i’ve commented before on the number of contemporary concertos that crop up during the Proms, & we were treated to another one from Olga Neuwirth, a 20-minute viola concerto bearing the intriguing title Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory. It was composed in 2009 & premièred that year by its dedicatee Antoine Tamestit; on this occasion, the Philharmonia Orchestra was joined by Lawrence Power, conducted by Susanna Mälkki. Anyone familiar with Neuwirth’s surreal, left-field music won’t be surprised to learn that an amphigory is “a meaningless or nonsensical piece of writing, especially one intended as a parody”. That tongue-in-cheek reference is matched by the more serious first half of the title, which is borrowed from a book that examines “trauma and the experience of modernity” in the writings of Baudelaire & Celan. Neuwirth sees to it that these discrete inspirational forces become incorporated into each other, the work presenting a weird & unsettling amalgam in which fragments from an assortment of earlier musics act as signified elements that regularly cause the uneasy relationship between soloist & orchestra to shift direction. Read more
Proms 2012: Michael Finnissy – Piano Concerto No. 2, Harrison Birtwistle – Gigue Machine (UK Premières) & Brian Elias – Electra Mourns (World Première)
Last weekend’s Proms Matinee was the concert i had been most eagerly awaiting in this year’s season, featuring as it did some of my favourite composers & three premières. Back in April i opined that this concert “may just turn out to be the highlight of the whole season”; i think that prediction was pretty close to the mark. Read more
Concertos are a regular feature among the new works heard at the Proms, but it’s rare to hear one for two pianos; Richard Dubugnon’s Battlefield Concerto, composed for those most characterful & quirky of siblings, Katia & Marielle Labèque, was therefore a refreshing break from the norm. It was given its first UK performance a little over a week ago by the Labèques with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, directed by Semyon Bychkov. Read more
As as addendum to my coverage of last year’s Total Immersion Day devoted to Unsuk Chin (part 1, part 2), here is one of the few remaining pieces from that day, which was only broadcast a few weeks ago. Šu is a concerto for sheng & orchestra, the sheng being one of the most ancient traditional Chinese instruments, dating back over 3,000 years. Comprising a series of pipes played via a mouthpiece, its sound is something like a cross between a harmonica & an accordion; its appearance is like nothing else at all. Alongside the traditional instrument is a keyed version that enables fully chromatic tempered pitches, & it’s for this instrument that Chin composed Šu.
Šu is one of Chin’s most stubbornly enigmatic works; in both structural & material terms, it doesn’t so much develop as flex, passages of great delicacy repeatedly answered by more brutal outbursts. Wisely, Chin assigns the orchestra to a secondary role, allowing the sheng—an instrument that can barely muster a mezzo-forte—to act as both instigator & guide for proceedings. The ‘flexing’ i spoke of results in an episodic music, although Chin takes an audibly different approach in the two halves of the piece. The first comprises a series of short episodes, each growing out of quiet (but not settled) introspective passages led by the sheng, culminating in highly rhythmic eruptions in which the brass feature prominently. Pitch is paramount here, Chin founding these episodes on an assortment of deep drones, points of focus around which the surrounding textures drift & coalesce. Despite the outbursts, the music’s gossamer quality stands out most, including some fleeting moments of exquisite beauty, such as when the sheng duets with a solo violin. But while the sheng is undoubtedly gentle, it’s by no means genteel, & the second half of the work is a lengthy exploratory section—almost a “development” of sorts—all based around the sheng’s increasingly frenetic activity, bringing about a massive tutti climax. Pitch is now far less significant (or, at least, less prominent), supplanted by rhythmic momentum & wild polyphony. Book-ending the piece are an introduction & coda of real quietude, the sheng ebbing in & out of soft clusters at first, coloured by distant gongs & string murmurations at last.
The way Chin allows the orchestra to roil & vent without ever engulfing the sheng is impressive, & despite the obscurity of its narrative, the intricacy & subtlety that pervade Šu makes it a deeply beguiling listen. This performance, from last April’s Total Immersion Day at the Barbican, features Wu Wei on sheng with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov.
Unsuk Chin – Šu
Last year, in my article about the Total Immersion day devoted to the music of Unsuk Chin, i didn’t say much about the Violin Concerto, which was omitted from the BBC’s broadcast. However, in November they finally got round to broadcasting it, so here it is. The performance, at the Barbican in London, was given by Jennifer Koh with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Volkov. In the concert hall, Koh’s violin often struggled to be heard above the considerable orchestral forces pitted against it, so it’s good to hear the balance so nicely restored in the broadcast.
Despite being composed in a familiar, four-movement plan, it’s a piece rather difficult to unpick. In some ways, the textures are simpler & more defined than usual, but this is countered by material that is highly organic. It opens in a dense place, lower notes moving vaguely while the soloist draws a high line filled with open strings & natural harmonics. The brass are the first to become apparent, chords shifting in the background, their movement causing everything momentarily to swell, & then halt. The soloist’s first cadenza is wiry & (in the best sense) aimless, its twists & swoops more a result of fun than purpose. But Chin is just as concerned with momentum as with reverie, & she soon pushes the violin back into a pace that becomes ever more swift, culminating in a moto perpetuo that’s urged on by orchestral stomps. Another cadenza ensues, more rapid than before, & a sustained brass chord ushers in the movement’s climax, which sends the frantic soloist plummeting. The slow second movement places heavy emphasis on Chin’s trademark use of percussion. Read more