Hector Berlioz – Grande messe des morts

Posted on by 5:4 in 19th Century, Proms, Thematic series | Leave a comment

Today’s work in my ongoing series on the subject of death is not contemporary, not in the least, but is one which nonetheless still sounds as vital and as daring as it did when it was premièred 177 years ago. The Grande messe des morts was Hector Berlioz‘s epic response to a commission to write a setting of the requiem mass in commemoration of soldiers who had perished in the 1830 French Revolution. Despite being only his fifth published work, the key word in its title is ‘grande’, as it utilises forces on a scale unprecedented in 1837 and almost never equalled since. Berlioz’s orchestral line-up is huge enough by itself, including 8 bassoons, 12 horns, 16 timpani, 10 cymbals, 4 tamtams, and a string section of 108, but this is expanded further with four separate off-stage brass brands (38 extra players) distributed around the performance space; the addition of a choir numbering at least 200 makes for an assembly of performers rather mind-boggling to imagine. And imagine is what most people have to do with this piece; i was fortunate to experience a performance in The Hague many years ago, but for obvious reasons the Grande messe des morts for the most part remains an under-performed curiosity, famous more for its gargantuan size than for the music itself. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF | 2 Comments

It’s November, and i’ll initially skip over the elephant in the month to flag up a very interesting concert series going on in Manchester. Curated by undergrad composer Jack Sheen, it goes by the Excel spreadsheet-friendly title ddmmyy, seeking to make each event literally that, an event, conceived and customised in sympathy with the music contained therein. The next concert in the series is in a little over a week’s time, on Sunday 16 November in the RNCM’s Carole Nash Recital Room, and it promises an interesting selection: a new work from Laurence Tompkins, Larry Goves’ A glimpse of the sea in a fold of the hills and Laurence Crane’s Octet. As all good new music concerts should, there’s a pre-concert talk at 6pm before the kick-off at 7.30pm. Future concerts in February and April next year will be including works by Bryn Harrison, Michael Finnissy and Berio alongside music by RNCM-associated composers. Ambitious and also rather stylish in presentation, it’s clearly a concert series well worth checking out; the flyer with info about all their forthcoming concerts can be seen/downloaded here.

And now, of course, to the pachyderm: in two weeks’ time, this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival will be springing into action for another round of the unexpected, the challenging and the downright discombobulating. i’ll be there for the full ten days this year, and will be reporting back on as much as my mind and ears can cope with. It’s almost nonsensical to single out highlights in a festival where every event is a highlight in itself, but the choice of James Dillon as this year’s Composer in Residence is hugely mouth-watering; both of the festival’s weekends feature his work heavily, the former with the London Sinfonietta and BBC Singers premièring a new large-scale work, Stabat Mater dolorosa, the latter with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra taking on another new work, Physis I & II and an existing piece, Andromeda, before pitting the Arditti Quartet against all seven—that’s all seven—of Dillon’s string quartets. i know, right? i’ll also be particularly looking forward to premières from, among others, Liza Lim, Simon Steen-Andersen (whose Black Box Music remains one of the most astonishing things i’ve seen/heard at HCMF in recent years), Christopher Fox, Naomi Pinnock and Monty Adkins; Adkins will also be presenting his beautiful electronic work Rift Patterns (my review of which is here). One of contemporary music’s most alluringly dark clarinettists, Gareth Davis, will be playing a major new work from Elliott Sharp called Sylva Sylvarum; his wonderful rendition of Sharp’s Foliage at Bristol New Music earlier this year makes this an unmissable performance. Apartment House will be performing Brian Eno, Arne Deforce and Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio will be performing a live version of their interesting recent album Hephaestus, Ryoko Akama will be giving the world première of a new work by the great Eliane Radigue, and nyMusikk Bergen will be tackling Sciarrino’s frankly bizarre opera (of sorts) Lohengrin on the festival’s opening night. But i’m also especially looking forward to music by composers entirely new to me, including Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Joan Arnau Pàmies, Øyvind Torvund, Bjørn Fongaard and Ferran Fages. Unsurprisingly, some of the concerts are by now sold out, but many are still available – full information and bookings here. i trust it won’t leave me wordless, but i fully expect to be left speechless.

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Philippe Manoury – Trauermärsche (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Thematic series | Leave a comment

A recent new work permeated by the subject of death is Trauermärsche for chamber orchestra, by French composer Philippe Manoury. By tapping into the funeral march idea, Manoury sought to engage with what he has described as its dual character, “at the same time something tragic but also something derisory … and macabre”, elaborating how the use of the plural in the title—literally ‘Funeral Marches’—is “because it will be like several funeral marches mixed together so one can imagine that there are several orchestras, one appearing when another disappears, and then the first one comes back, etc.” Although he cites influences from both Mahler (the famous ‘Frere Jacques’ music in the third movement of his Symphony No. 1) and Webern, the music of Trauermärsche is most concerned with alluding to practices of processional, with the funereal processions of New Orleans especially in mind. Read more

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Gabriel Jackson – Justorum animæ

Posted on by 5:4 in Thematic series | 6 Comments

The aspect of death explored in Gabriel Jackson‘s short choral work Justorum animæ is on the peace it brings to the souls of the departed, a fitting theme for today, being All Souls’ Day. The Latin text is drawn from the offertory from yesterday’s liturgies for All Saints’ Day, originating in the apocryphal book of Wisdom, and like so many texts (and human acts) that grapple with death, it is primarily focussed on the living, seeking to bring some reassurance to we who are left behind. Their souls, we are told, “are in the hand of God”, and while the second line seems a bit confusing—how can they not be touched by “the torment of death” when they are patently dead?—the overriding message that no more harm can come to them is self-evidently true.

Jackson’s music embraces the soothing thrust of the words, setting them almost like a lullaby, lilting phrases atop soft, oscillating diatonic chords that appropriately defy a sense of cadential finality. Read more

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George Crumb – Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, Proms | Leave a comment

As it’s Hallowe’en, with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days closely following (and Remembrance Day a little after that), i’m going to tap into the prevailing temporal undertone and explore a few pieces concerned one way or another with the subject of death. To begin, a piece that is wholeheartedly concerned with that subject—and which is also, i think, highly suitable in character to Hallowe’en itself, George Crumb‘s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, composed over a six-year period, completed in 1968. For his theme, Crumb turned once again to the poet whose words he set repeatedly through the 1960s, Federico García Lorca, utilising a curious ensemble comprising baritone, electric guitar, electric double bass, amplified piano/electric harpsichord and two percussionists. As is usual for Crumb, the players are all compelled to go beyond their regular call of duty, with everyone playing some percussion as well as singing at various points. Read more

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30 years on: Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasuredome

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For reasons as much to do with priorities as anything stylistic or aesthetic, pop music doesn’t get featured on 5:4 very often. But it would be remiss of me not to make some mention of today’s 30th anniversary of one of the most exhilarating debut albums ever made, Frankie Goes To Hollywood‘s Welcome to the Pleasuredome, originally released on 29 October 1984. i was 11 at the time, and discovered the album among the record collection of my best friend’s mother (i encountered Thriller the same way). First contact was more to do with the packaging than anything else; two vinyl records in a gatefold sleeve covered with wonderfully bizarre, perverse paintings imitative of Picasso, featuring imagined beasts engaging in a Dionysian orgy and entering two-by-two into the head of giant phallus (see below). What 11-year old boy could resist the temptation to go further and hear what sounds had been married to these outlandish images?
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New releases: ensemble/orchestral

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The majority of new releases to have come my way recently have featured music for ensemble and/or orchestral forces, each disc of which is usually devoted to the work of a single composer. The opportunity to scrutinise an individual’s work in great depth at times turns out to be something of a mixed blessing. This is definitely the case with NMC’s recent disc of Helen Grime‘s music, Night Songs. i’ve enjoyed and written about Grime’s work on a number of occasions, but this album—which, helpfully, arranges its contents in chronological order—contextualises those works such that rather glaring problems instantly emerge. Chief of them all is the extreme narrowness of Grime’s compositional language, with regular recourse to precisely the same mannerisms and tropes in pretty much every piece. Take a drawn-out melodic line, put it mid-register and not too loud, adorn it with sharp staccato notes (woodwind or pizzicato strings) and far, far beneath it have grumbling deep bass phrases. This kind of thing has worked for Oliver Knussen, and on the basis of this disc, Grime seems to feel compelled to introduce this same device into everything she writes. It’s an irritation that gets compounded by the timidity of Grime’s orchestral writing; not merely her safe, familiar use of the instruments, it’s the lack of anything approximating a release, a true letting-go of control, that makes the majority of the seven works on this disc feel so thoroughly grounded. Striving for equilibrium doesn’t require one to be so equivocal. Read more

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