Premières

Rebecca Saunders – murmurs (UK Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50

Since the trace is not a presence but the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates itself, displaces itself, refers itself, it properly has no site; erasure belongs to its structure. And not only the erasure which must always be able to overtake it (without which it would not be a trace but an indestructible and monumental substance), but also the erasure which constitutes it from the outset as a trace, which situates it as the change of site, and makes it disappear in its appearance, makes it emerge from itself in its production.

Got that? This quotation from Jacques Derrida is one of the texts Rebecca Saunders uses in the notes that precede the score of her 2009 work murmurs. The piece is one of several she has composed that she calls a ‘collage’, in this case one for ensemble but described as being “of seven parts”. This is a reference to the number of discrete musical “sound surfaces” – Saunders’ term – that are deployed throughout the piece, comprising five soloists: bass flute, oboe, bass clarinet, violin, and piano (player 1), and two duos: piano (player 2) and percussion, and viola and cello (a total of nine players, not 10 as erroneously indicated in numerous online sources). Saunders’ use of the word ‘collage’ is a useful descriptor for the way these entities are deployed as well as the way they relate to one another, though both are more complex than they seem at first. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – traces (UK/Austrian Premières)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so to mark this milestone the 5:4 Lent Series will this year be dedicated to her music. Over the course of the next six weeks, i’ll be looking at a number of her pieces in some detail, as well as providing a survey of her work as represented by CDs and downloads. Although Saunders is British born, her music is neglected in the UK; with the exception of Huddersfield, which has consistently provided a platform for her, performances in Britain are infrequent, and premières – notwithstanding last month’s at the Wigmore Hall, a real rarity – are virtually non-existent. It’s perhaps not surprising that Saunders’ music should be better known on the continent, particularly in Germany where she has long resided, but it’s disappointing (though not surprising) that one of the UK’s most renowned and radical compositional figures should be so ignored on her home turf. Furthermore, there has been relatively little serious discussion of her work, so my hope is that this series can go some way to improving that situation.

i’m going to begin with traces, a work that originally dates back to 2006 but was revised in 2009, a process that bumped it up from being for chamber to symphony orchestra. One reasonably expects different performances of the same piece to shed new light and tease out extra details, but in the case of traces that’s true to a surprising degree. i first got to know the piece from the UK première at the 2009 Proms, but some time after i heard a broadcast of the Austrian première and realised i hadn’t really got to know it at all, as it sounded so different. More recently, there was a third opportunity to hear the work when it was performed in Glasgow in 2015 (possibly the Scottish première), which only confirmed the fact that there’s something about traces that makes it seem almost entirely reinvented with each new performance – or, and this is perhaps more pertinent, that there’s something akin to a game of Chinese whispers going on. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Helena Tulve – The Night-Sea Journey (World Première)

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To conclude this weekend i’m returning to the music of Helena Tulve and to another world première, which took place last November during one of Estonia’s main contemporary music festivals, AFEKT. A 17-minute work for saxophone, percussion and piano, in a way all one needs to say about it is encapsulated in its title, The Night-Sea Journey. The music is entirely directed toward the implied narrative of that title, inhabiting a nocturnal world of shadows and moonlight, progressing – in my mind, anyway – across water. At least, that’s one way of hearing it, taking the title literally.

Heard in this way, the piece conjures a foreboding, difficult soundworld. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe its music as lyrical – it is, abundantly – yet of the blackest, most brooding kind, drenched in uncertainty and anguish. Initially, there’s a sense of the trio huddled together, not so much playing as making tentative suggestions: a simple piano idea based on oscillating octaves, air noise through the sax, soft suspended cymbal rolls. It doesn’t seem to add up to anything at all, yet in light of where the piece goes from here, in hindsight it’s like lighting a touchpaper. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Erkki-Sven Tüür – Symphony No. 9 ‘Mythos’ (World Première)

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i’m now turning my attention this weekend to Erkki-Sven Tüür, a composer whose work in many respects sounds distinctly different from a lot of Estonian contemporary music (and as i’ve previously mentioned, he remarked to me last year that he feels himself to be something of an outsider). To get the 100th anniversary festivities of Estonia’s declaration of independence up and running, Tüür was commissioned to compose a new work, which received its world première a few weeks back. The combination of this being Tüür’s ninth symphony, and also being part of an important national celebration, have evidently guided Tüür towards writing a work of considerable epic scope. Subtitling the work ‘Mythos’, Tüür’s Symphony No. 9 is a 35-minute, single-movement work that to an extent sets itself apart from the most familiar aspects of his compositional style. Instead of a preponderance of rhythmic and gestural cavorting, Tüür has created a large-scale slab of meticulous musical evolution through shifting textures and atmospheres. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Helena Tulve – You and I (World/Estonian Premières)

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In a couple of weeks’ time, on 24 February 2018, it will be an especially significant day for Estonia, marking the 100th anniversary of the country’s declaration of independence, something they’ve had to fight hard to retain through the twentieth century. Estonia is a country i’ve got to know a lot better during the last couple of years, and much of its contemporary music is almost entirely unknown and unheard outside its immediate vicinity (for various reasons, which i’ve touched upon in previous articles). So i’ll be taking the opportunity of this important anniversary to devote a number of weekends throughout the year to exploring more of their contemporary music. This weekend, i’m going to focus on some premières of impressive new works by two of Estonia’s best-known composers, Helena Tulve and Erkki-Sven Tüür.

Helena Tulve’s latest choral work, You and I, sets a text by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. It’s one of a number of pieces Tulve has composed in the last few years to have explored Rumi’s words; North Wind, Sound Wind (2010) for voice, flute, kannel and cello uses them in conjunction with the Biblical Song of Songs, but the closer antecedent for You and I – in terms of both subject and character – is I Am a River, her 2009 choral work that i wrote about last year. Both are concerned with expressions of love, but in comparison with the earlier work, You and I is less playful than mystical, concerned with physical and spiritual union. Read more

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Wigmore Hall, London: Rebecca Saunders – Unbreathed (World Première)

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Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so 2018 effectively counts as her anniversary year, and the celebrations began last Thursday in London at the Wigmore Hall, with the world première of her new string quartet, Unbreathed, by Quatuor Diotima. The occasion was notable in no small part due to the fact that, despite being one of the UK’s most renowned composers, her work is rarely heard here. Premières are rarer still, with most of them taking place in Huddersfield; the last time London saw a Saunders world première was ten years ago with the first version of Chroma, performed at Tate Modern, and the ones before that date back to the mid-1990s.

Quatuor Diotima positioned Unbreathed betwixt two other works, Szymanowski’s 1927 Second Quartet and Schubert’s massive String Quartet No. 15 in G, composed late in his life. The Szymanowski was odd when it wasn’t being just plain meh, whereas the Schubert was a fascinating and at times excruciating tl;dr study in how far material could be pushed and worked while still holding onto its integrity (personally, i thought the integrity was emphatically broken, but in some ways that only added to the experience). While the Diotima’s performance of both these works was outstanding (and, in the case of the Schubert, herculean), it was more telling in the way it provided an interesting and useful perspective on the Saunders, particularly in terms of the nature and precision of pitch. Read more

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Kaija Saariaho – Adriana Songs (UK Première)

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Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää, Suomi!

Today is an important day for the country of Finland, marking the 100th anniversary of their declaration of independence from the Russian Republic. To mark the occasion i’m turning to one of Finland’s most celebrated composers, Kaija Saariaho, specifically to an intense song cycle she composed in 2006. Adriana Songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, began life in Saariaho’s opera Adriana Mater (set to a libretto by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf); of the opera’s seven tableaux, she adapted material from the odd-numbered movements – Clartés, Deux cœurs, Rages and Adriana – to form this four-movement cycle. The subject matter is grave in the extreme: set in the context of war, the character of Adriana is raped by a man from her immediate community, becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, Yonas. To protect him from the truth, Yonas’ family pretend that his father died heroically, but when the truth emerges, in Yonas’ late teens, he decides to track him down and kill him. Eventually, when Yonas finally confronts his father he discovers the man is blind, and decides to spare his life, returning home to his mother. Read more

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