chamber music

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 focussed 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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Anton Webern – Five Canons

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Next in my Lent series is an early work from the twentieth century, Anton Webern‘s Five Canons for high soprano, clarinet and bass clarinet. Rather like Mahler, Webern’s busy schedule restricted his compositional activities to the summer holidays; three of the canons were written in the summer of 1923, and the final two the following year. The word ‘canon’ has a double meaning here; as one might expect, the five pieces are composed as strict canons, but in addition the texts are themselves ‘canonical’, taken from the Catholic liturgy. Each of the five pieces lasts between 30 seconds and one minute, so Webern eschews both textual repetition and melismas, arriving at music of a manner not dissimilar to that of Morton Feldman’s Bass Clarinet and Percussion, austere and matter-of-fact, not exactly cold but nonetheless rather utilitarian and impersonal. Not just for this reason, they’re especially appropriate during Passiontide as three of the texts—’Christus factus est’, ‘Crux fidelis’ and ‘Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine’—are directly related to Christ’s crucifixion; the remaining two are concerned with Christ’s infancy (‘Dormi Jesu, mater ridet’) and an act of purification (‘Asperges me, Domine’). 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, focussed (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 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 – 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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