chamber music

Howard Skempton – Here’s the Tender Coming (World Première)

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Back to the Lent Series, and to a completely charming and surprisingly poignant little miniature by Howard Skempton. Here’s the Tender Coming is a Northumbrian folk tune, and Skempton’s arrangement of it dates from 2011, appropriately written for Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell plus the addition of a string quartet. Despite the cheeriness of the tune, the song is distinctly melancholic: the ‘tender’ of the title refers to the approaching ship—to all intents and purposes a prison—that, following the actions of the press gangs, would take away men by force to fight in the war against the French.

Here’s the tender coming, pressing all the men;
Oh dear hinny, what shall we do then?
Here’s the tender coming, off at Shield’s Bar,
Here’s the tender coming, full of men-o’-war.

The song is especially potent (and, one assumes, quite unusual) as it’s written from a woman’s perspective, capturing her utter desperation at the thought of losing, literally, the bread-winner of the family.

If they take thee, Geordie, who’s to win our bread?
Me and little Jackie better off be dead.

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Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 2. Chamber music

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As with his vocal works, Michael Finnissy‘s chamber music is represented on four Metier discs, comprising around twenty pieces composed across three decades, from 1977 to 2007. This is only a miniscule proportion of Finnissy’s vast quantity of chamber music, but it nonetheless provides a valuable demonstration of various aspects of his compositional language. Above all, his omnipresent engagement with existing musical materials, which while often manifested in Finnissy’s music to varying degrees of convolution and obfuscation, could hardly be more overwhelmingly obvious in Metier’s 2013 CD featuring two works for piano quintet. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Viitasaari

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In 2009, Michael Finnissy was composer-in-residence at the annual ‘Time of Music’ contemporary music festival that takes place in the town of Viitasaari, in central Finland. Finnissy composed a short chamber work for the occasion, named after the town and including the kantele, a traditional Finnish string instrument similar to the hammered dulcimer. The work has similarities with a number of the works featured earlier in this Lent series, partly because of the relationship between the four players, which again is indeterminate, lacking specifics of vertical alignment, but more due to its relationship with folk music, which draws a direct comparison with his 2011 re-imagining of the folk tune ‘A-lang Felton Lonnen’. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Hans Thomalla – Lied (UK Première)

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Staying with Trio Accanto’s superb recital at HCMF last November, Lied by German-born, Chicago-based composer Hans Thomalla makes for an interesting contrast with the piece by Brice Pauset. Thomalla treats the trio like aspects of a single entity (a ‘trinity’ if you like), the three players exploring ideas with one mind. There’s little sense of perspective; each of the performers occupies the foreground, and while it’s tempting to describe one part as having a melodic line while another embellishes it, one can just as cogently argue it the other way around, the former having a simplified version of the latter. Either way, it’s clear throughout that the material is intimately interconnected, to the point that a potent sense of klangfarbenmelodie is projected.

In essence, then, the drama encapsulated in Thomalla’s music—expressed most through implication and delicate dynamic contours—emerges out of what is effectively a single, composite thread of ideas; as time goes on the music feels increasingly repressed—sporadic accents amidst such tentativity lending an air of dazed hysteria—yet it leads to the work’s most beautiful music of all, ending in several wonderful minutes softly transfixed in shadow. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Brice Pauset – Adagio Dialettico (UK Première)

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One of my personal highlights of HCMF 2014 was the evening concert given by Trio Accanto, comprising saxophonist Marcus Weiss, pianist Nicolas Hodges (a relative newcomer to the group in 2013) and percussionist Christian Dierstein. Although lasting only a quarter of an hour, Brice Pauset‘s Adagio Dialettico, composed 15 years ago, seems to last considerably longer than that, due to the scope of both the material and the interplay between the players. And, to an extent, due to the tempo, its very slow pace affording Pauset considerable time for the presentation and reflection upon his ideas. This is obvious within the opening couple of minutes, an extended piano solo that’s thoughtful and spacious, patient and pensive. When the saxophone joins in, it’s in a similar vein, occupying itself with quiet trills to such an extent that it sounds downright reticent beside the piano, following its motion with the greatest of caution, perhaps even reverence. This relationship persists as the percussion, initially offering dry reinforcement, moves into the foreground on the vibraphone, and only very gradually do all three parts together become more busily integrated. This leads to highly complex, microtonally-inflected counterpoint—almost three entirely independent lines—yet the trio coalesces at high points and ultimately coincides on a unison a little over halfway through.  Read more

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Evocative bewilderments of utterance: Kenneth Hesketh – Wunderkammer(konzert)

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Among the recent releases from the NMC Recordings stable i was pleased to see one devoted to the music of Kenneth Hesketh. Ken’s music has intrigued me for some years, and i’ve had the good fortune to conduct one of his works (Fra Duri Scogli) back in 2010. The new NMC disc brings together a cluster of pieces, most of which were composed around five years ago. They include no fewer than three orchestral works, plus a pair of ensemble pieces, focusing on commissions for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Ensemble 10/10, who are the respective performers on the disc.

i think it’s only fair to suggest that Hesketh’s music is an acquired taste, and not because it’s particularly ear- or mind-mangling. On the contrary, one of the characteristics that typifies these five works is their overwhelming clarity, which over time can become a tad relentless, even oppressive. Yet that’s an integral aspect of the multi-faceted charm that is equally typical of this music. When turned in the direction of an archetypal concert-opener, as in A Rhyme for the Season, the orchestral forces are kept firmly in place, embodying the kind of spiky, ants-in-the-pants restlessness that fans of mainstream (i.e. published) British music will find very familiar, yet treated to more than usually enchanting orchestration. Ideas pass at breakneck speed between the sections, and despite its relative functionality, there are some nicely unexpected structural moments that prevent it feeling workaday or staid. Read more

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Ferneyhough Week – Prometheus

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Today i’m going to focus on a relatively early work of Ferneyhough’s, Prometheus for wind sextet, composed in 1967. It’s not a piece that’s performed terribly often, nor is there much information about it, i suspect in part due to how early it was composed (when Ferneyhough was just 24 years old, the same year he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music). The piece seems to have been created via a decision-making process with deliberately limited options; the number of alternatives available at any given point would vary, Ferneyhough selecting from them intuitively. Prometheus is therefore a work that could have turned out entirely differently, as the composer explained in an interview with Philippe Albèra:

The score as it now exists is thus one expression of a field which could, theoretically, have produced quite a different set of results entirely. The title of the piece reflects this openness, the protean quality of my frame of reference.

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Music of a dark and difficult pathology: Tansy Davies – Spine

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Anyone with even a mild interest in contemporary music can’t have failed to encounter the music of Tansy Davies. She’s clearly going through something of a vogue at the moment, the high-profile commissions (including the Proms and King’s College, Cambridge) and performances being complemented more recently by CD releases of her music. Last year saw Troubairitz, a disc by the impressive Azalea ensemble that focused on several of her more well-known works, including neon and Salt Box. Now NMC Recordings has brought out Spine, a disc that presents more ensemble works alongside a number of chamber and solo pieces. The popularity of Tansy’s music is perhaps easy to understand; stylistically speaking, her work is accessible, eschewing both the trappings and the vernacular associated with the avant-garde. Immediacy and clarity seem to be important and significant aspects of her music, qualities that perhaps originate in her prog-rock youth, and which clearly go down well with audiences and ensembles alike. Spine is a more impressive disc than Troubairitz, which painted a somewhat one-dimensional portrait of the composer. As a whole, the scope of the nine works featured on this disc feels more expansive and thoughtful, more mature. There’s a demonstrable effort in most of the pieces to root or at least connect modernity to concepts, practices and objects from an earlier time, such as shamanism (Iris), ritualism (Dark Ground), fossils (spine) as well as existing musical material (make black white; Loopholes and Lynchpins). The result is music of a dark and difficult pathology. Read more

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Proms 2012: Simon Bainbridge – The Garden of Earthly Delights (World Première)

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The final Proms Matinee last Saturday week featured one of the more substantial and aspirational of this season’s new works. Simon Bainbridge has turned for inspiration to one of art’s most well-known and -loved works, Hieronymus Bosch‘s The Garden of Earthly Delights (image), seeking to bring it alive as a chamber cantata. Composed for countertenor and mezzo-soprano soli with a modestly sized ensemble and additional chorus, it was given its first performance by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Nicholas Collon. Read more

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Morton Feldman – Bass Clarinet and Percussion

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As Lent has now entered Passiontide, it’s time to crank things up a notch, so the next piece in my Lent series is by one of the great masters of compositional discipline and restraint, Morton Feldman. There aren’t many composers about whom one can say that they’re able to tap into something truly ‘other’, but this uncanny quality is a consistent trait of Feldman’s music, in particular the pieces he composed late in his life. In a seemingly counterintuitive move, Feldman gradually increased the duration of his compositions while radically paring back their content, the works becoming increasingly single-minded, focused (even fixated) on a small number of simple ideas. By composing for very small forces (typically no more than half a dozen players), Feldman confined these ideas to a severely restricted palette, resulting in some of the most ascetic music ever written.

Bass Clarinet and Percussion—even the titles became simplified—was composed in 1981, six years before Feldman’s death. As its bald, functional name indicates, the piece comprises two instrumental parts, the latter of which is essentially a single voice divided between two percussionists. Lasting around 19 minutes, Feldman structures the piece as a series of broad episodes, each differing from its neighbour by small adjustments in the performance manner of the clarinet and the choice of percussion instruments. As such, the two voices are fundamentally different; while the percussion vary in terms of both timbre and technique, the bass clarinet is comparatively changeless, its variety limited to just pitch and octave. In addition, the percussion material is, by its very nature, made up of attacks, while the clarinet’s music lacks any hint of attack, its notes drifting in and out with rounded edges. 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 focusing 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 – String Quartets Nos. 2 & 3, Piano Quintet

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The coming week sees the anniversary of the birth of one of Russia’s most outstanding composers, Alfred Schnittke, born on 24 November 1934. 5:4 is therefore devoting this week to his music, focusing on works that were included in the Barbican’s ‘Seeking the Soul’ festival, in January 2001. Having kicked around in the archive for almost a decade, these recordings were originally on cassette, and (i think) have been cleaned up on several occasions, but the sound quality isn’t too bad considering.

Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 was composed in 1983. The opening movement (Andante) is filled with melodic intentions, the quartet’s gestures all concerned with making something from small fragments (originating in quotations from Orlando di Lasso and Beethoven, plus Shostakovich’s D.S.C.H. motif). At times, this common aspiration is made more complex by a sense of conflict in the individual parts, torn between working as an ensemble or forging ahead by themselves. Such an emotionally neutral term as ‘Andante’ suggests nothing of the intense air of melancholy permeating the movement, made yet more telling through Schnittke’s frequent rendering of the players in the guise of a consort of quasi-viols. The blatant tonality heard at the start of the central movement is jarring, although it’s lost within moments; despite being labelled ‘Agitato’, no little time is spent occupied with dark, brooding material. Read more

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