Hot on the heels of the large-scale work of Helmut Lachenmann’s a few days ago, tonight’s Proms première was even more ambitious, Thomas Adès‘ Totentanz. Composed for a large orchestra with mezzo-soprano & baritone soloists, Adès has set to music a sequence of German verses known as the Lübecker Totentanz, originally composed in 1463 to accompany an artwork created the same year at the Marienkirche in Lübeck by Bernt Notke. Sadly, the artwork was destroyed during World War II, but images of it remain, as do the texts, depicting death interacting with a collection of diverse characters, including a monk, a king, a doctor, a knight, a merchant, a maiden & even the pope, interactions that inevitably result in terrorised laments at the protagonists’ prospect of impending doom (the entire text, in its original Middle Dutch with an accessible English translation, can be read here; a high resolution photo of the wonderful original artwork is available here). Clocking in at just over 30 minutes—considerably less than the inflated estimate of 45 minutes in the Proms guide—Totentanz is the latest in a succession of works that together demonstrate Adès’ innate & enormous gift at writing for voices, particularly in the context of a large orchestral palette. Few conductors tackle his music better than Adès himself, & it was he who directed the première, performed by Christianne Stotijn & Simon Keenleyside (who famously portrayed Prospero in Adès’ opera The Tempest) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Read more
Down the road in my old stamping ground of Cheltenham, there’s an art exhibition regularly to be found in the town’s sumptuous Imperial Gardens. The exhibition is for those with an urge to put paintbrush to canvas, resulting in a desultory cluster of dog portraits, depictions of Cotswold stone houses festooned in technicolour flora, landscapes dripping with more water than colour, pastel cloudscapes, a few rash stabs at abstract expressionism &—incongruously, considering the town’s distance from it—paintings of the sea. Perhaps you can see where i’m going with this. There are, admittedly, occasional gems to be found amidst the the borrowed imagination, the second-rate technical skill, the pastiche sensibility & the instinct for superficial gratification, but it’s rare for even these works to escape the pull of their less ambitious companions. Memories of this exhibition came flooding back as i sat through the world première from last night’s Prom, David Matthews‘ A Vision of the Sea, performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. Read more
There is, it seems to me, a distinct sense of double-edged sword to the territorial (as opposed to world) premières that feature in each year’s Proms. It’s encouraging, of course, that such fascinating works are introduced to British audiences, but many’s the time one can’t help wondering why on earth they took so long to get here. Last year’s most glaring example was Michael Finnissy’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which took 35 years to be heard here, while the UK première at last night’s Prom, Helmut Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied, entered the world at the Donaueschinger Musiktage in 1980. Nonetheless, it was most definitely worth the wait.
Both aspects of the title are, as one would expect from Lachenmann, far from obvious. As far as the ‘tanzsuite’ (dance suite) is concerned, the work is structured in five broad parts that contain numerous smaller sections (18 in total), many of which are named after well-known dances, although their characters as well as the points where they begin & end are often tough to discern. The ‘Deutschlandlied’, Germany’s national anthem—better known by its original opening line, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”—is even harder to make out, the famous melody barely recognisable at any point in the work. Composed by Joseph Haydn & incorporated into his ‘Emperor’ quartet, Lachenmann has perhaps acknowledged these origins by composing Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied for string quartet & orchestra. For this first UK performance, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Nott, was joined by the Arditti Quartet.
Last night the 2013 Proms season began, as it now always does, with a world première from a mainstream composer. At the outset, i have to admit to a certain lack of enthusiasm for the occasion, due both to the recent track record of the opening night (Turnage & Weir in the last two years, both submitting relatively drab, safe pieces) as well as this year’s choice, Julian Anderson, a composer hardly renowned for much beyond accessible, occasionally quirky humdrummery. Anticipation was hardly heightened by Anderson’s pre-concert remark that there were only two options when writing a concert opener: “one is to write a piece that’s very loud and rather like a fanfare, and the other is to write a quiet and more meditative piece”. Seriously? Read more
A few weeks back, NMC Recordings brought out the latest in their ongoing ‘Debut Discs’ series, this time devoted to the music of Joseph Phibbs. It’s an ambitious album, presenting two lengthy song cycles alongside a cluster of additional songs & a pair of instrumental works, focussing on soloists Helen-Jane Howells & Michael Chance, with the Navarra String Quartet.
The opening piece, Flex for violin, cello, flute & piano, arguably serves as a paradigm for much that follows. Inspired by the physicality of movement, Phibbs likens it to a “miniature chamber ballet … reflecting an underlying sequence of dances”. This is explored via a sequence of episodes that swing back & forth between poles of firm insistence—fiery rhythmic poundings forcing the music along—& soft passages of demonstrably lyrical character. There’s a strong sense of continuity between these respective types, but the regularity of their structural oscillations gradually works against the overall sense of motion in the piece as a whole. They seem to cancel each other out, leaving Flex feeling like a rather histrionic kind of equilibrium. The first of the two cycles, The Canticle of the Rose for soprano & string quartet, experiences a similar problem. Its six songs draw on one of England’s most beguiling & bemusing poets, Edith Sitwell, encompassing a wide range of emotional intents. Phibbs embraces their contemplative character, & he’s at his most interesting when conjuring up the strange, semi-static environments that permeate the cycle. Elsewhere, in the more rapid songs, there’s a kind of over-familiarity to the material (plus predictable word-painting) that lessens their interest & at times even lends them a certain generic quality. The back & forth in mood causes the cycle to wrong-foot itself, resetting the atmosphere too readily, but it’s especially uncomfortable at the end, when two bold, harrowing songs (‘Gold Coast Customs’ & ‘The Canticle of the Rose’) have their potency shattered by the cycle’s light, whimsical epilogue.
One of the more striking premières i’ve caught in recent months took place at the Barbican’s Total Immersion event ‘New from the North’, back in March. On the one hand, it’s disappointing that these events are no longer in the least bit ‘total’ & have come very far from being remotely immersive (bring back long weekends devoted to a single composer); on the other hand, it’s hard to sniff too much when the chosen locale is Nordic. Irrespective of genre, much of the most telling music of recent times has come from the Nordic countries, & the latest orchestral work from Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg is just such a piece. Era was commissioned to celebrate the 125th birthday of Amsterdam’s rather wonderful Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Premièred there in January, it was presented at the Barbican by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds.
In his programme note, Lindberg talks about specifics, but what comes across most forcefully—& very quickly—is how wholeheartedly the piece embraces the tone poem idiom. It may be tempting to think of most contemporary orchestral music—pithy titles & 10-20 minute durations—as being of that lineage, but for the most part, they’re really not. The tone poem demands a unique kind of dramaturgy, not necessarily programmatic in nature, but such that the clamour of its argument compels an audience into just that kind of headspace. In Era, Lindberg even goes so far as to invoke the spectre of the greatest of all tone poets, Richard Strauss, chiefly in the highly energetic, muscular ebb & flow of the work’s structure, but also in elements of the work’s harmonic language (tonally flirtatious) as well as its orchestration; it’s not hard to hear Till Eulenspiegel & Don Quixote lurking in the wings. Read more
It’s 1 July, so here’s the new mix tape, focussing on the intense genre of drone. Drone music suffers the same kind of malaise as more generalised ambient music—immobility & drift as tacet apologias for a dearth of imagination & subtlety of ideas. But these 21 tracks offer an insight into something altogether more profound, plumbing the depths of immobility & stasis, teasing out faint, furtive tendrils of exotica. They represent a broad sonic palette, in terms of colour, dynamic & texture, incorporating elements from dark ambient & noise as well as more experimental electronics.
In all, two hours of droning wonder; here’s the tracklisting in full:
- The Missing Ensemble – A Long Walk (from Zeropolis)
- Access To Arasaka – 7.14 : Daedal (from A Sky Now Starless)
- Shinobu Nemoto – Trip 10 (from Melting Loop Trip)
- Deaf Center – Close Forever Watching (from Owl Splinters)
- Ektoise – The Great Perpendicular Path (from Ektoise)
- Anduin + Jasper TX – A Beam Of Light Bends Back Upon Itself… (from The Bending Of Light)
- Decembered – “Только пепел знает…” (стихи И. Бродского) (from Ноктюрн)
- Peter Wright – …And I Live By The River (from An Angel Fell Where The Kestrels Hover)
- Herzog – Small Loves (from Small Loves)
- Carbon Based Lifeforms – System (from TwentyThree)
- The Hafler Trio – Vi-Parīta [excerpt] (from Exactly As I Am)
- Leah Buckareff – Hypostasis (from Trinitarian)
- Asva & Philippe Petit – Sweet Dreams Asshole (from Empires Should Burn…)
- Organum – Horii [excerpt] (from Horii/Volume Two)
- Benjamin Dauer – Falling Apart I (from Saturation Event)
- Jonathan Coleclough – Halant [excerpt] (from Halant / Heat / Beech)
- Charlemagne Palestine & Janek Schaefer – Fables from a Far Away Future [excerpt] (from Day Of The Demons)
- Freiband – Haze Shrapnel (Remix) (from Haze Shrapnel)
- Christopher Hipgrave – Heavy And Pulling You (from Slow, With Pages Of Fluttering Interference)
- Ekca Liena – Sleep (Minimal) (from Sleep Paralysis (Expansion Tracks))
- The Beautiful Schizophonic – Bambilány (from Erotikon)