of influence are less obvious are so engaging that one only wishes there were more of them. These are to be found in the work’s softer, less focused passages, where the orchestra’s seemingly inescapable urge for chatter—this is a very noisy midnight—is abated. Here, Grime makes things magical by polarising her forces into very high and low registers, such as the section a couple of minutes in, where high flutes sing out over deep rumbling punctuations, as well as the work’s third section, in which slow, meandering violins emerge from an entirely dissipated texture to deliver what Grime calls the work’s “melodic core”. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Tree of Strings (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 2 Comments

A couple of summers ago, the Beloved and i could be found on a small boat offshore from the idyllic town of Portree, on the east coast of the Isle of Skye. Taking in caves and sea eagles, we sailed along the edge of the smaller island of Raasay, a sparsely-populated but beautiful sliver of land nestling between Skye and the Scottish mainland. This remote place was home to Harrison Birtwistle during part of the 1970s and ’80s, and is central to the last string quartet i’m featuring in this year’s Lent series, his Tree of Strings, composed in 2007. The title originates in a poem written by another Raasay resident, the renowned Hebridean poet Sorley Maclean (whose work i highly recommend), and the piece seeks to tap into both subjective memories and objective history of Raasay, a place that, despite its diminutive size, saw its fair share of drama, both with respect to the Jacobite conflict as well as piracy. Read more

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James Dillon – String Quartets No. 5 (World Première) and No. 6 (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 7 Comments

Despite their official numbering, the last two string quartets written by Scotland’s most brilliantly inventive composer, James Dillon, were actually composed the opposite way round to how they appear. His String Quartet No. 5 was originally begun as a gift for the Arditti Quartet, to celebrate their 30th anniversary. However, Dillon ultimately put the work aside unfinished, before returning to complete it a few years later, sending it to Irvine Arditti unannounced, now as a gift for their 35th anniversary. In the intervening period, Dillon had already completed what would subsequently be called his String Quartet No. 6. Regardless of the numbers, though, the two works have much in common, in terms of duration (each lasting around 15 minutes) as well as the type and treatment of their material. Read more

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Christopher Fox – Chambre privée (World Première)

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Imagine a culture in which the string quartet has no history. No Haydn, no late-Beethoven, no Bartok, no Eleanor Rigby. How would a group of four string players – why four? why not? why two violins? maybe the bass player couldn’t get up the stairs… How would a group of four string players know what to play, how to play together?

The next work featured in my Lent series is Chambre privée, a new quartet from Christopher Fox which was premièred at Huddersfield last November. It’s a piece i find interesting, but not really at all for the reasons the composer is intending. The trouble is that potentially fascinating conceit described in the programme note—or, rather, the sounds his quartet makes with regard to that conceit. Their behaviour for much of the piece is, as Fox states, “tentative”, guarded even. But not, as one might imagine, toward one another; on the contrary, the quartet immediately coalesces into a homogeneous unit articulating an extended series of soft, meticulously placed chords. Why do they act together? why are they so cautious? so restrained? so careful? The chords themselves aren’t particularly suggestive of anything, per se (although the ear makes a progression of sorts from them), yet they overwhelmingly sound sculpted, considered, not at all the product of spontaneity arising from the blank pages of non-history. Being spontaneous doesn’t necessarily connote chaos, of course, but—considering these players have supposedly nothing upon which to predicate their actions—is it really commensurate with instantaneous, long-term order? Read more

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Simon Steen-Andersen – String Quartet No. 2 (UK Première)

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If there’s one thing practically guaranteed every year at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, it’s the presence of a string quartet that approaches the medium from a radical perspective, one that does away, almost entirely, with its traditions and connotations. The next work in my Lent series focusing on new quartets is just such a piece: Simon Steen-Andersen‘s String Quartet No. 2, given its first UK performance at HCMF 2012 by the Bozzini Quartet. It wasn’t so very long ago, writing about another recent quartet, Hans Abrahamsen’s String Quartet No. 4, that i critiqued quite harshly music that stretched its modest quota of restricted material far, far too thinly, with mind-numbing results. By contrast, Steen-Andersen demonstrates that it’s possible to confine almost every aspect of the work while maintaining high levels of invention and interest. Read more

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Richard Barrett – 13 selfportraits (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 5 Comments

The next quartet i’m including in my Lent series is one that i’ve been grappling with for over a decade. When Richard Barrett’s 13 selfportraits was given its first UK performance at the Huddersfield Festival in 2002, i can’t have been the only person in the audience to have been struck hard by its apparent impenetrability. That’s not an epithet one would usually associate with Barrett; there’s layer upon layer of intricacy and connotation in his work, but almost always borne by material that’s both immediate and strikingly emotional. Put crudely, grasping exactly what Barrett’s on about isn’t always straight forward, but getting where he’s coming from certainly is. All of which makes the 13 selfportraits even more of an unusual and inscrutable entity.

It’s perhaps not unreasonable to find the work problematic; in his programme note, Barrett addresses this when explaining its structural aspects:

Although it does indeed consist of thirteen structural elements (of widely differing durations), these do not follow each other in sequence but are often fragmented, alternated, superimposed and so on; one of them is distributed throughout the work’s duration, ending as well as beginning it, and reappearing within and between the others. So it is neither a composition in several independent parts nor a single unfolding time span, but a combination of the two.

I am rather intrigued by the fact that exactly the same music might be described as “confused and incoherent” or on the other hand “a sequence of exquisite miniatures” depending on whether it presents itself in the form of separate “movements” or not. (Imagine, for example, playing Webern’s op.10 without any breaks between the pieces, or even overlapping them…) The present work attempts not to define itself one way or the other, so that if it does sound confused, then perhaps it might be exquisitely so.

Read more

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HCMF 2012: Cikada Ensemble

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The last concert i attended in my weekend at HCMF 2012 took place back in Bates Mill, in the company of Norway’s remarkable Cikada Ensemble, whom i’ve been fortunate to hear on a number of occasions. More than most, Cikada tend to give off an air of almost aggressive fearlessness, and while that quality permeated this concert in abundance, the three exceptionally diverse works they explored nonetheless each delivered varying amounts of frustration. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Arditti Quartet

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Two months may have passed, but memories of the all-too-brief weekend i spent at HCMF 2012 are alive and well; so let’s pick up where i left off.

The second day of my HCMF experience began once again in St Paul’s Hall, confronted by the understated marvel that is the Arditti Quartet. Despite the palpable excitement that pervaded the previous day’s concerts, the atmosphere in the hall on this occasion was that unique kind of highly-charged tension that only a few performers and ensembles can engender. The quartet had brought with them four works that initially seemed strikingly different from each other, but three of them ultimately proved to be united by a common line of enquiry, making the most of out of, materially speaking, very little. Read more

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Ferneyhough Week – Plötzlichkeit (UK Première)

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A principal thread running through much of Brian Ferneyhough’s music is one that plays with notions of linear narrative. It has been present as far back as the Sonatas for String Quartet, composed in 1967, which intercuts two entirely separate materials, one strictly serial, the other intuitive. Incipits (1996)—drawing inspiration from Italo Calvino’s book ‘If on a winter’s night a Traveller’—sidestepped narrative completely through an examination of ways a composition can be started, and we’ve already seen how Exordium employs a radically abstracted example of this, providing an anthology of fragments from which the listener is left to derive their own kind of narrative. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Carl Vine – Ring out, wild bells (World Première)

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This year’s Festival of Nine Lessons andamp; Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, had been prefaced by two newspaper articles, in the Guardian andamp; the Telegraph, both of which went to some lengths to emphasise choir director Stephen Cleobury’s determination to include new music in the service. It was therefore very disappointing that, while the tally usually runs to at least three, this year’s service featured just a single example of recognisably contemporary music: the newly commissioned carol, which for this occasion was composed by Carl Vine.

Vine chose Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Ring out, wild bells as his text, matching its string of adjurations with a simple but rich tonal language, pulling the choir through a never-ending series of smooth harmonic contortions. Vine’s music feels intimately well-matched to the words, his setting thereby becoming a meaningful vehicle for reflection, particularly when the piece veers towards more negative emphases. 2012 has seen more than its fair share of tragedy andamp; loss, andamp; confronted by exhortations such as “Ring out the grief that saps the mind” andamp; “Ring out a slowly dying cause” (it’s tempting to hear these lines as “wring out”), one can only sigh andamp; agree wholeheartedly with their sentiments. Read more

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In Memoriam: Jonathan Harvey – Messages (World Première)

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To find myself writing the words “In Memoriam” for the third time in as many months is deeply saddening, all the more so as the loss of Jonathan Harvey, who died two days ago aged 73, is one that feels particularly acute here in the UK. Whether Harvey was our ‘best’ composer is hardly relevant, but he was surely one of our deepest, with a passion and insight into sacred thought and action that made him entirely unique, and not just within the British Isles. In fact, the mystical tension that operated within himself – irresistibly intermingling an urge to the radically new with an instinct for age-old numinosity – is perhaps the most fascinating and engaging aspect of his oeuvre, manifesting itself in practically everything he composed. For a long time i’ve been wanting to devote some serious attention on 5:4 to Harvey’s music, but for now i’ll make do with this, the first performance of one of his more recent large-scale works, Messages. It’s from a concert in March 2008 given by the Berlin Radio Choir and Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw. Read more

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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): James Long, Matthew Martin, William Whitehead

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Last week’s Advent Carol Service from St John’s College, Cambridge, once again included several pieces of more recent music. The newly commissioned piece came from a composer i’ve not heard of, James Long. Long’s anthem, Vigilate, weaves together words from the Biblical books of Mark and Revelation to arrive at a text that, in a nutshell, backs up its titular imperative—“watch!”—with an emphatic “or else”. The music is fairly standard-issue new choral music, yet it’s not without some telling moments; the opening and closing stanzas perhaps punch hardest, and while Long’s use of snatches of Latin to echo the English is odd, the appearance of “gallicantu” (“cock’s crow”) is nicely judged. The middle stanzas lose their way somewhat, getting bogged down in the words, but the conclusion of “and every eye shall see him, And they also which pierced him”, where the men’s voices are abruptly silenced to leave just the trebles, is very striking. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Ensemble Resonanz

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The first day of my weekend at HCMF ended back where it had begun, in St Paul’s Hall, for a late-night concert by Ensemble Resonanz, conducted by Peter Rundel. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 and comprised just three pieces, all focusing on strings, two of which featured solo cello, played by Jean-Guihen Queyras.

It began with the UK première of Rolf Wallin‘s Ground, the title of which alludes to the cyclic Baroque form of divisions, whereby a repeating bassline (the ground) is gradually overlaid with layers of faster material. That description probably suggests a certain amount of mayhem, but Ground is a decidedly pensive piece—Wallin describes it as “about finding rest”—in which the solo cello is closely surrounded by the rest of the strings, together forming a close collaboration. Furthermore, while the work has no repeating bassline (seven chords are the indiscernible equivalent here), it is highly episodic, exploring an extensive cycle of moods and atmospheres. A collaboration it may be, but it’s an intrepid one, bringing to mind a gradual descent into the earth (a connotation of the title?), passing through increasingly dark and ambiguous layers of strata. What makes the piece particularly interesting is its central melodic identity; Wallin allows tension to manifest itself in diffident, unstable music, but it never comes off the rails, preserving the sense of a pre-planned mission, rather than a mystery tour. At the work’s conclusion it enters its most cryptic episode; bordering on a stasis, both soloist and strings arrange themselves into a dense web of gently wafting notes. It begs the question: is this the ‘rest’ Wallin was striving for? or is the mission not yet completed? Read more

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Tōru Takemitsu – From me flows what you call time (UK Première)

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It was on this day, in 1930, that one of my favourite composers, the great Tōru Takemitsu, was born. So to mark what would have been his 82nd birthday, here’s one of his most spectacular orchestral works, the wonderfully-named From me flows what you call time. The title is taken from a poem by the Japanese poet Makoto Ooka, titled “Clear Blue Water”:

Summer trip to Switzerland:
in our bellies, sausages
eaten on the Zermatt terrace,
foot of the Matterhorn,
slowly turns into
heat: 1000 calories each.

As we climb up and up
the Furka Pass, my eyes
suddenly are perforated
by a billion particles
of heavenly blue:
across the valley a giant
mountain rampart:
The Glacier.

Swinging up its snow-
crowned sky-blue fist,
that ancient water spirit
shouts:

“From me
flows
what you
call Time.”

Down from that colossal
mass of shining ice
flows the majestic
River Rhone.

The piece is in part inspired by the Tibetan idea of the wind horse, an allegorical conception of the human soul, familiar to many in the well-known associated sequence of five coloured flags, representative of the elements: fire (red), water (blue), earth (yellow), sky (white) and wind (green). Takemitsu makes the number five significant; the work’s principal theme is essentially a five-note motif, and in addition to the orchestra he writes for a five-piece percussion ensemble. Percussion, in fact, dominates the piece, decked out with a plethora of exotic bells, chimes, gongs, singing bowls and drums to the point that it could almost be described as a percussion concerto. Nonetheless, though, the 30-minute work displays Takemitsu’s typically fine instrumental homogeneity, every instrument seemingly directed towards a common objective, albeit an objective that is often both nebulous and fluid. Takemitsu’s penchant for strolling around gardens when contemplating new compositions makes itself felt as much in this piece as in so many of his others, moving to and between a large number of ‘scenes’ or ‘vistas’, moments when his exquisite textural vagueness abruptly coalesces into something tangible. Read more

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Proms 2012: the premières – how you voted

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Two weeks have passed since the Proms 2012 season came to an end, so today i’ve closed the polls for each of the works premièred this year. This was the first year that i included polls, and in total 615 votes were cast; thanks to all of you who took part. i’ve taken a careful look at the results, and they make for interesting reading; here’s a summary of how you voted.


Worst New Work

Bob Chilcott – The Angry Planet

69% of readers reacted negatively to this piece, rising to 85% if we include those who could muster only a “meh” in response. It’s understandable really; Bob Chilcott’s considerable abilities did him no favours in this vapid anthology of sentiment. The work’s message—both in terms of words and music—is stale and unconvincing, barely rising to the level of a mere divertissement. It’s hard to tell whether composer and librettist were trying too hard or not hard enough, but either way, it falls woefully short of its elevated aspirations.

Runners up

Eric Whitacre – Higher, Faster, Stronger
Elaine Agnew – Dark Hedges

Eric Whitacre’s full-fat musical confectionary has a proven tendency to distract listeners from its inadequacies, so i was surprised to see that so many 5:4 readers shared my view about his Olympic tie-in new work. 62% of you didn’t like it, and who can blame you? It looked for a while as though Elaine Agnew’s piece would be voted the worst new work, but it rallied some last-minute support that pushed it into third place. Clearly i wasn’t the only one exasperated by its incessant need for percussive novelty, which turned the piece into an irritating slice of bombast, entirely at odds with its evocative inspiration.


Best New Work

Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 7

Per Nørgård’s newest symphony received an overwhelming 91% positive response, which makes for an interesting contrast to the reception of his Sixth Symphony—performed at the Proms ten years ago—which seemed to bamboozle both audiences and critics alike. All the same, Nørgård’s Symphony No. 7 is by no means an ‘easy’ listen (“beautiful and bewildering in equal measure” as i wrote in my review), so it’s heart-warming to see such an uncompromising work meet with such a positive response.

Runners up

Mark Simpson – sparks
Michael Finnissy – Piano Concerto No. 2

Mark Simpson’s reputation has been given a significant boost by coming up trumps with his Last Night work, which managed to be intricate and unusual while remaining immediate and accessible. Michael Finnissy’s music—so rarely heard in the UK—was both a deeply refreshing experience and also something of a revelation, making abundantly clear just how similar so many British composers sound these days. Finnissy, as he always has, stands alone, sounding absolutely unique. i’ll reassert what i wrote in my review, the hope that Finnissy’s music will be heard much more often on these shores in future, particularly at the Proms.


Speaking personally, i broadly agree with how you voted. i think my own favourite of the premières was Finnissy’s Piano Concerto No. 2, but Charlotte Bray’s At the Speed of Stillness was highly impressive too, and Julian Philips’ Sorowfull Songes—which seems to have fallen off the radar of many listeners and critics—and Brian Elias’ Electra Mourns were both surprisingly powerful works. As for the worst, it’s hard to argue with your results, but i’m still staggered by the ineptitude of Emily Howard’s Calculus of the Central Nervous System; mistakes of that magnitude really ought not to be made in public.

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Proms 2012: Mark Simpson – sparks (World Première)

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Last Night, almost two months after it began, the 2012 Proms season closed with its traditional cross between a concert and a piss-up. A relatively new addition to its arcane traditions is beginning proceedings with the première of a new work, and this year the mantle fell to Mark Simpson. One can hardly relish his task, composing something to kick-start what’s effectively a party, but his chosen title, sparks, suggested Simpson had sized up the context pretty well. It was given its first performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek. Read more

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Proms 2012: Eric Whitacre – Higher, Faster, Stronger; Imogen Heap – The Listening Chair (World Premières)

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Yesterday’s late night Prom focused on the USA’s most popular manufacturer of choral music, Eric Whitacre. Featuring his own choir joining forces with the BBC Singers and ensemblebash, the concert included two world premières, a new work of Whitacre’s own plus an arrangement by him of a new song by the UK’s most brilliantly eclectic chanteuse, Imogen Heap. Read more

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Proms 2012: Helen Grime – Night Songs (World Première)

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Partway through last Saturday’s Proms world première of Night Songs, the new work from Helen Grime, conductor Oliver Knussen dropped his glasses. To listen to the performance, one would hardly have noticed; yet, at the end, Knussen announced the mishap to the audience and remarked how he thought it had gone well, “but I’d just like to play it again to make sure”—and thus, Night Songs was immediately given a second world première. Quite apart from the graciousness of that act, it makes one wonder why this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often anyway; on the very rare occasions when i’ve been at a concert where a new work has been played twice (usually in each half of the concert, not immediately afterwards), it has always proved to be an extremely valuable experience, benefiting the piece immeasurably and sometimes drastically altering one’s first impressions. Concert planners: take note. Read more

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Proms 2012: Emily Howard – Calculus of the Central Nervous System (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 1 Comment

Last Tuesday saw the first UK performance of Emily Howard‘s Calculus of the Central Nervous System, an orchestral work inspired by the thinking of the English mathematician Ada Lovelace. Premièred at last year’s Wien Modern Festival by the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna, it was performed on this occasion by the CBSO conducted by Andris Nelsons. Read more

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