Just when you’ve concluded the Proms are little more than schmoozing, emollience, accessibility and tradition, along comes Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra with Galina Ustvolskaya‘s Symphony No. 3. Regarded superficially—and, tragically, this is the way the majority of commentators regard her work—Ustvolskaya’s music is the antithesis of comfort. She eschews most of the conventions of western art music, typically bringing together unusual groupings of instruments (often timbrally and registrally incongruous) which articulate themselves from within the strictures of an utmost rigid rhythmic grid. Again regarded superficially, she is the ostensible apogee of the cool, aloof, unemotional, detached composer. Which leaves the question of why four of her five symphonies, as well as the three ‘Compositions’ (together covering a period from 1970 to 1990, the last 20 years of her composing life), should be subtitled with overt religious quotations, extended to recited texts in the symphonies. Is it irony? mischief? sacrilege?
Wednesday evening in Tewkesbury Abbey, in the company of Ex Cathedra conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore, was an encounter with a particular kind of British ubiquity. The music of Hubert Parry, Herbert Howells, Judith Weir and James MacMillan were brought together in an evening focussing on “A New Jerusalem”, four composers whose work, in the church and concert hall respectively, has become (for good or ill) highly pervasive. In the case of Parry and Howells, hearing them beyond the context of liturgical function revealed above all how much their approach to choral writing persists both in the legacy of 20th century church music and beyond as well as the ongoing choral evensong tradition, which for many years has sounded less like a modern expression of faith than a nostalgic clinging to values (both musical and theological) held by an ever-decreasing minority. Hearing them side by side made for an illuminating comparison. What Elgar was to the orchestra, Parry was to the choir, his music never solely about the text or topic at hand but with omnipresent obeisance to a sense of grandiose occasion looming over everything. (Put another way, what Elgar was to pomp, Parry was to circumstance.) Read more
Cheltenham Music Festival got both seriously and playfully pianistic on Sunday. And theatrical too, first in a 50-minute dramaturgical discourse from experimental pianist Sarah Nicolls, and later in a recital by Clare Hammond including two works involving film. Nicolls’ Moments of Weightlessness was a genuine curiosity, insofar as it wasn’t exactly a concert or a piece of performance art, but was instead something beyond either. From one perspective, it was a kind of statement of intent, a demonstration of the aesthetic, the capabilities and the potential of the unique new piano Nicolls’ has developed over the last few years, an instrument that brings to mind the vertical arrangement of the ‘giraffe piano‘, erected on a large steel frame that enables it to be moved and rotated on its axis. Read more
For new music at the Cheltenham Music Festival, the key phrase yesterday was “transfigured time”. Time in the sense of history, as two of the concerts directly explored, confronted, embraced and challenged contemporary music’s relationship with instruments, images and idioms from the past. The afternoon event at Parabola Arts Centre featured the Goldfield Ensemble and Langham Research Centre in a concert that unfolded as a long-form electroacoustic audiovisual meditation on these ideas. The conjunction of sound and sight often proved problematic; Arlene Sierra‘s music, receiving its first performance, written to accompany Russian avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren‘s 1946 silent Ritual in Transfigured Time (from which the concert took its title) rather optimistically opted for a bald, minimalistic collection of recurring gestures and motifs that established an aural unity jarringly at odds with the film’s bold tilt-shifts and narrative evasiveness. Deren’s visual language is admittedly gestural in this work to some extent, but its palette of actions and contexts, combined with their allusive distance–not to mention her insistence that form should be ritualistic—is broader and more demonstrative than the rooted and increasingly monotonous music Sierra provided for it. Even more problematic was the presentation of Edgard Varèse‘s 1958 masterpiece Poème électronique which recreated the work’s original presentation at the Brussels World Fair (within a pavilion designed principally by Xenakis), where it was accompanied by a film of fleeting images created by Le Corbusier. Despite being, one assumes, as the composer originally intended (one assumes), it nonetheless works against the music in two respects. First, the visuals simply diminish the prevailing modernity of Varèse’s music, bringing to mind similar audiovisual works involving composers such as Roberto Gerhard and Bernard Parmegiani, where the film element fails to live up to the scope of the music. That was the case here, and secondly, rather than coming across as a ‘period piece’, Poème électronique instead seemed to acquire an unwarranted hauntological quality, as though it had been executed by Demdike Stare or Ghost Box, curiously militating against the music’s authenticity. Read more
A piece that’s been quietly beguiling me of late is Accurate Placement, by the Swiss composer Jürg Frey. A 16-minute work for solo double bass, it received its first performance last November, at one of the few HCMF concerts i didn’t get to. As my articles from that time will have made clear, my response to Frey’s work was, in hindsight, stimulatingly problematic and inconsistent, oscillating wildly between frustration and elation at its differing hues of diffident certitude. Accurate Placement falls somewhere right of centre on this continuum. Read more
Both the title of last night’s BCMG concert, ‘Remembering the Future’, and its prevailing tone emphasised a looking back, and with good reason, as this was the final concert in Stephen and Jackie Newbould’s long tenure running the ensemble. Thankfully, that didn’t cause the evening to sag into mere nostalgia, focusing instead on the world premières of four new commissions, prefaced by a pair of works from BCMG’s repertoire. The ensemble was reduced in size on this occasion to a mere seven players, making the concert more than usually intimate. Read more
i’ve been catching up lately with some of the more recent releases from NEOS, who for a long time have distinguished themselves as not just one of the most forward-looking labels, but easily one of the most fecund, putting out at least one major release every month, often in the form of absurdly impressive box sets. Among this acute embarrassment of riches are a pair of discs featuring music by Helmut Lachenmann, recorded at the 2014 Musiva Viva weekend. Both of them are refreshing, challenging and mesmerising in roughly equal measure, and are highly recommended.
The first is devoted to Lachenmann’s 1985 work Ausklang, the subtitle of which – “music for piano and orchestra” – indicates it to be not exactly adhering to conventional notions of the concerto. It’s nothing of the kind, in fact, exploring instead the idea of sustaining sounds from the piano beyond their natural resonance, or as Lachenmann puts it, a “variety of attempts to prevent the material set in vibration by an impulse … from dying away”. That makes Ausklang sound pretty straightforward, but it really isn’t. The relationship between piano and orchestra is not inherently hierarchical, actions from the former being responded to by the latter. The orchestra (which includes a piano of its own) often can be heard to anticipate, foreshadow or even inspire ideas that then transpire in modified form on the solo instrument. And while there are of course a multitude of instances where pitch, rhythm and other aspects of musical behaviour are resonated, echoed, imitated and otherwise extended by the orchestra, to say that these instances are always obvious, clear or even apparent would be wrong. Indeed, there are several occasions when the music appears to occupy two simultaneous layers, undertaking more of a duet than a back-and-forth. So the emergent complexities of Lachenmann’s rather simply stated intentions are considerable. Read more