Interrobang – works by Elliott Carter, Paul Dolden, Javier Álvarez & more

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Anyone in the Birmingham area tomorrow night (Monday 13th) might be interested in the next concert my ensemble, Interrobang, is giving. The concert will feature a number of works by established composers, intermingled with four pieces by students and graduates of the Birmingham Conservatoire (where Interrobang is based). It includes a new work of my own, composed for BCMG at the end of the last year and explored in a workshop with them in the spring, but not yet performed in public. Here’s the programme:

Etelka Nyilasi – Visions in the Northern Sky for 6 players
Simon Cummings – Intense quick dream of sentimental groups with people of all possible characters amidst all possible appearances for string sextet (World Première)
Ryan Latimer – The Canon of Medicine for piano trio (World Première)
Elliott Carter – Scrivo in Vento for solo flute
Paul Dolden – In a Bed Where the Moon was Sweating. Resonance #1 for clarinet & tape (UK Première)
Veleka Algar – From Silence for string sextet (World Première)
Javier Álvarez – Temazcal for maracas & tape

The concert starts at 7.30pm and once again takes place in the Conservatoire’s Recital Hall. A map is below; those with GPS should punch in the postcode B3 3HG. If any 5:4 readers are present, do make yourselves known to me during the interval or afterward—would be great to see you!


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20 years on: Enigma – MCMXC a.D.

Posted on by 5:4 in Anniversaries | 3 Comments

It’s one of those curious memories that remains surprisingly vividly—the time: mid-December 1990; the place: Our Price Records on Cheltenham High Street. Having made my way down the narrow stairs to the basement where the CDs were kept (cassettes only upstairs), i stumbled into a collection of sounds the like of which i’d never heard before. Firmly in the foreground, a fake but plausible shakuhachi, ululating its melody above warm, low ambient soft pads; beneath all of that, a strong but subtle dance beat; in and around it—utterly incongruous yet sounding entirely right—a chorus of monks ensconced in their standard issue Gregorian chant. Still trying to get my head around this most unlikely music, i immediately bought the CD single i was hearing: Enigma‘s Sadeness (Part 1). Hot on its heels, released 20 years ago yesterday, came their first album MCMXC a.D., even more ambitious in the breadth and scope of its imagination. Released as it was on the very cusp of a new decade, i don’t think it’s going too far to suggest that MCMXC a.D. was a potent force in shaping the sound of the ’90s. Indeed, it may well have contributed to the worldwide renaissance of Gregorian chant, that blossomed within a few years (spearheaded by the famous monks of Santo Domingo de Silos), and even sooner than that, acts such as The Orb and Future Sound of London were forging their respective ways forward, clearly indebted to Enigma’s imaginative cocktail of sound sources. Read more

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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): Matthew Martin, Richard Rodney Bennett, Sven-Erik Bäck, Roxanna Panufnik – The Call (World Première) & Christopher Robinson

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, Premières | 1 Comment

It’s Advent Sunday, the start of a new Church year, and before you can say “Tis the season…”, here comes the first carol service, broadcast live this afternoon from—as usual—St John’s College, Cambridge.

The introduction to the service began with a setting by Matthew Martin of the 15th century text Adam lay ybounden. While the text is as morally confused as ever, it is at least made a bit more interesting by Martin, whose setting ventures just a little beyond conventional harmonies, made all the more effective by its coming from a distance (the choir performing from the far west end of the chapel). It’s interesting to note that, while the anonymous text is intimately connected with Christmas, hearing it in a setting other than Boris Ord’s horribly hackneyed one keeps the sense of distance from Christmas fittingly strong.

In Out of your Sleep, Richard Rodney Bennett‘s approach is to create a pretend (but convincing) folk melody, left more-or-less plain in the odd verses, harmonised in different ways in the even verses; the final verse is striking, becoming slower and more reflective. Swedish composer Sven-Erik Bäck‘s motet Nox praecessit follows; Bäck allows the words to grow in anticipation organically, building to a busy, fast-flowing climax before ebbing away. There are times when the lower voices are a little unclear, and the final triad seems forced following the fluid harmonies heard throughout; something less resolved might have been more telling, considering the anticipatory tone of the text. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Hommage à Edvard Grieg, Symphony No. 8 (UK Première), Concerto Grosso No. 2 & (K)ein Sommernachtstraum

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The fifth and final concert featured in this Schnittke Week was broadcast on 15 January 2001, and featured the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eri Klaas. The first part of the concert opened with something of an oddity: Hommage à Edvard Grieg, composed for the 150th anniversary of Grieg’s birth in 1993. It takes a healthy chunk of Grieg’s music as its starting point, but despite the energy of Schnittke’s variations on this theme, there’s never a cogent sense of quite what he’s trying to do—or, indeed, why. The two composers’ voices stay stubbornly separate, merely juxtaposed, never unified; all of which may be the point, but Schnittke makes that point so much better in other pieces.

It was followed by the UK Première of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 8, composed in 1994, and the last symphony he was able to complete before his death four years later. The first movement (Moderato, as ever) is an exercise in obsession. An extremely uncomfortable melody, angular in the extreme, starts in the horns, is passed to the strings, to the trombones, back to the horns, and so on and so on. Delivered above unwavering pedals, Schnittke grips tenaciously to this melody, transposing it but never daring to alter it; the effect becomes hypnotic, enhanced in the background by the pedals evolving into increasingly dense clusters. First harpsichord and then celesta present an alternate idea, a simple rising and falling line, its intervals expanding and contracting, which becomes the new focus of attention; but ‘focus’ is perhaps the wrong word, as the more this new idea is heard, the more turgid and unclear it becomes. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Cello Concerto No. 2 & Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4)

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Today’s featured Alfred Schnittke concert was broadcast on 14 January 2001, and comprised two monumental pieces, the Cello Concerto No. 2, with Torleif Thedéen taking the solo role, and the dual-named Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4); Vassily Sinaisky directs the BBC Philharmonic. More than the others, this recording has suffered the effects of time (and, possibly, previous attempts at cleanup); there’s some crackle audible in the performances as well as the speech, and to add insult to injury, on the original recording (made on cassette) i neglected to use Dolby. So—despite my best efforts—my apologies for the sound quality, although the performances are so good that (for the most part) they transcend these problems.

Completed in 1990, Schnittke’s Cello Concerto No. 2 is a work that dives into high lyricism at the outset, the cello’s opening gambit pitched towards the top of its compass, followed by an extensive meditation at the opposite end of the pitch spectrum, ushering in a loud declamatory statement from the orchestra; throughout this short opening movement (Moderato), the orchestra’s role is restricted to punctuating the ends of the cello’s lengthy meanderings. While it seems as though the soloist is going to stay ponderous for some time, the second movement (Allegro) abruptly establishes a tempo, and a fairly brisk one at that. The orchestra gets excited once again, but falls back almost as quickly as before; only the brass engage with the cello, although from a distance. Things continue in this vein for a while, until a more pointillistic idea initiates more assertion in the orchestra, seemingly placing their notes in the momentary gaps left by the soloist. They construct a curious waltz that fizzles immediately into a strangely sparse string chorale, in which a flexatone can just be heard. Aggression breaks out; it’s clear this is an orchestra profoundly irritated at being sidelined, and they seem to form packs that assault the soloist from all directions; for the cello’s part, its material, ever in flux, is thus instantly forgettable and yet projects itself as though each and every leaping note was agonisingly important. At the movement’s crashing final beat, one is left breathless and wondering where things stand; in this performance, there’s a significant pause at this point, which adds to the drama. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 6, Monologue, String Trio & Concerto for Three

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Day three of my celebration of the music of Alfred Schnittke features music from a concert focussing on works involving solo strings, broadcast on 14 January 2001. Taking centre stage are soloists Ula Ulijona (viola), Marta Sudraba (cello), and the great violinist Gidon Kremer; they’re joined by the London Sinfonietta, directed by Eri Klass. In addition, there’s a fascinating survey by Gerard McBurney of Schnittke’s relationship with the Concerto Grosso form; apologies for the sound quality in these sections, which have become rather crackly for some reason.

Schnittke’s sixth Concerto Grosso is also his last, composed in 1993, and it’s a short work, the three movements lasting under a quarter of an hour. After a momentary—rather angry—pondering from the piano, the short first movement lets loose into a non-stop Allegro; far from taking a neo-continuo role, the piano’s relationship to the strings is more like that of a concerto, with distinct echoes of Shostakovich at times. Structurally, it’s highly formal, almost the entire movement repeated in its entirety before a wildly exuberant coda. The central Adagio is a duet for piano and solo violin, very simple at first, although this only goes to highlight an apparent discomfort between the two instruments. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 1, Fragments (World Première) & Symphony No. 4

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The second concert being featured in this week of music by Alfred Schnittke comprised two of his major compositions plus the world première of a work unfinished at his death. It took place on 13 January 2001, and was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

The concert began with perhaps Schnittke’s most-performed work, the Concerto Grosso No. 1. Opening movement ‘Preludio’ begins on prepared piano, gently clattering its way through a nursery rhyme-type melody. It’s answered with a hocketed idea in the solo violins, rocking back and forth on adjacent semitones (one can see already where this may be going: clusters a-go-go), while the lower strings form a backdrop of sustained harmonics. There’s a brief soloistic flourish in the violins, the violas slither down their strings to a bottom pedal note, the harpsichord teases its keyboard, and a gorgeous second idea begins. Above a glacial viola chord, a violin solo explores a melody at the bottom of its register; it’s not specified in the score, but in this performance Clio Gould opts to play near the bridge, making the line effectively fragile, and causing some delicious overtones to appear at the edges. A duet is formed, and the harpsichord re-announces the nursery tune; a curt, loud response in all the strings (tutti for the first time), brings the movement to an end, the violins’ hocketing idea now widened from a semitone to sevenths and ninths. You’d be forgiven for thinking a composer like Vivaldi had a hand in the second movement. Titled ‘Toccata’, it’s a diabolical parody of Vivaldi, overstuffed with ridiculously strict and stretto canons, Schnittke at his most caustically comical. Read more

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