James MacMillan – Seraph (World Première)

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James MacMillan‘s most recent composition, Seraph, a concertino for trumpet and strings, was premièred by Alison Balsom and the Scottish Ensemble a little over a month ago, at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Its bold, militaristic start immediately puts Shostakovich in mind, but this is supplemented with an obvious reference to Joseph Haydn. MacMillan takes the last movement of Haydn’s concerto as his own starting point, using a misquote of its opening phrase as a gesture upon which much of his first movement is centered. While the tone remains boistrous throughout, there are two softer episodes, welcome asides in what is otherwise a surprisingly workaday brand of music that, on more than a few occasions, crosses the line into pastiche. The Haydn quotation isn’t the only Classical affiliation; the presence of three movements—fast-slow-fast—is an obvious connection, and even clearer is the structure of this opening Allegro, replete with recapitulation. Read more

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Detlev Glanert – Musik für Violine und Orchester (UK Première)

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On 11 February, getting on for 15 years since its world première in Darmstadt, Detlev Glanert‘s Musik für Violine und Orchester arrived in the UK, in the hands of Stephen Bryant and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of David Robertson.

The first movement, ‘Cantus’, is linked to Orpheus, who, according to legend, was an inspirational singer. Sedate and measured, the violin’s opening phrases—pensive ascending scales—are slowly taken up by the orchestra, leading to a rudimentary pulse. It may seem facile to speak of an ‘awakening’ at the start of a piece, but there is a distinct sense of the instruments flexing their muscles in readiness for what’s to follow. A confident sforzando begins the movement proper, in which the violin assumes an overtly ‘narrative’ mood, occasionally deviating from prosaic mutterings to engage in a flurry of melodic fancies that seems to receive an eager response from the orchestra. All the same, over time it projects a slightly empty and dynamically flat brand of lyricism, somewhat without a cause; it’s easy to be distracted by the delightful touches going on around it, such as the light repeated notes in the woodwind. Read more

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Gary Carpenter – Fred & Ginger (World Première)

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Radio 3 has featured a glut of premières recently, from a mixture of established and less well-known names. One such new name (to me, at least) is Gary Carpenter, whose new orchestral piece Fred and Ginger received its first performance on 17 February, broadcast a week later. A little over five minutes in duration, the work draws its inspiration from the characters of the title, Astaire and Rogers—or, more specifically, the ambivalent nature of their relationship in front of (elegant; suave) and away from (argumentative; turbulent) the camera.

It doesn’t start terribly promisingly; the opening gestures suggest the generic, empty kind of material that litters many contemporary scores (particularly those affiliated with Faber). But it quickly becomes evident that there’s more going on here than mere posturing: rhythmic convulsions that already hint at something dance-like; sustained tones that may or may not aspire to melody; spasmodic eruptions—initiated by the timpani—that are clearly going to be problematic as things continue. Despite seeming to be present merely to disrupt things, the percussion actually provide the impetus for a greater sense of both stability and direction, laying down the gauntlet, so to speak, by preparing a clear, consistent pulse. Before things really swing, however, the sharp angular shapes cast by the orchestra gradually assume a more lyrical demeanour—first on the strings, later on a trombone—and the work finally attains the epithets conductor Daniel Harding asserted beforehand, “wit and charm and elegance”. Read more

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A complete counterpoint to untold destruction: Ex Confusion – Too Late, They Are Gone

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Sometimes, timing changes everything. Tomorrow sees the release of a new EP from Japan’s Atsuhito Omori, better known as Ex Confusion, titled Too Late, They Are Gone. That a work of such sublime quietude from a Japanese artist should come at such a desperate time for that country—which has, in the space of a few days, become synonymous with violent destruction, brought to the brink of despair—lends the music an emotional weight that is, admittedly, extra-musical, but no less real for that. This is to take nothing away from Omori; the timing is entirely coincidental, and i was marvelling at its beauty for several days before the earth shook. But music has an uncanny ability to escape from the clutches of its creator, becoming more and other things to its listeners than they could ever have imagined.

At a little under 18 minutes, and despite its ambient ethereality, Omori’s material is kept focused, particularly through the three tracks at the EP’s epicentre. The opener, “Asking You Why” is contrastingly diaphanous, simple, drawn-out notes reverberating like distant brass through a dense fog. “I See You Breathe” continues in a similar vein, although higher, with a more mobile tonal centre, rocking back and forth beneath soft dissonances that are gently mesmerising. The title track swiftly follows, bringing an abrupt change of texture, more static, resonating outwards from a fixed central cluster. Despite the lack of anything approximating bass, it’s a rich, even slightly heady soundworld; occasional notes protrude sharply out, but their shimmer prevents them from jarring on the ear, adding to the entrancingly hypnotic tone that pervades this track. Read more

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The familiar and the strange playing together as friends: Radiohead – The King of Limbs

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As an occasion, Valentine’s Day is polarising enough, split between they who regard it with importance, and those for whom it’s little more than an overhyped, vacuous sham. But that polarisation was exacerbated further on this particular Valentine’s Day, bringing as it did Radiohead‘s announcement that their eighth album, The King of Limbs, would be forthcoming just a few days later. It’s surprising that so many music sites and blogs have been so precipitate in their quest to get out the earliest possible review (The Telegraph‘s Neil McCormick, as usual, being the most egregious; his track-by-track “review”, written on the day of release, was pointless, cliché-ridden doggerel)—Radiohead have demonstrated more times than most that their output takes no little time to speak, and even longer to be heard. In October last year, when i wrote my 10-year retrospective of Kid A, i couldn’t help feeling it had taken much of that decade to make sufficiently meaningful inroads to the material; from that perspective, to be responding to The King of Limbs barely more than a fortnight after its release seems absurdly premature. But the dust has finally begun to settle, and now one can at least start to try to make sense of those first impressions. Read more

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Daniel Kellogg – Soft Sleep Shall Contain You: A Meditation on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (UK Première)

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Last autumn, on 27 November, at a lunchtime concert at London’s Wigmore Hall, the renowned Takacs Quartet gave the UK Première of the American composer Daniel Kellogg‘s Soft Sleep Shall Contain You: A Meditation on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. As that title suggests, the piece draws on material from Schubert’s quartet, specifically the theme used as the basis for the second movement.

It begins with great slowness, presenting a chromatic, descending idea that has a tendency to end in emphatic perfect fifths. It’s a plaintive opening, only gradually hinting at material from Death and the Maiden; Kellogg allows these initial dabs of sonic stuff to slide around like beads of mercury, occasionally meeting and momentarily coalescing into something recognisable—Schubert’s first chord, for example, materialises only to vanish away again immediately. Eventually, the quartet makes an overtly lyrical statement, which becomes the cue for a launch into denser material and more aggressive interplay. There’s a sense here of struggle, of grinding away at something mundane, prosaic, before another abrupt shift, now into a more rhythmically driving section. Skimming the surface, the contours of Schubert’s melody now become apparent, and later, the well-known chord sequence is heard loud and clear, while the music’s grip on tonality wavers disconcertingly. Read more

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Anna Meredith – Four Tributes to 4am (World Première)

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It’s high time we caught up with some premières here on 5:4; there have been quite a few on Radio 3 in the last few months, and by the look of things, there are going to be many more in the near future. Last night, the first performance of a new work by Anna Meredith was broadcast, performed by sinfonia ViVA (a group i’d not come across before) under the direction of André de Ridder. Meredith’s relationship to the ensemble is “Composer in the House”, and both that title, together with sinfonia ViVA’s choice of upper-/lower-case tomfoolery, suggest an attempt at a slightly edgy, Jamie Oliver kind of attitude to music-making, piled high with lashings of street cred.

What Meredith provided seems entirely in keeping with that model; titled Four Tributes to 4am, her piece originates in an exploration of “the crossover point between yesterday and tomorrow, at the deadest part of the night”. Inspiration for this came via an autumnal perambulation round the city of Derby, soaking up the urban atmos. Meredith has focused on four geographical points that are then depicted as musical ‘portraits’. Read more

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