Not many new releases have made much of an impact on me during the last month. Among the few that have, though, is a new box set from Wergo bringing together all ten of Hans Werner Henze‘s symphonies, performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. Henze’s symphonies were an early interest of mine; as a teenager i became closely acquainted with the Deutsche Grammophon recording of the first six symphonies made by Henze himself with the Berlin Phil. i say ‘acquainted’, but at the time i was semi-mystified by various aspects of these pieces, and i’m not sure that the passing years or Janowski’s superb new rendition of them has made that mystification any less present. Which is not to say these symphonies are baffling or unengaging—not in the least—yet Henze’s mode of speech takes more than a little getting used to, and his inclination to veer between extremes can be decidedly disorienting. Those first six symphonies remain a challenge, and to no little extent they are ‘symphonies’ only in name, inclining more towards the heightened drama of music theatre. This, in fact, is a characteristic of all 10 symphonies, which is in turn one of the main facets that prevents them from sounding problematically abstruse; their swift adjustments and shifts between states—of behaviour, atmosphere, emotion, charge—is exhilarating and continually offers new ways into the often churning underlying mood. Read more
Having referred to the cinematic qualities of some recent premières, it’s interesting now to turn to a composer whose music does not sound conventionally cinematic, yet who has become well-known in recent times for a film score. Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin is a remarkable piece of work, simultaneously alienating (literally) and human, and emotionally-speaking both aloof and raw. Mica Levi‘s score was justifiably lauded for the way it not only integrated so seamlessly into Glazer’s unique world, but gave that world a particular tone of voice. Including it in my Best Albums of 2014 list, i commented how “[n]either sound nor structure are forced but instead play out in their own time frame, switching between the aural equivalents of vacant stares and creeping insect-like tremors and twitches. Music that embraces a very new notion of beauty.” The same can be said of her new work Greezy, premièred a couple of months ago in the first of two ‘Spectrum Of Sound’ concerts given by the London Sinfonietta. Read more
Another composer with somewhat filmic leanings is Mark Simpson, heard to good effect in his latest orchestral piece, Israfel, premièred last month at the City Halls in Glasgow. Simpson’s piece reminded me how long it had been since i’d revisited my well-thumbed copy of the works of Edgar Allan Poe; in his eponymous poem, Poe depicts Israfel—the Islamic “angel of the trumpet”—as an apogee of expressive potency and poetic inspiration, causing the very universe to quieten:
In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
‘Whose heart-strings are a lute;’
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell)
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice, all mute.
One of the things i’ve particularly come to admire in Simpson’s music is the way he’s able to pack a lot of drama into relatively short periods of time, without sacrificing coherence. And that’s certainly the case with Israfel too, which covers a fair amount of ground in just 12 minutes. Read more
Premières – there have been some interesting ones of late, so let’s get back to them. It’s almost five years since Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer has been featured on 5:4, when his quirky orchestral work A Freak in Burbank was played at the 2010 Proms. A few weeks ago, his new work Tales from Suburbia received its first performance at the Barbican, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirill Karabits. Similarities between the two works are strong; clearly, one of Schnelzer’s most overt stylistic traits—one that may prove off-putting for some—is a resemblance to the world of film scores. In the case of Tales from Suburbia, this seems even more prominent, as there is a deliberate sense of narrative at play; Schnelzer has described the piece as being “like a diary”, referring to his own suburban experiences, although noting that they are “not a paradise … it can be a frightening place”.
Depending on your perspective, and whether you tend to judge glasses as being half full or empty, the piece either takes this as its default position, with dark, mysterious, ominous passages being the norm, offset with sporadic, ephemeral episodes that aspire to, but cannot sustain, lyrical outbursts. Or, on the other hand, Tales from Suburbia can be heard as a work where lyricism is the thread running throughout, grappling with occasions where the line is lost in more blunt and generalised material, characterised by rhythmic drive and/or sullen uncertainty.
It’s that time again; the 2015 Proms season has today been unveiled, and once again offers more than a few treats for lovers of new music. That’s putting it extremely mildly; in truth, the amount of contemporary music in this year’s concerts is actually rather jaw-dropping, with no fewer than 20 world premières, plus a host of European and UK first performances and a healthy additional cluster of recent works. Having been temporarily usurped in 2014, the tradition of a world première in the opening concert has been restored, the honour this time falling to Gary Carpenter, whose new work Dadaville i would expect to provide something more meaty than the ephemeral offerings of the last few years. Encouragingly, a third of the first performances are works by women composers, including a Tallis homage from Cheryl Frances-Hoad, ensemble pieces by Shiori Usui and Birmingham Conservatoire alumnus Joanna Lee, a piano concerto from Anna Meredith, something Nordic-inspired from Alissa Firsova, and new orchestral works by Tansy Davies and Eleanor Alberga, whose Arise, Athena! will kickstart the Last Night. Read more
My round-up of the most interesting new releases this time features three objects: a film, a box and a book, each desirable for very different reasons. The film, available from Dacapo Records, is a much-to-be-celebrated DVD release of Simon Steen-Andersen‘s bewilderingly marvellous work Black Box Music. The memory of my first encounter with the piece at HCMF 2012 is still very vivid, and that’s entirely due to the skilful blend of wit and virtuosity that is encapsulated both within and without the box. It’s true that Steen-Andersen’s work doesn’t always hit home as successfully as this, but that criticism seems almost churlish when confronted by the frankly amazing breadth of his imagination. In Black Box Music, a solo performer directs and interacts with two spatially separated groups of instrumentalists; these directions and interactions come via a camera feed from inside the titular box, filming the soloist’s hands. Cast in three movements, it progresses from a kind of ‘warming up’ to a dazzling display of apparent cause and effect, the soloist’s gestures seemingly eliciting certain types of material and behaviour from the players; but there are times when this becomes subverted, suggesting the relationship is rather more complex than seemed at first. Read more
Last night saw the first performance of Unsuk Chin‘s new orchestral piece Mannequin, performed at Sage Gateshead by the National Youth Orchestra—who, these days, can seemingly play anything—conducted by Ilan Volkov. The work’s four movements are subtitled “tableaux vivants”, ‘living pictures’ that are rooted in several episodes from E. T. A. Hoffman’s story The Sandman. i say ‘rooted’, but in fact ‘imbued’ would be a better word; if anything has characterised Chin’s music in the last few years it is an increasing tendency towards gestural material, which is in turn formed into intricate textural fabrics. That abstract shapes and forms such as these operate to enact very concrete moods and ideas—usually, as here, directly invoking literary narratives—makes for an exciting and highly dramatic dichotomy. Chin has likened the work to what she calls an “imaginary choreography”, even going so far as to express the hope that it will be literally choreographed at some point, uniting abstract and concrete ideas of movement in another way.