Moritz Eggert – Musica Viva Vol. 30

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It’s often not easy to put into words how or why a piece works, and in the case of Moritz Eggert, i’m literally starting this article not at all sure what on earth i’m going to say. The latest Musica Viva disc on the NEOS label – Vol. 30, which testifies to NEOS’ incredible ongoing commitment to avant-garde music – is dedicated to two of Eggert’s works, performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Masse, the seventh in his ‘Number Nine’ series, and Muzak, a piece for voice and orchestra dedicated to the late David Bowie. Having written recently about one contemporary response to muzak, it’s interesting to encounter another one, although straight away there are some issues with that title and its implied accompanying conceit.

It’s not actually about muzak. Not even remotely. As a musical entity, muzak isn’t bound within the limits of one particular genre. Instead, its primary characteristic is to be an especially light, anodyne and inconspicuous version of whatever stylistic manner is desired, usually some form of pop, rock or jazz. The distinction between the original musical form – the ‘parent’ – and the muzak rendition of it – the ‘child’ or, better still, the ‘bastard’ – is an essential one: the former seeks active attention, the latter requires passive (even subliminal) acknowledgement. The main problem with Eggert’s Muzak is that this distinction is essentially lost. The piece, conducted here by David Robertson, is constructed as a collage of generic tropes that process past as if on a conveyor belt, snippets and fragments that allude to various kinds of what Eggert summarises as “commercial music”. Perhaps inevitably, jump-cut juxtapositions between sharply dissimilar idioms is amusing, and this is evidently no accident. The reality that the piece has a deliberately comic sensibility is reinforced in part by the often hilarious delivery with which Eggert himself performs the role of the solo voice, singing, crooning and otherwise articulating a stream of allusions to the “clichés or platitudes of pop music” (the composer’s words). One especially funny section takes an extended pot-shot at the arch-nemesis of good taste André Rieu, references to his name causing Eggert’s voice to become quietly apoplectic, letting out a collection of barely-repressed f-bombs. Read more

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Kenneth Hesketh – In Ictu Oculi

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One of the things i’ve noted previously when writing about the larger-scale music of Kenneth Hesketh – which in general i’ve admired very much – is its tendency toward what i’ve called “laser-sighted focus”. This peculiar kind of über-clarity is exhibited in many of Hesketh’s works from the noughties, and from my perspective has proved problematic, not only becoming rather tiring, but actively working against what seemed to me to be the composer’s more fundamental (and engaging) instincts for more unconventional, nebulous forms of drama and narrative. So it’s interesting to be able to compare then and now with a new disc of more recent orchestral works released last month on Paladino Music. The three featured works, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Christoph-Mathias Mueller, were all composed during the last few years, and right at the outset it’s abundantly clear that much has changed, about which more in a moment.

If there’s a weakness shown here, it’s only to be found in Of Time and Disillusionment, where one encounters (in the first and fourth movements) vestiges of the kind of crystal-clear, spiky, spritely material so beloved by mainstream British composers, energetic Faberian froth that invariably sounds hackneyed and empty. However, and this is also something i’ve mentioned before, both the nature and the treatment of such material in Hesketh’s music has always managed to save it from ever sounding commonplace or generic, and the same is true here. The fourth movement, in particular, keeps veering away from mundane frivolity into weird asides, where we find burbling bassoons together with a soft glockenspiel (hard to tell if they’re in a dialogue or just blatantly ignoring one other) or a lovely kind of snappy swagger, where the orchestra sounds like they’ve drunk rather too much and are now trying to pick a fight. Far more telling, though – even more than the delicious traces of (French-inspired) opulence that are a definite Hesketh fingerprint – are the surprising levels of violence that rear up from time to time, yanking the structure around with such force that, if it wasn’t for the music’s traces of playfulness and retreats into delicacy, one might start to feel intimidated. Read more

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Jörg Widmann – Drittes Labyrinth/Polyphone Schatten

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Wergo has recently released a new disc featuring two works by Jörg Widmann, performed by the WDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Heinz Holliger and Emilio Pomàrico. Polyphone Schatten (‘polyphonic shadows’) dates from 2001 and features a clarinet and viola as soloists, played by Widmann himself and Christophe Desjardins. Despite the levels of activity displayed in the piece, it makes more sense to talk about restraint, as one of the most striking aspects of Polyphone Schatten is the way Widmann matches the rapidity that typifies much of his material with incredibly soft dynamics and articulations. That’s not exactly the work’s default position, but it’s a sort of ‘comfort zone’ to which the music regularly returns, often to the point of near-inaudibility due to being either extremely staccato or moving with quicksilver velocity. In terms of relationships, the soloists are clearly in cahoots with each other, while the orchestra seems to behave by way of response to their activities, often in a supporting or imitative role but occasionally growing a pair and asserting itself in wonderfully wild fashion. For the most part, Widmann avoids conventional dramatic highs and lows, favouring quantities of detail rather than sheer weight and mass, though two climactic passages later on are remarkable in respect of how unexpectedly they emerge and how enormous they sound in contrast to what’s gone before. Read more

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Daníel Bjarnason – Collider

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This week i’ll be exploring four new albums of contemporary orchestral music that i’ve recently been spending time with, the first of which turned out to be a surprisingly big disappointment. Last year i was very impressed by Recurrence, a disc put out by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, mainly due to its inclusion of a three-movement work by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason titled Emergence. On the considerable strength of that piece, i’d been looking forward to Bjarnason’s latest album of music, Collider, released on Bedroom Community a little over a month ago. A digital-only release, it features three works: Blow Bright and Collider, both orchestral, plus a small-scale setting of lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest for youth choir and orchestra, The Isle Is Full Of Noises.

While none of the pieces are very good, it’s unfortunate that the album is named after the worst of them. At 15 minutes’ duration, Collider has plenty going on in it, and if you’re willing and/or able to engage with it on a purely superficial level then there’s possibly some enjoyment to be had. But beneath the surface, there’s essentially nothing of any substance to be found. This is, to put it bluntly, painting-by-numbers orchestral writing: a bit of generic brooding here, a bit of scattershot textural mayhem there, unfocused blather that Bjarnason tries to make meaningful through minimalistic outbursts (faux-excitement) and saccharine, filmic lyricism (faux-emotion). Writing music that’s as boringly over-familiar and formulaic as this is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that it all feels so deliberately manipulative. Yawn/yuck. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Arditti Quartet + Jake Arditti

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My 2018 HCMF experience came to an end yesterday in what is now the traditional way, at 1pm in St Paul’s Hall in the company of the Arditti Quartet. Four years ago, they tackled the first seven quartets by James Dillon; on this occasion their concert included the next two instalments, receiving their UK and world premières respectively.

i can remember well how the experience of hearing Dillon’s quartets 1 to 7 at HCMF 2014 (in chronological order) sounded like an exercise in diminishing returns. The earlier quartets were striking and impressive, but became gradually more impenetrable to the point that they simply felt weak and listless. Based on this first encounter with the Eighth and Ninth Quartets, that trajectory isn’t showing significant signs up an upturn. There was some interest to be found in the Eighth, Dillon dividing the Ardittis in two pairs that took it in turns to slither around each other, eventually unifying as a group whereupon their material began to halt and fragment. All of this had something nascent about it, beginning with a soupy miasma and arriving at building blocks, though this was the limit of the work’s scope, ending with the prospect of forming into a tangible idea, its closing moments vaguely cadential. In some respects the Ninth was similar – perhaps even a continuation of sorts – as if extant musical ideas were trying to emerge into its anonymous soundworld: there was the sense of a chord progression poised to break out, though to what extent this was real or just a manifestation of pareidolia is hard to say. Subsequently falling into patterns of simplicity and/or solemnity, broken up rapid passagework either en masse or individually, it was hard not to conclude that, as in much of Dillon’s last few quartets, this was a kind of ‘theoretical’ or even ‘scientific’ music, experimenting with materials, quantities, weights and distributions to see what happens. Considering how much emotional energy and passion is found in most of Dillon’s music, it was strange and disappointing to feel kept at such a distance in these pieces. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Sciarrino: Carnaval, hcmf// mixtape

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The last couple of years have been good for one of the UK’s most impressive new music groups, Explore Ensemble. Two years ago, i first heard them at HCMF on ‘Shorts’ day, giving a gripping account of Gérard Grisey‘s Talea, and they returned to the festival last year to give a full-scale concert including ambitious music by Enno Poppe and Patricia Alessandrini. Last night, Explore returned to HCMF for the third time, teaming up with EXAUDI vocal ensemble and conductor James Weeks for a performance of Salvatore Sciarrino‘s vocal cycle Carnaval. At this rate goodness only knows what they’ll end up doing next year.

When i’ve written previously about Sciarrino’s vocal works, such as the 12 Madrigali at the 2017 Louth Contemporary Music Festival and (much more briefly) the Responsorio delle Tenebre in my 2012 Lent series, it’s been impossible not to address his very particular approach to writing for voices. Specifically, his unique kind of halting delivery, articulating the text as brisk, tiny utterances that seem to be dragged down by their own weight the moment they emerge from the singers’ mouths, somewhere between a moan and a sigh. It’s an approach that, on first hearing, can seem extremely mannered or even stylised, but the more one spends time with it, acclimatising to it, the more one realises that this is not an affectation but the basic vernacular or dialect of Sciarrino’s vocal language in these pieces. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Divertimento Ensemble, Stockhausen: Oktophonie

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When writing about United Instruments of Lucilin’s concert last Tuesday i noted how the only thing the four works they played had in common was their complete dissimilarity to each other. Yesterday evening, in St Paul’s Hall, we experienced the opposite: four pieces of Italian music performed by Divertimento Ensemble that, while obviously unique in most important respects, seemed very much to inhabit similar environments, or perhaps even disparate regions of the same soundworld.

A great deal of the material in the concert could be characterised as either timorous or, at the very least, hesitant. In Francesco Filidei‘s Finito ogni gesto, a work commemorating author Edoardo Sanguineti, it was merely a starting point. Soft clicks, breathy pitches, distant resonances, rumbles from somewhere beneath (or beyond) – all of this was enticing enough, but then Filidei introduced something really marvellous: a cello in the guise of a musical saw, articulated (by Martina Rudic) as a terminally unstable melodic entity. It was one of the most lovely openings of anything i’ve heard all week. It was just a starting point, though, a melancholic overture to what became much more aggressive. Filidei set up large, forceful rolling waves of tumult, a sequence of climaxes crowned by popping balloons and a wild growling horn solo. An intense manifestation of grief, perhaps, one that became achingly poignant in the work’s closing moments, reduced to quietude and whistles, solemn drum thuds, and the accented turning of pages. Read more

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