Kenneth Hesketh

Mixtape #53 : Best Albums of 2018

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Happy New Year everyone!

Many thanks to all of you who have read, followed, commented, shared, promoted and otherwise supported the blog during the previous year, most especially to my beloved band of Patrons. i’m starting 2019 in the usual way, with a new mixtape featuring something from each of the brilliant albums in my Best of 2018 list. Being such an eclectic list, the ‘narrative’ of this mixtape is one that unavoidably veers between quite wildly dissimilar styles and aesthetics, but to my ear that only makes it all the more interesting and fun.

40 tracks (well, technically 41: Jóhann Jóhannsson’s were short so i included two) that testify to and celebrate the range and scale of musical wonders created during 2018 – the full tracklisting is shown below, and links to buy each album can be found in the previous two days’ articles. As always, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed. Read more

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Best Albums of 2018 (Part 1)

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Right, let’s cut to the chase: forget all those other narrow, limited, parochial and partisan Best Albums lists, here’s the only list you need: my round-up of the 40 albums that have charmed, enthralled, awed and amazed me the most during 2018. In case anyone was in any doubt, it’s been a very good year.

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Kenneth Hesketh – In Ictu Oculi

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One of the things i’ve noted previously when writing about the larger-scale music of Kenneth Hesketh – which in general i’ve admired very much – is its tendency toward what i’ve called “laser-sighted focus”. This peculiar kind of über-clarity is exhibited in many of Hesketh’s works from the noughties, and from my perspective has proved problematic, not only becoming rather tiring, but actively working against what seemed to me to be the composer’s more fundamental (and engaging) instincts for more unconventional, nebulous forms of drama and narrative. So it’s interesting to be able to compare then and now with a new disc of more recent orchestral works released last month on Paladino Music. The three featured works, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Christoph-Mathias Mueller, were all composed during the last few years, and right at the outset it’s abundantly clear that much has changed, about which more in a moment.

If there’s a weakness shown here, it’s only to be found in Of Time and Disillusionment, where one encounters (in the first and fourth movements) vestiges of the kind of crystal-clear, spiky, spritely material so beloved by mainstream British composers, energetic Faberian froth that invariably sounds hackneyed and empty. However, and this is also something i’ve mentioned before, both the nature and the treatment of such material in Hesketh’s music has always managed to save it from ever sounding commonplace or generic, and the same is true here. The fourth movement, in particular, keeps veering away from mundane frivolity into weird asides, where we find burbling bassoons together with a soft glockenspiel (hard to tell if they’re in a dialogue or just blatantly ignoring one other) or a lovely kind of snappy swagger, where the orchestra sounds like they’ve drunk rather too much and are now trying to pick a fight. Far more telling, though – even more than the delicious traces of (French-inspired) opulence that are a definite Hesketh fingerprint – are the surprising levels of violence that rear up from time to time, yanking the structure around with such force that, if it wasn’t for the music’s traces of playfulness and retreats into delicacy, one might start to feel intimidated. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2018: Quartet Premières; Berkeley Ensemble; Juliana

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Last Wednesday at Cheltenham Music Festival saw the world premières of no fewer than four new string quartets, courtesy of the Ligeti Quartet. Interestingly, all of them were cast as single-movement structures, though in the case of his String Quartet No. 2Michael Zev Gordon presented something akin to a swatch book, the work comprising an episodic collection of diverse patterns and hues. Mildly engaging, not really containing anything unfamiliar or unconventional, these episodes seemed like short exercises in library music, like the underscore cues for a slightly quirky British drama (think The Camomile Lawn). Somewhat lacking in substance and a bit directionless and monotonous in its later stages – some of the ideas were protracted longer than they warranted – it nonetheless had its moments. Similarly incidental was Ayanna Witter-Johnson‘s Mento Mood, a pretty, cheerful piece invoking Jamaican mento music. In many respects it sounded more like an arrangement than an original composition per se, though there were some nice passages where the material extended beyond the instruments, requiring the quartet to sing and vocalise.

Much more involving than these was Sarah RimkusLe Dian, a piece taking inspiration from Gaelic-language musical traditions. Rimkus sets up a diatonic world, powered primarily by cycling rising minor thirds, from which the instruments then broke away, led by the cello. This established a pattern of harmonic side-steps resulting in nice collisions and ambiguity along the way yet never interrupting the constant flow of the material. A later episode, where the rising motif was explored at length, was truly hypnotic. The most outstanding of these four new quartets was Bethan Morgan-WilliamsGhost Tongues. In keeping with the referential aspect that permeated all the pieces, Morgan-Williams’ music appeared to be derived from folk music, though in the most marvellously oblique and obscure way. It would be simplistic – no, it would just be plain wrong – to say that the piece was ‘folk-like’, yet at all times there was something about the material that, in ways difficult to articulate or even understand, made an oblique but undeniable connection back to a folk origin. This fluid, uncanny sense of familiarity was sometimes expressed in exploded form, the music pulled apart into small fragments, before reforming or shifting into a kind of prismatic lyricism, conveying melodies and harmonies as if refracted through the instruments. This back-and-forth between poles of extended lines and atomised pizzicatos were mirrored by the work’s expressive scope, Morgan-Williams not afraid to let the music become pensive, even allowing it to fall silent a couple of times. Though episodic, it all felt part of the same underlying argument, concluded in a lovely ‘dirty’ major seventh chord, as though a cadence had been forced onto the end. A really brilliant piece that i can’t wait to hear again. Read more

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February/March 2017 listenings

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Of the music that’s been making a special impact on me in the last couple of months, i particularly want to flag up various albums of piano music. Peter Hill‘s renowned three-disc recording of Olivier Messiaen‘s epic cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux has been reissued under license from Unicorn by Treasure Island Music. i honestly wonder whether this may be the most wholly immersive recording of piano music that i’ve ever heard. This is partly due to Messiaen’s intricately worked out sense of narrative, occupying an imaginary day listening to the birds around him, each movement focusing on a different creature. Extreme contrasts and shifts of character and attitude occur constantly throughout, Messiaen capturing the various behaviours and mannerisms of these birds in different contexts (Book 4, devoted to the Reed Warbler, being one of the most radical in its variety). But the depth of immersion comes just as much from Peter Hill’s staggeringly virtuosic and transparent performance (the recording quality is simply immaculate). Every note and chord is positioned and aligned with utmost precision yet, paradoxically, at the same time seems to be the product of raw improvisatory élan, as though the music were emerging from Messiaen’s mind in real time. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2016: Moments of Weightlessness, Music for Piano and Film

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Cheltenham Music Festival got both seriously and playfully pianistic on Sunday. And theatrical too, first in a 50-minute dramaturgical discourse from experimental pianist Sarah Nicolls, and later in a recital by Clare Hammond including two works involving film. Nicolls’ Moments of Weightlessness was a genuine curiosity, insofar as it wasn’t exactly a concert or a piece of performance art, but was instead something beyond either. From one perspective, it was a kind of statement of intent, a demonstration of the aesthetic, the capabilities and the potential of the unique new piano Nicolls’ has developed over the last few years, an instrument that brings to mind the vertical arrangement of the ‘giraffe piano‘, erected on a large steel frame that enables it to be moved and rotated on its axis. 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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