Blasts from the Past: Dmitri Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No. 2

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On this day, in 1966, Dmitri Shostakovich turned 60, and the evening brought a birthday concert including the world première of his Cello Concerto No. 2. The piece is well worth singling out for celebration, partly because to my mind it starts to resolve the very real difficulties that confront listeners when they engage with his music on anything more than the most superficial level. Put simply, there’s a problem, and it’s one i mentioned in a recent review (on Bachtrack) of his first Violin Concerto, composed over a decade earlier:

The challenge for audiences is to accept the fact that the composer had essentially just two modes of expression: slow, circling clouds of intense anguish and fast, flippant exercises in military precision. The challenge for performers is to find something fresh and vital within this variegated tautology, in order to locate and extract the essence of a man who, on his own admission, felt a compositional need to “resort to camouflage”.

Without wishing to get into an argument with myself, this problem by no means prevents one from enjoying and, more deeply, from grasping the acute intensity of feeling and distress that doesn’t merely underpin the music but burns within it like a molten core. Yet the problem remains, and it’s easy to feel frustrated, even downright annoyed, in Shostakovich’s company, at how entrenched these twin aspects of his compositional personality seem to be. (It would be arrogant, i think, to criticise his circumspection; one suspects he simply wanted to stay alive.) The Second Cello Concerto, though, moves beyond this, into broader and less certain waters, quietening down the grotesque jauntery in favour of an immense dive into the darkest depths of introspection. Through three movements lasting a little more than half an hour, Shostakovich tapped back into some of the radical spirit of enquiry he explored much earlier in his life (from the time of the Fourth Symphony and earlier), and began to develop a new way forward. Read more

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New releases: symphonies by Paul von Klenau, Peter Maxwell Davies, Andrzej Panufnik, Xiaogang Ye & Per Nørgård

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It’s high time i got back to appraising some of the more interesting new releases. No fewer than three contemporary pieces bearing the title ‘symphony’ were performed at this year’s Proms, and coincidentally quite a few of the CDs i’ve been sent have also featured 20th and 21st century symphonies. What constitutes a ‘symphony’ these days is a good question, one that these six albums don’t so much answer as offer an assortment of interpretations of what it might mean. Read more

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New digital EP: Studies, vol. 1

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It’s been a while since my last CD release, so i’m especially pleased to announce that, a few days ago, i brought out a new EP, the first in an ongoing series. Those of you familiar with my earlier electronic work will know that there’s been a tendency to embrace extremes. My last two discs, Night Liminal and Dither • Pother • Roil exemplify that pretty strongly. For the last couple of years, my electronic music has turned away from this mode of expression, focusing instead on a more indirect, allusive type of utterance, which has its roots in one of my earliest electronic pieces, Triptych, May/July 2009, as well as the Simulated Music cycle.

This has resulted in a growing collection of Studies, pieces that primarily explore my interest in structuring sound materials from an initially visual perspective, many of which i regard as something that might be called ‘Op Music’, a sonic equivalent of Op Art. Diverse in character, some highly abstract, others moving through clear progressions and processes of evolution and development, these Studies are all entirely synthetic, sculpted from raw electronic sounds without use of existing sound materials. As in much of my earlier work, the juxtaposition of pitch and noise and the reappraisal of what defines each (and their boundaries) continue to be recurring features of these pieces.

i’ll be making a selection of these Studies available in an ongoing series of digital-only EPs, the first of which, vol. 1, is now available, from my Bandcamp site (which includes lossless) as well as iTunes and Google Play. For those of you who like to try before you buy, the EP can be streamed via Spotify (embed below).

The accompanying artwork is by the Polish generative artist Tomasz Sulej, whose work i find inspiring and very beautiful, and which makes a perfect analogue for the soundworld of the Studies.

Further volumes of these pieces will be released during the months ahead.

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Proms 2016: Tom Harrold – Raze (World Première)

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Quite apart from the manifold inherent issues with which the occasion has long been afflicted, the Last Night of the Proms hasn’t exactly acquitted itself with particular brilliance as far its annual opening world premières are concerned. Consider the last few years’ efforts from Eleanor Alberga, Gavin Higgins, Anna Clyne, Peter Maxwell Davies and Jonathan Dove, and you’re looking at a list of bland, lowest-common-denominator fripperies bound for oblivion. Mark Simpson’s splendid work sparks, from the 2012 season, is a lone exception to this, and so it’s nice that it now has a worthy companion in the form of this year’s offering, Raze, from Scottish composer Tom Harrold, performed with a seat-of-the-pants ferocity by the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble with members from the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Read more

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Proms 2016: Julian Anderson – Incantesimi & Paul Desenne – Hipnosis mariposa (UK Premières)

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As the end of the Proms draws nigh, the new works seem to have been taking on an increasing delicacy. And, to a large extent, simplicity, Julian Anderson‘s Incantesimi taking inspiration from the orrery, a mechanical reproduction of the the solar system, while Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne, in a homage to late singer Simón Díaz, draws on one of his children’s songs, ‘El Becerrito’, about a cow called Butterfly who has a calf (also known as ‘La vaca Mariposa’; words here), as the basis for his work Hipnosis mariposa. Read more

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Proms 2016: Thomas Larcher – Symphony No. 2 ‘Kenotaph’ (UK Première), Sally Beamish – Merula perpetua & Bayan Northcott – Concerto for Orchestra (World Premières)

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Following on from Emily Howard’s Torus, two further Proms premières have continued the relationship with the orchestral concerto archetype: Bayan Northcott‘s Concerto for Orchestra and Thomas Larcher‘s Symphony No. 2, which began life as one but developed in a different direction. Larcher’s symphony was commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Oesterreichische Nationalbank, but far from being celebratory, the piece, dourly subtitled ‘Cenotaph‘, is bound up in thoughts and feelings instilled by the ongoing refugee crisis. Although not programmatic, Larcher has used the symphony to compose an ‘outcry’ at the sense of helplessness he felt.

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Proms 2016: Piers Hellawell – Wild Flow, Emily Howard – Torus (World Premières) & Marlos Nobre – Kabbalah (UK Première)

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The most recent Proms premières have demonstrated particularly keenly the highly differentiated approaches being taken by this year’s crop of composers, and while some works at first glance appear to be nothing but effervescence and froth, closer examination proves otherwise. In the case of Piers Hellawell‘s new orchestral work Wild Flow, dedicated to and given its first performance by the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Payare, there’s plenty of froth, though it’s been whipped up into a particular dense and sticky consistency. Composed also to mark his own 60th birthday, Hellawell’s aim was to write “immediate” music that “wants to uplift and exalt the spirit”. Four of the work’s five movements are fast and energetic, around a slower central section. The opening, to a clanging bell, suggests the first round in a boxing match, and while Wild Flow isn’t exactly pugilistic, it certainly displays a kind of Varèsian muscularity crossed with a curiously gymnastic melodic attitude. Music seeking to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, perhaps? Read more

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