In Memoriam Tomás Luis de Victoria – Proms 2011: The Tallis Scholars

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400 years ago today, Tomás Luis de Victoria, one of the very finest Renaissance composers, died. To commemorate his passing, a little over three weeks ago the Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Phillips gave a late-night Prom concert dedicated to Victoria’s music.

The concert begins with one of the Motecta Festorum, Victoria’s first volume of motets, published in 1572 and marking a significant point in his career. The stirring text of Dum complerentur recalls the scene –but not, despite what the programme note says, the actual act – of the descending upon the Apostles of the Holy Spirit, and the references to sound and noise clearly got Victoria rather excited (the Tallis Scholars take it at a helpfully brisk tempo). The music can’t sit still, although the opening section, setting the scene, is downplayed, the first ‘Alleluia’ barely allowed to grow before it’s quickly interrupted (‘Et subito’). But now everything heats up; at the reference to a “sound from heaven”, Victoria lingers on the word ‘sonus’, the repeating downward lines hinting at the forthcoming climax. The second ‘Alleluia’ is allowed to develop more, but it’s not until after the next phrase, likening the sound to a “hurricane in its fury”, that Victoria unleashes a lengthy ‘Alleluia’, laden with overlapping descending lines, akin to a peal of church bells. The text then goes round in a little tautological circle, effectively setting the scene again, but affording Victoria the opportunity to explore ‘sonus’ again, this time with more extended melismas, in some of the motet’s most breathtaking material. It closes with a repeat of much of the earlier music, allowing the listener to revel again in the sheer exhilaration of that climactic ‘Alleluia’. 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 directed 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: Simon Holt – Centauromachy

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Simon Holt has been featured at the Proms on numerous occasions over the years, and yesterday his music returned to the Albert Hall with the orchestral work Centauromachy. It was given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with whom Holt is Composer in Association; they were conducted by François-Xavier Roth, who also oversaw the première of the piece in November last year. The work features a pair of soloists, of distinct but not dissimilar timbres: clarinet in A and flugelhorn, played by Robert Plane and Philippe Schartz respectively.

Holt has structured the work in five movements, the shortest of which comes first, featuring the soloists alone. Titled ‘Two natures’, it serves to compare and contrast the clarinet and flugelhorn, which at first take it in turns to attempt to catch each other, scurrying around, imitating, their phrases ending together on a unison note. It’s not until the third and final phrase that they move beyond a relatively narrow pitch space, moving swiftly to occupy distinct registral areas, the clarinet initially high above the flugelhorn, then leaping below it. Following a final chirrup, the second movement, ‘Chiron’s dream’ introduces the orchestra, rapidly materialising like a grand, cinematic fade-in. When the soloists restart their activity, it’s with forceful gestures, but they quickly yield to lines that continue to cling together. A trumpet strikes up a rapport with the flugel, while the strings seek to try something out in their uppermost register, delineated by glockenspiel strikes. Everything coalesces onto a lower note, from which the soloists again recommence strongly but immediately become soft; as earlier, though, Holt keeps the material restless, suggesting a dream that’s not entirely comfortable. Read more

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