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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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George Crumb – Black Angels

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Today is the 82nd birthday of one of my favourite composers, George Crumb. To mark the occasion, here’s a recording of a performance of one of his most well-known and loved pieces, the great and formidable string quartet Black Angels, which received its first performance 41 years ago yesterday (hmm, 82 and 41; Crumb would no doubt approve of the numeric connection). Completed in 1970, Crumb subtitled the work “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”, and the tone throughout is a profoundly troubled one; Crumb hints at an explanation in an inscription in the score—”in tempore belli” (“in time of war”)—referencing the Vietnam War, and it’s that subject matter, together with allusions to Penderecki’s seminal Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima that form the core of the work. The bedrock is structured with Crumb’s trademark fastidiousness and rigour, in which the numbers 7 and 13 are fundamental. Black Angels comprises 13 short sections, grouped into three parts that parallel the Christian notions of falling from grace (Departure), concomitant spiritual poverty (Absence) and subsequent redemption (Return). Throughout, the quartet is amplified, and are required to do very much more than merely play their string instruments. Alongside extended techniques—many of which are commonplace today but were novel at the time—Crumb employs the most imaginative methods to obtain specific timbral colours and effects. Read more

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Proms 2011: Sally Beamish – Reed Stanzas (String Quartet No. 3) (World Première)

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The first chamber music première at this year’s Proms took place yesterday afternoon, at the Cadogan Hall. Sally Beamish‘s new work for the Elias Quartet bears two conjoined titles, reflecting different aspects of the work: Reed Stanzas throws together modern notions of marshland and poetry, while String Quartet No. 3 reminds us the work is part of an ongoing series of works that in turn aspire to be part of a much older compositional lineage. Beamish has lived in Scotland for over 20 years now, and it’s to one the country’s indigenous musical traditions that she turns first, utilising second violinist Donald Grant’s dual talent as a Scottish fiddle player. Scotland also plays a part in the compositional tone of the piece; Beamish wrote the work on the Outer Hebridean island of Harris (a place i know well from my own times in Scotland), a landscape with outlandish contrasts of terrain, featuring Mediterranean-like beaches, angular grey mountain country, and vast tracts of rather desolate scrubland. It’s the latter that Beamish has uppermost in mind, alongside an equivalent landscape of East Anglia, the “Reed” in the title alluding to the region’s wonderful areas of marsh- and fenland; together, they evoke for Beamish a “vastness” and “loneliness” that is omnipresent in the piece. Read more

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Adam Duncan – Images Sombres (World Première)

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The final concert in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” series included the world première of Images Sombres by Adam Duncan, composed for the viola da gamba player Jonathan Manson.

A title such as Images Sombres, composed for viol, puts John Dowland in mind, but while Duncan’s sensibility might echo Dowland’s, his language lacks any overt hint of borrowing or pastiche. The work falls into five movements, beginning with a dark, raw melody that demonstrates the gamba’s unique sound, timbrally somewhere betwixt cello and double bass, but, due to its fretted fingerboard, sounding expressively distant. If anything, that makes Duncan’s leaden material sound, paradoxically, all the more expressive, as though the melody were forcing its way out against the instrument’s better judgement. Read more

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Matthew Bilyard – Impressions; Panayiotis Kokoras – Jet (World Premières)

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Third in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” concert series was a recital given by the outstanding Dutch recorder player Erik Bosgraaf. The concert included two world premières: Impressions by Brit Matthew Bilyard and Jet by Greek composer Panayiotis Kokoras.

The preamble claims Impressions conjures up “images of bustling coastal towns”, but to my ear, Matthew Bilyard begins his piece evoking sounds and callings as of some mythical bird, rapidly alternating between repetitive motifs and lengthier bursts of melody. This interplay between noise and song is clearly a fundamental aspect of the work, and Bilyard brings considerable imagination to bear on it. He divides the piece into three, broadly equal, episodes, the first of which maintains a strident, declamatory tone throughout. The surface of the melody bristles with energy, one moment preoccupied with rapid staccato phrases, the next giving way to glissandi that pull the end of each phrase up or down. The second episode initially continues this train of thought, then almost immediately subjects the melodic line to an assortment of trills, flutters and other buzzing treatments. Read more

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Duncan Ward – Who Is Mr Grobe? (World Première)

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The second première in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” concert series was a work for viola d’amore and harpsichord, Who is Mr Grobe? by Duncan Ward, given its first performance last November by Catherine Mackintosh and Christopher Bucknall. Ward’s piece grew out of the apparent ‘mystery’ surrounding another piece in the concert programme, a Partita that may or may not have been composed by one Mr Grobe. The composer’s description of the work both whets the appetite—the use of figured bass in a new piece is a splendid idea—and also blunts it, when Ward speaks with glee about “new techniques” that are, of course, hardly as ‘new’ as he claims. Ward’s stated intention is to treat the duo as equals, promoting the harpsichord from being in an accompaniment role. Read more

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Daniel Kellogg – Soft Sleep Shall Contain You: A Meditation on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (UK Première)

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Last autumn, on 27 November, at a lunchtime concert at London’s Wigmore Hall, the renowned Takacs Quartet gave the UK Première of the American composer Daniel Kellogg‘s Soft Sleep Shall Contain You: A Meditation on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. As that title suggests, the piece draws on material from Schubert’s quartet, specifically the theme used as the basis for the second movement.

It begins with great slowness, presenting a chromatic, descending idea that has a tendency to end in emphatic perfect fifths. It’s a plaintive opening, only gradually hinting at material from Death and the Maiden; Kellogg allows these initial dabs of sonic stuff to slide around like beads of mercury, occasionally meeting and momentarily coalescing into something recognisable—Schubert’s first chord, for example, materialises only to vanish away again immediately. Eventually, the quartet makes an overtly lyrical statement, which becomes the cue for a launch into denser material and more aggressive interplay. There’s a sense here of struggle, of grinding away at something mundane, prosaic, before another abrupt shift, now into a more rhythmically driving section. Skimming the surface, the contours of Schubert’s melody now become apparent, and later, the well-known chord sequence is heard loud and clear, while the music’s grip on tonality wavers disconcertingly. Read more

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