The Softness War: Chubby Wolf – Los que No Son Gentos & Celer – Noctilucent Clouds

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A little under a year ago, reviewing Celer’s then latest release Dying Star, i made the rather rash remark that with its “quietly massive majesty … [it] may just be Celer’s masterpiece”. i’m not going to retract that statement—it remains for me the most striking album in the Celer corpus—but it’s been fascinating to hear a pair of albums this year that draw very near to it, in terms of both aspiration and execution.

The first comes from the Celer-offshoot Chubby Wolf, the result of Danielle Baquet-Long’s solo explorations. As i’ve remarked in the past, left to her own devices Baquet-Long pursues a more austere, sonically complex soundworld than that of her duo work with husband Will, and new release Los que No Son Gentos is no exception. That’s not to suggest it lacks warmth—far from it—but the ‘heat’ it emits is soft and residual, not blazing; there are no overt grand gestures here. The 14 tracks are founded on slowly-moving foundations that for the most part keep themselves at a distance, not so much aloof as reserved; and their mode of expression is pithy and succinct, many of the tracks lasting under three minutes. Yet their miniature stature belies a remarkable intensity with which the music speaks. It’s a paradox neatly encapsulated in Baquet-Long’s familiarly loquacious track-titles, which (like so much poetry) are simultaneously immediate—more than once invoking desire—and alienating. One quickly realises that each track is not merely concise, but concentrated, boiled down into a richly undiluted essence, in which each shifting agglomeration of notes, each surging bass protrusion becomes utterly compelling. Thankfully, this is clearly what matters most; once again, Baquet-Long flies in the face of so much contemporary ambient music, that simply regards sounding pretty (which is, in any case, subjective) as its primary goal. Los que No Son Gentos shifts in and out of loveliness, but the weight and power of its conviction never lets up for a second. It’s perhaps perverse to single out any individual track in such a context as this, but “You are the Description that brings me out of Myself… But cannot Give Me anywhere to go” is especially impressive, bringing to mind the best work of Jonathan Coleclough. 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: Havergal Brian – Symphony No. 1 ‘Gothic’

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Rarely have i felt the need to prepare so thoroughly before a concert as i did prior to yesterday evening’s Prom performance of Havergal Brian‘s Symphony No. 1 ‘Gothic’. Books were re-read, CDs were re-listened to, and i even re-visited the writings of John Ruskin, who wrote with such authority about the nature of Gothic. The enterprise felt similar to the preparations for a lengthy trek over difficult and taxing terrain, but such is the nature of the musical landscape of Brian’s symphony. At the outset, i suppose, one must tackle the elephant in the room. Except, of course, it’s nothing of the kind; for weeks on end, one commentator after another has been getting in an excited lather at the size of the Gothic Symphony. “Gosh, it needs over 1,000 players” they coo; “Wow, it’s the longest symphony ever written”, they gush, as though mere scale was somehow a laudable trait or even an end in itself. Brian’s not alone in suffering from such witless gigantophilia; Sorabji, too, is seemingly forever spoken of in terms of the size of his output. Even Tom Service, the BBC’s boy scout-in-residence, could hardly remain still in his seat at yesterday’s performance, positively whooping with delight at the sheer colossality of it all. Some deep breaths and chill pills are clearly called for. Read more

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