Premières

Proms 2011: John Tavener – Popule meus (UK Première)

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Right, where were we? Saturday 3 September brought the last of the Proms’ Matinee concerts from the Cadogan Hall, each of which has featured contemporary music prominently. This final occasion was no exception, including works by Tippett and Sofia Gubaidulina, and presenting the first UK performance of John Tavener‘s Popule meus. The work bears a similarity to one of Tavener’s most well-known pieces, The Protecting Veil, also scored for solo cello and strings, augmented here by a prominent role for timpani; it was performed by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by David Hill, with the solo part taken by Natalie Clein. Tavener’s title, Popule meus (‘O my people’), is a reference to the Reproaches, one of the most poignant texts to be sung during Holy Week, in which God puts humanity on the spot about their wholesale rejection of Him. It takes place at a time of great solemnity on Good Friday, and becomes one of the most challenging moments in the Christian year. As such, it is in every way the complete opposite of Tavener’s piece, which strives for tragedy, but ends up merely tragic. Read more

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Proms 2011: Graham Fitkin – L; Cello Concerto (World Première)

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The music of Graham Fitkin has been featured twice this week at the Proms, both occasions in the hands of cellist Yo-Yo Ma. First came L, a work for cello and piano composed for Ma’s 50th birthday (commissioned by Kathryn Stott, who accompanied the performance), while this evening’s Prom brought the world première of Fitkin’s Cello Concerto. Read more

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Proms 2011: Anders Hillborg – Cold Heat (UK Première)

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Monday evening’s Prom brought one of the pieces i’ve most been looking forward to hear in this year’s season, the first London performance of Cold Heat by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg. Few composers in recent times have revivified the Straussian idea of the symphonic poem more effectively than Hillborg, although his approach avoids overtly programmatic ideas. Hillborg prefers more abstract but no less evocative subject matter, and this train of compositional thought is continued through the fifteen minutes of Cold Heat, which was performed by one of the groups who commissioned the work, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, directed by David Zinman. Read more

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Proms 2011: Stevie Wishart – Out of this World (World Première)

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As on previous occasions, new music featured strongly in last Saturday’s Proms Matinee from the Cadogan Hall, this time including the world première of a new work by Stevie Wishart: Out of this World, composed for the BBC Singers.

Earlier in the concert, music by Hildegard of Bingen had been heard, and it’s to Hildegard that Wishart has turned for inspiration, setting four of her texts, texts for which no extant music by Hildegard herself survives. Thankfully, pastiche is not on Wishart’s agenda, although various influences do make themselves felt at points through the piece. Opening song ‘O word of the Father’ is the most spare of them all, soft open vowels giving way to a cool and austere atmosphere in which the upper voices are silent. The male singers handle the chromaticism admirably, but the music could really do with the kind of acoustic Hildegard would have known; in the relatively echoless Cadogan Hall, some of the warmth is lost, and it sounds more severe than it actually is. The brief second song ‘O God eternal’ is much more engaging, with strong interaction between the upper and lower voices, the latter of which initially offer brief, strange sounds beneath, demarcating the pulse. It develops into a distinctly French kind of sonority, at times quite strongly redolent of Poulenc. Read more

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Proms 2011: Kevin Volans – Piano Concerto No. 3 (World Première)

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If one thing has dominated the premières at this year’s Proms, it’s the presence of the concerto; thus far, we’ve heard no fewer than six (Dalbavie, Carter, Holloway, Holt, Larcher and Aperghis), with more coming in the days ahead. Monday’s Prom brought yet another concerto into being, Kevin VolansPiano Concerto No. 3, performed by Barry Douglas with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard.

The opening few minutes give a clear indication of what lies ahead, the piano presenting a stabbing ostinato that immediately infects the orchestra, responding in glittering accented chords. The piano then dissolves into a fluid, grace note-strewn passage, bringing proceedings briefly to a halt; starting up again, the sections of the orchestra now take turns to predominate. This is the essence of the piece, and also its unifying aspect, since Volans is not concerned here with conventional notions of material development. He has very different ideas, and indeed, his working method—each day to continue where he’d left off, making no amendments to previous work—is audibly etched into the grain of the music. It neither develops nor evolves; in a sense, it unfolds, but even this doesn’t quite fit; perhaps all one can say is that it just happens, swiftly passing from idea to idea with only the barest of constants. There are occasions when Volans allows himself to revisit earlier material, but for the most part, this concerto is a flight of fancy, restlessly keen to press on, with barely a glance behind. Read more

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Proms 2011: Colin Matthews – No Man’s Land (World Première)

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Sunday night’s Prom brought the world première of a new work from Faber’s finest, Colin Matthews: No Man’s Land for tenor and baritone soli and orchestra. Commissioned by Richard Hickox immediately prior to his death in 2008, it was presented by the orchestra Hickox himself formed 40 years ago, the City of London Sinfonia, directed by Stephen Layton, with soloists Ian Bostridge and Roderick Williams. Matthews’ text is by Christopher Reid, recounting an exchange between the ghosts of two soldiers, Captain Gifford and Sergeant Slack, whose bodies hang on barbed wire in no man’s land.

On the one hand, being charitable, perhaps the context was inopportune, coming as it did just a couple of days after Sir Harrison Birtwistle‘s brilliant Angel Fighter (also a work featuring two vocal soloists). But that can only go so far to mitigate the dreadful way with which this piece comports itself; far from striking the dignified stance that Matthews presumably intended, it was instead slowly unveiled as a ramshackle, shoddily stitched together patchwork of wafer-thin attempts at evocation. We’re fortunate—no, we’re blessed—in recent times to have seen the slow, steady rise of hauntology, a unique kind of musical aesthetic that can powerfully reach into the past and reflect it back at us with genuine sincerity and authenticity, stained and sullied (as it must be) by the gulf that separates then from now, and by our increasingly tenuous grasp on increasingly distant things. But what Matthews gives us in No Man’s Land is little more than a contrived collection of pastiche confectionary, coloured so as to appear moderately grim and stone-faced. Read more

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Proms 2011: Peter Maxwell Davies – Il rozzo martello; Georges Aperghis – Champ-Contrechamp (World Première); Harrison Birtwistle – Angel Fighter (UK Première)

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Last Saturday’s Proms matinee was devoted to new music, featuring no less a line-up than the BBC Singers and the London Sinfonietta, both conducted by David Atherton.

The concert opened with Peter Maxwell DaviesIl rozzo martello, a sombre and rather austere choral work that comes across as older than its mere 14 years would suggest. Unlike so many composers of contemporary choral music, Max is happily unequivocal in his mode of expression, but this also makes the piece a bit of a tough listen, so it benefits from repeated listenings, which ‘soften’ the ostensibly hard edges. It proves, at times, to be captivating; the opening, where overlapping plainsong-esque lines sustain their final note, gradually building a rich chord, is a rather magical way to start the piece, and it ends no less impressively, in a deliciously soft morass of lower voices. It’s often the male voices who have the most striking material, including a dense homophonic episode around halfway through, and some unexpected loud whispers towards the end. A difficult piece, no doubt, but given half a chance, an increasingly rewarding one. Read more

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Proms 2011: Thomas Larcher – Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra (World Première)

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Last Thursday’s Prom was an all Austrian affair, opening with the world première of Thomas Larcher‘s Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra; Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley were the soloists, pitted against the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.

Beforehand, one wondered if it might prove to be the most tantalising new work heard this year; alongside the twin soloists, Larcher has included a peculiar concertino quartet comprising accordion, electric zither, percussion and prepared piano (played by Larcher himself). Within minutes, though, it became abundantly clear that we were in very similar territory to that explored by Pascal Dusapin in his String Quartet/Concerto ‘Hinterland’/’Hapax’ three weeks ago. Throughout the first movement, Larcher, too, is hyperactive almost to the point of absurdity, but certainly well beyond the point of irritation. His material feels like the result of a large-scale collage, one put together from microscopic, barely-similar fragments. There are, admittedly, notions of unity in the movement—an occasional returring motif, and an oscillating chord progression redolent of film music—but they can do little to prevent the music from coming across as skittish and schizophrenic. Read more

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Proms 2011: Jonny Greenwood/Robert Ziegler – Norwegian Wood – Suite & Purcell; Joby Talbot – Chacony in G minor (World Premières)

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The most recent premières at this year’s Proms have been a pair of arrangements, the first, a suite formed by Robert Ziegler from Jonny Greenwood‘s score to the film Norwegian Wood, the second, a new rendition of Henry Purcell‘s Chacony in G minor, by Joby Talbot.

Greenwood’s music was performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra (with which he is Composer in Association), at last Friday’s Prom dedicated to film music. The augeries were ambivalent; hitherto in this concert, despite apparent energy in spades, the orchestra had proved itself lacklustre and even scrappy under Keith Lockhart’s direction. A notable casualty was John Williams’ Star Wars music, the opening of which was a mistimed disgrace, while the rest became a bombastic showy affair far, far away from the raw power of the original. On the other hand, the quieter music seemed to suit everyone much better, which boded well for Greenwood’s restrained, even reticent soundtrack. It’s not accurate to describe this Suite as an ‘arrangement’; Robert Ziegler, the original conductor of Greenwood’s score (and also for his music for the film There Will Be Blood), has simply extracted three movements to form this Suite: ‘もう少し自分のこと、きちんとしたいの’ (‘I want to get a little better’), ‘草原、風、雑木林’ (The Meadow, the Wind, the Trees’) and ‘直子が死んだ’ (‘Naoko Died’). Ziegler’s own contribution seems to be limited to a small extension of the opening material in the first movement; beyond that, any additional tweaks are too subtle to be noticeable. Read more

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Proms 2011: Robin Holloway – Fifth Concerto for Orchestra (World Première)

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After a few days’ break, new music returned to the Proms this evening with the world première of Robin Holloway‘s Fifth Concerto for Orchestra, played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles. His previous quartet of orchestral concerti have been diverse, making it difficult to predict with any certainty what Holloway would do on this occasion. The beginnings of an answer come quickly; Holloway has jettisoned all conceits of programme music—indeed, he goes to great pains in his accompanying note to emphasise how ‘abstract’ it is. But this is undermined to an extent by the lengthy quasi-synæsthetic description Holloway offers instead, suggesting the five movements explore a variety of colours and hues, which may be abstract in one sense, but in another is arguably no less demonstrative in the way it describes to the listener what the music is ‘about’. This is not a complaint, though, and the prospect of exploring colour in sound – such a richly-mined concept in the 20th century – is an intriguing one, particularly in the hands of Holloway, who always takes such a filigree approach to orchestration (heard so captivatingly in his re-working of Schumann performed at last year’s Proms, the song cycle RELIQUARY). Read more

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Proms 2011: Marc-André Dalbavie & Elliott Carter – Flute Concertos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening’s Prom concert brought not one but two flute concertos, performed by Swiss virtuoso Emmanuel Pahud, together with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, again under Thierry Fischer’s direction. The two pieces are nearly five and three years old respectively, the first from Marc-André Dalbavie, who turned 50 earlier this year, the second (heard here in its UK première) from Elliott Carter, who will be a staggering 103 years old in December. Despite first appearances, there are commonalities between the two works. Both eschew the contemporary practice of opting for descriptive names; the bald title Flute Concerto has connotations of its own, of course, but nonetheless suggests that deeply programmatic content is not the order of the day. To that end, both also place greatest importance on the surface of the music, inviting the listener first and foremost to place their focus on its undulations. But there the similarities end. Read more

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Proms 2011: Pascal Dusapin – String Quartet No. 6, ‘Hinterland’ (‘Hapax’ for string quartet and orchestra) (UK Première)

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Turning one’s attention to the second work of Pascal Dusapin‘s to be featured at this year’s Proms, superficial similarities to the last première, Sally Beamish’s Reed Stanzas, immediately present themselves. This, too, is a piece for string quartet (Dusapin’s String Quartet No. 6), although extensively augmented and amplified by the presence of a small orchestra (on this occasion, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, directed by Thierry Fischer). Dusapin’s work also bears two titles, the first of which, Hinterland, suggests a similar kind of remote landscape to that explored in Beamish’s piece. The second title, in Dusapin’s trademark pithy fashion, is the single Greek word Hapax, a word perhaps better known in English through the linguistic term hapax legomenon, referring to the rare phenomenon of a word or construction that appears just once in a particular language. Dusapin rather indifferently claims to have used the word ‘Hapax’ simply because “It is […] highly unlikely that I will ever write another quartet with orchestra”, but one can’t help feeling there’s more to it than that. Due to the nature of hapax legomena, they are notoriously difficult to make sense of, and as Dusapin’s work progresses, it’s a parallel that seems increasingly apt. Read more

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Proms 2011: Sally Beamish – Reed Stanzas (String Quartet No. 3) (World Première)

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The first chamber music première at this year’s Proms took place yesterday afternoon, at the Cadogan Hall. Sally Beamish‘s new work for the Elias Quartet bears two conjoined titles, reflecting different aspects of the work: Reed Stanzas throws together modern notions of marshland and poetry, while String Quartet No. 3 reminds us the work is part of an ongoing series of works that in turn aspire to be part of a much older compositional lineage. Beamish has lived in Scotland for over 20 years now, and it’s to one the country’s indigenous musical traditions that she turns first, utilising second violinist Donald Grant’s dual talent as a Scottish fiddle player. Scotland also plays a part in the compositional tone of the piece; Beamish wrote the work on the Outer Hebridean island of Harris (a place i know well from my own times in Scotland), a landscape with outlandish contrasts of terrain, featuring Mediterranean-like beaches, angular grey mountain country, and vast tracts of rather desolate scrubland. It’s the latter that Beamish has uppermost in mind, alongside an equivalent landscape of East Anglia, the “Reed” in the title alluding to the region’s wonderful areas of marsh- and fenland; together, they evoke for Beamish a “vastness” and “loneliness” that is omnipresent in the piece. Read more

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Proms 2011: Pascal Dusapin – Morning in Long Island (UK Première)

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The music of Pascal Dusapin is being featured twice at this year’s Proms. The first piece, Morning in Long Island, was given its UK première yesterday evening, by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, directed by Myung-Whun Chung. It’s not exactly the kind of appellation one would immediately associate with Dusapin, who usually prefers to title his works with succinct, single words. His allusive title refers to a morning, over 20 years ago, when Dusapin found himself on a beach, and was captivated by the movement of nature around him (not a million miles away from the moment of inspiration that led to James Dillon’s Zone (… de azul)). Morning in Long Island is structured in three movements, which continue without a break, and together with the large orchestra Dusapin has included an additional brass trio of horn, trumpet and trombone. Read more

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Proms 2011: Judith Bingham – The Everlasting Crown (World Première)

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Given that so few composers seem to show any real interest in the organ these days, the prospect of a new work for the instrument at this year’s Proms—of 35 minutes’ duration, no less—was a mouth-watering one. Splendidly, the honour was given to Judith Bingham, a composer who, compared to some, seems ever to be lauded in somewhat muted tones, yet in my experience, never seems to put a foot wrong in her diverse output. Her oeuvre flits in and out of direct religious statement, but even pieces with a more secular emphasis usually allude to things spiritual. Her new work for organist Stephen Farr, The Everlasting Crown, is just such a piece, exploring the perhaps unlikely subject of precious stones associated with powerful historical figures, stones that, “undecaying, constant – represent aspects of monarchy and power” (from Bingham’s programme note). Read more

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Proms 2011: Judith Weir – Stars, Night, Music and Light (World Première)

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The 2011 Proms season commenced this evening with the world première of a new work from Judith Weir. Evocatively titled Stars, Night, Music and Light, Weir has drawn on three lines of text from the sixth stanza of George Herbert‘s poem ‘Man’, a poem that echoes the sentiments of Psalm 8, celebrating humankind as the apogee and centrepiece of God’s creation. Herbert’s lines are wonderfully deep, even a touch abstruse at times, but Weir’s sliver of text is beautifully simple, as is the music she’s composed for the occasion. Read more

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Proms 2008: Steven Stucky – Rhapsodies (World Première)

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In seven days’ time, the 2011 Proms season will be upon us, bringing with it a welter of new music. This year’s season promises no fewer than 12 world premières and eight UK premières, plus four ludicrously-titled “London premières”; once again, they’ll all be featured on 5:4, alongside one or two other interesting pieces. While the anticipation mounts, here’s one of the new works premièred in 2008’s Proms season, Rhapsodies by US composer Steven Stucky. It received its first performance on 28 August by the New York Philharmonic (in their first visit to the Proms), directed by Lorin Maazel.

In some ways, Rhapsodies revolves around the woodwind; a solo flute begins the work, hopping restlessly at altitude, its appassionato material gradually accreting with the addition of the rest of the section. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a stylised dawn chorus, lightly punctuated by soft pizzicati and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bells. The cor anglais is the first instrument to be given melodic prominence, provoking energetic interjections from the muted brass, which eventually shift the piece in a slightly different direction, and usher in the upper strings. Throughout all of this, melody is literally everywhere, but the relentless intensity results in a rather delirious kind of texture music, the ear unable to stay focused for more than a couple of moments on any particular line. A little under halfway through, the brass present an idea that holds things back for a while. As this dissipates, the strings finally come to the fore in an extended melody, backed up with spritely woodwind staccati beyond, reinforced by more distant bells. Read more

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Adam Duncan – Images Sombres (World Première)

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The final concert in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” series included the world première of Images Sombres by Adam Duncan, composed for the viola da gamba player Jonathan Manson.

A title such as Images Sombres, composed for viol, puts John Dowland in mind, but while Duncan’s sensibility might echo Dowland’s, his language lacks any overt hint of borrowing or pastiche. The work falls into five movements, beginning with a dark, raw melody that demonstrates the gamba’s unique sound, timbrally somewhere betwixt cello and double bass, but, due to its fretted fingerboard, sounding expressively distant. If anything, that makes Duncan’s leaden material sound, paradoxically, all the more expressive, as though the melody were forcing its way out against the instrument’s better judgement. Read more

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Matthew Bilyard – Impressions; Panayiotis Kokoras – Jet (World Premières)

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Third in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” concert series was a recital given by the outstanding Dutch recorder player Erik Bosgraaf. The concert included two world premières: Impressions by Brit Matthew Bilyard and Jet by Greek composer Panayiotis Kokoras.

The preamble claims Impressions conjures up “images of bustling coastal towns”, but to my ear, Matthew Bilyard begins his piece evoking sounds and callings as of some mythical bird, rapidly alternating between repetitive motifs and lengthier bursts of melody. This interplay between noise and song is clearly a fundamental aspect of the work, and Bilyard brings considerable imagination to bear on it. He divides the piece into three, broadly equal, episodes, the first of which maintains a strident, declamatory tone throughout. The surface of the melody bristles with energy, one moment preoccupied with rapid staccato phrases, the next giving way to glissandi that pull the end of each phrase up or down. The second episode initially continues this train of thought, then almost immediately subjects the melodic line to an assortment of trills, flutters and other buzzing treatments. Read more

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Duncan Ward – Who Is Mr Grobe? (World Première)

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The second première in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” concert series was a work for viola d’amore and harpsichord, Who is Mr Grobe? by Duncan Ward, given its first performance last November by Catherine Mackintosh and Christopher Bucknall. Ward’s piece grew out of the apparent ‘mystery’ surrounding another piece in the concert programme, a Partita that may or may not have been composed by one Mr Grobe. The composer’s description of the work both whets the appetite—the use of figured bass in a new piece is a splendid idea—and also blunts it, when Ward speaks with glee about “new techniques” that are, of course, hardly as ‘new’ as he claims. Ward’s stated intention is to treat the duo as equals, promoting the harpsichord from being in an accompaniment role. Read more

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