orchestral

Tõnu Kõrvits – Hymns to the Northern Lights

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For those of you who prefer a little less avant in your garde, consider the latest portrait disc of music by Tõnu Kõrvits. Kõrvits occupies an interesting position within the Estonian contemporary scene. His music embodies a great deal of the conservatism that tends to typify new music from that country – a situation that is gradually changing – yet it’s also mischievous, quixotic and capricious, often turning out to be something more or other than first appearances might suggest. Additionally, he’s by far the most lyrical Estonian composer i’ve encountered (and that’s saying something), unafraid to allow his music to expand seemingly unchecked into vast, passionately romantic (with both a small and large ‘R’) reveries – though often these are coloured in such a way that they simultaneously convey an air or at least a trace of unease. The new disc of his work, Hymns to the Northern Lights, performed by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Risto Joost, is an excellent demonstration of all these traits.

While it’s hard not to get caught up in the intensity of Kõrvits’ music, there are times when its more traditional creative outlook is frustrating. Elegies of Thule, composed in 2007 and by far the oldest work on this disc (everything else dates from the last decade) is an exercise in incidental music-like middle-of-the-road meandering. A work for strings, it has some typically effective orchestrational touches – particularly the smeary texture that occupies the first half of final movement ‘I Look Up to the Hill’ – but engaging moments like this only make the rest of the piece feel all the more light and cloyingly filmic. Leaving Capri, another string piece, seems at first to be similarly safe but the security of its harmonic language – conveying the kind of repressed billowing passions that would suit an Austen period drama – has enough flecks of melancholia to render it mildly askew. It brings to mind his 2015 work Moorland Elegies (reviewed here) which used a similar approach to explore the poetry of Emily Brontë. More melancholic, and more engrossing, is the 7-minute Tears Fantasy, an exquisite piece that throughout manages to sound soft yet weighty. Drawing on renaissance musical models (primarily Dowland) it has the tone and focus of a passacaglia, often sounding so heavy-laden that the clarity of its construction (both horizontally and vertically) is obfuscated; we only get a clearer sense of what’s happening when Kõrvits pulls things back and reduces the forces. It’s highly effective, all the more so as it never sounds anything other than emotionally direct – to the point that when the lyricism is allowed some space it’s among the most beautiful of Kõrvits’ music that i’ve ever heard. The more vague final third appears to loses focus, though if anything it clarifies the disquiet at the heart of this powerful piece, making for a fittingly uncomfortable emotive experience. Read more

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Olga Neuwirth – …miramondo multiplo…

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It’s always nice when music you’ve encountered in a previous context finds its way onto disc. That’s true of two of the three works on the latest CD of Olga Neuwirth‘s music, released by Kairos. i first heard Neuwirth’s viola concerto Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory during the 2012 Proms, when it received its UK première. In my review at the time i was particularly drawn to the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra, and that remains one of its most beguiling aspects. However, on the strength of this new recording – featuring soloist Antoine Tamestit and the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, conducted by Susanna Mälkki – i’ve found myself revising my opinion about the nature of this relationship. Previously it seemed to be less about collaboration than a kind of rough-and-tumble with mixed levels of friendliness, but here there’s a much greater sense of mutual sympathy. The multiple strains, glimpses and half-echoes of earlier music are a communal impulse, one that, while the viola acts as a figurehead for it, is nonetheless embedded in the behaviour of the orchestra. For me, the second and fourth movements still remain the work’s most compelling sections, the former featuring delicious accompanying sequences where the soloist is distantly surrounded by a network of falling gossamer threads, the latter moving from a dance-like opening into a passionate demonstration of dual interaction, the orchestra letting out emphatic accents that punctuate and reinforce the viola’s ongoing melodic train of thought. Remnants of Songs is hugely dramatic, containing vast climactic bursts of energy, yet it never loses sight of the lyrical mindset that dominates the piece. In that sense, it’s a pretty conflicted work, but that only makes it all the more engaging. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2020 (Part 2)

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As i mentioned previously, allusions to or evocations of nature were few and far between at this year’s Dark Music Days, indicating the strength and diversity of Iceland’s more searching, abstract approach to composition.

This seemed to be precisely the point of Sigurður Árni Jónsson’s Illusion of Explanatory Depth, premièred by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason as part of ‘Yrkja’, an annual programme to support up-and-coming composers. More than most works I heard at this year’s festival, the piece was clearly all ‘about’ sound itself, articulated via an involving conversation between sections of the orchestra. It was exceptionally dynamic, fluctuating between overblown bursts of pseudo-romantic passion – principally heard in a short, recurring motif – and extended sequences of exploratory convolution. Over time, the orchestra never idling for a second, it created the distinct sense of an intense inner turmoil, governed by spontaneity – yet this sense was regularly challenged by that uncanny recurring motif. A fascinating piece. The same couldn’t be said for the other ‘Yrkja’ work, Lo and Behold by Eygló Höskuldsdóttir Viborg. Nominally taking inspiration from Werner Herzog, the piece was a pure slice of the kind of saccharine fare one is forced to endure throughout pretty much any nature documentary these days. It’s hard to find musical aspirations such as these admirable, particularly when they’re so overtly manipulative; it was like being continually poked: “be uplifted, be amazed, be joyful, be happy”. NO. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2020 (Part 1)

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It no doubt goes without saying that Iceland’s Dark Music Days festival is primarily named for the fact that it takes place in January, when the amount of daylight the country receives is minimal. In a less literal sense, though, musically speaking there’s a lot to be said for listening in the dark. I don’t just mean the obvious, actually sitting in darkness – the way that last year’s Dark Music Days got up and running – but I’m also thinking of the relationship we have with music, our expectations and considerations of it prior to, and during, the act of listening. Personally, I increasingly find that knowing less beforehand, going into a concert ‘cold’ without consulting programme notes and the like until afterwards, is a valuable, even vital, way to approach new music. Read more

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Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir – Vernacular; Siggi String Quartet – South of the Circle; Iceland Symphony Orchestra – Concurrence

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In just over a week’s time Iceland’s premier new music festival, the Dark Music Days, will be up and running again, and once again i’ll be heading off to Reykjavík to immerse myself in some of the goings-on. Details about the festival can be found here, and for any UK dwellers who fancy a spontaneous jaunt over to Iceland, there are some fantastically cheap deals to be had from Gatwick and Bristol (especially, with Bristol, if you travel on a Wednesday or Sunday), and some equally great deals to be found on AirBnB. As an upbeat to the festival, it’s a good time to touch on a number of releases that came out last year on the Sono Luminus label, showcasing some of the more exciting examples of Icelandic contemporary music-making. Read more

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Stuart MacRae – Prometheus Symphony (World Première)

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i’m concluding this brief look at three recent new symphonies with one by another Scottish composer, Stuart MacRae. As in James MacMillan’s latest symphony, MacRae has also turned to mythology for inspiration, drawing on the ancient Greek tale of Prometheus. According to legend – as recounted by 8th century poet Hesiod – Prometheus created humanity from clay, and then gave to them fire that he had stolen from the gods, in order to enable their development towards civilisation. Zeus, king of the gods, retaliated by punishing Prometheus by binding him to a rock and each day sending an eagle that would devour his liver, which would rematerialise overnight. An immortal being, Prometheus’ fate was therefore potentially an eternal one, though – spoiler alert – he would subsequently be liberated, several years later, by Heracles.

That final part of the tale falls outside the scope of MacRae’s Prometheus Symphony, which briefly features the words of judgement from the gods before focusing almost exclusively on Prometheus’ lengthy soliloquised response to them. Structured as a diptych, the first half utilises excerpts from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound as translated by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in addition to MacRae’s own words, while the entire second half is a setting of Goethe’s eponymous 1774 poem. In essence, then, the symphony is a protracted expression of bitter lament and angry resolve, given bifurcated voice via soprano and baritone soloists.

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James MacMillan – Symphony No. 5 ‘Le grand Inconnu’ (World Première)

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Symphonies – one minute you think that no-one’s really writing them anymore, and then suddenly three of them turn up in quick succession. Of course, in reality the apparent lack of them may well be more to do with the fact that composers today are reluctant to title a work ‘Symphony’ (embodying as it does such an accumulation of historical connotation and baggage) in favour of something more personal and snappy, and less to do with a reality in which music that could be described as ‘symphonic’ is becoming a thing of the past. Either way, in the last few months three works bearing the name ‘Symphony’ have received their first performances, which i’ll be exploring in my next few articles.

James MacMillan‘s Symphony No. 5, premièred in August, takes as its theme the religious notion of the Holy Spirit. To this end, MacMillan structures the work in three movements each of which is devoted to one of its mythical physical attributes: wind (or breath), water and fire. The subtitle of the work, Le grand Inconnu (the great unknown), is an associated term, borrowed from the French because MacMillan could not find an equivalent in English. It’s a choral symphony, involving both a chamber choir and a chorus, but instead of directly setting a text MacMillan has taken words from the Bible, John of the Cross, and the 9th century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus to form a composite text mingling English, Latin, Hebrew and Greek. Read more

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Chaya Czernowin – Once I blinked nothing was the same (UK Première)

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As i know i’ve remarked previously about compositions, size isn’t everything. Apropos: i’ve been spending time recently with a short work by Chaya Czernowin which, though it was premièred four years ago, only received its first UK performance last month. Once I blinked nothing was the same has a duration of little more than three minutes, but the enormity of what happens in that time span is considerable, hinted at in Czernowin’s enigmatic subtitle for the piece: “A large scale miniature for orchestra”. Read more

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Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra – Orchestral Works

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i’ve written a lot about Estonian music on 5:4 in the last few years, but i’m conscious that i’ve given relatively little attention to the other two Baltic states. That’s more to do with a lack of opportunities than a lack of enthusiasm, but while i’m still relatively clueless about contemporary music from Latvia, i wanted to flag up an interesting disc of orchestral works that i received from some very nice people in Lithuania. Recorded by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Adrija Čepaitė, the disc features pieces by a trio of senior figures in Lithuanian music. Read more

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Proms 2019: Daniel Kidane – Woke (World Première)

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Perhaps there’ll come a time when it’s possible to mention the Last Night of the Proms without also mentioning, usually in the same sentence, the word ‘tradition’. This is not that time. Whatever you may think of its entrenched traditions, one of the Last Night’s better ones has been the tendency in recent years to commission a new work to get the party started. Unfortunately, the majority of the chosen composers have opted into a parallel tradition: composing something trivial, frivolous and forgettable, the musical equivalent of a party popper, all streamers and flashes and a short burst of hot air.

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Proms 2019: Bach Night

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Here we go again. Four of the last premières at the Proms were the product of the festival’s irresistible inclination not to allow composers to just write what they want to write but to force them to ‘respond’ to earlier music. Last year, the most prominent example of this was The Brandenburg Project, and this year they’ve sought to repeat the idea on a smaller scale. Bach Night, which took place last Wednesday, included the first performances of four pieces each of which was composed in response to one of J. S. Bach’s orchestral suites. Performed by the period ensemble Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt, all the pieces were around three minutes long, compelling the four composers – Nico Muhly, Stevie Wishart, Ailie Robertson and Stuart MacRae – to create not so much responses as brief reactions.

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Proms 2019: Dobrinka Tabakova – Timber & Steel; Linda Catlin Smith – Nuages (World Premières)

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i’ve often wondered whether, in music today, energy and complexity tend to be mutually exclusive. The whole ‘clocks and clouds’ dichotomy: regularity versus ambiguity, pulse versus drift, clarity versus obfuscation. This is certainly one of the considerations that arises from the latest pair of Proms premières: Dobrinka Tabakova‘s Timber & Steel, which could be described as acting like a metaphorical clock, and Linda Catlin Smith‘s Nuages, which in both its title and behaviour directly invokes the nature of clouds. In many ways they’re a polarised couple of pieces: Tabakova’s avoiding almost all traces of vagueness in its precise, relentless forward momentum, Smith’s obfuscating its reality in a floating, pulseless environment.

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Proms 2019: Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B. (World Première)

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A week ago, the Proms saw the world première of a new work by no fewer than 14 composers. Conceived by conductor Martyn Brabbins as a 60th birthday present to himself, the piece is inspired by, and modelled on, the structure and character of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. For this new work, Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B., Brabbins selected a theme (keeping its origin a secret) as the basis for fourteen variations, composed by Dai Fujikura, David Sawer, Sally Beamish, Colin Matthews, Iris ter Schiphorst, Brett Dean, Wim Henderickx, Richard Blackford, Harrison Birtwistle, Judith Weir, Gavin Bryars, Kalevi Aho, Anthony Payne and John Pickard. (It’s impossible to ignore how much of a sausage-fest that is, but it’s Brabbins’ party so obviously he calls the shots.) The tempos and approximate durations of Elgar’s original movements are, with a few exceptions, generally retained in Pictured Within, resulting in a composite work that corresponds to the overall shape, nature and inner relationships running throughout the Enigma Variations. Read more

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Proms 2019: Benjamin Beckman – Occidentalis (European Première); Detlev Glanert – Weites Land (UK Première)

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Until last Sunday, among the new works premièred at the Proms there hadn’t been what we’re all used to hearing: namely, a short, ebullient romp that gets a concert up and running. And then, a couple of days ago, the National Youth Orchestra of the USA, directed by Antonio Pappano, gave the first European performance of Occidentalis, by US composer Benjamin Beckman. In his response to my pre-première questions, Beckman spoke about writing a piece that was a way of getting away from the vocal music he had been writing (as part of an opera), and the programme note explains the title by reflecting on the historical use of the term and its associations with travel – going west – as well as connotations of immigration with regard to the USA.

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Proms 2019: Outi Tarkiainen – Midnight Sun Variations (World Première)

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Composers generally tend to shy away from admitting their music to be overtly autobiographical, but in the case of the latest Proms première, by Finnish composer Outi Tarkiainen, the piece is a clear extension – a manifestation, even – of the composer’s way of experiencing the world. In her answers to my pre-première questions, Tarkiainen wrote of her synaesthetic response to harmony, perceiving it as “various colour-shades of light, and my compositions make extensive use of modality, of ‘scales of light’, as it were.” This perception in turn feeds into a larger inspiration drawing on her experiences of arctic light, which is “rich in hues and varies steeply from one season to another”. Her new work, Midnight Sun Variations, can therefore be regarded as something of a double portrait, capturing an aspect of the natural world, and of herself: “In this work I am very openly what I am.”

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Proms 2019: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – Metacosmos (UK Première)

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Performed last Monday by an orchestra combining students from the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School, conducted by Edward Gardner, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s Metacosmos is a work i know quite well. Anna and i discussed it at length during our Dialogue together, and i explored the piece further following its first performance in Iceland during the Dark Music Days earlier this year. As i’ve noted on both those previous occasions, the work is somewhat different from most of the rest of her output due to its construction. Instead of opting for her usual kind of convoluted, unpredictable structure, Metacosmos is a complex but recognisable binary diptych, its latter section a refashioned – both shortened and lengthened – version of its former. The two sections are each set in motion via loud accents and a deep drone E, culminating some time later in a B-flat chord after which a melancholic melody emerges (in C-sharp minor the first time and B-flat minor the second time). That kind of structure is interesting in her work for all sorts of reasons, particularly when considering the inspiration for Metacosmos is to do with being “drawn into a force that is way bigger than yourself”, Anna citing the ultimate example of this as a black hole. Read more

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Proms 2019: Hans Zimmer – Earth; Alexia Sloane – Earthward (World Premières)

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The most significant love-hate musical relationship of my life has been – and continues to be – with film scores. Few idioms have the power to elevate, charm, horrify, astonish and amaze us more while at the same time displaying the irresistible propensity to eschew all originality and imagination in favour of the most derivative bluster and cheese. For me, the epicentre of this love-hate relationship has for many years been centred on Hans Zimmer. He’s someone whose work i’ve appreciated and enjoyed in the past: i think True Romance was the first time i really took notice of his work, and what he did for Inception is hard to beat. But his most recent work – especially his collaborations with director Christopher Nolan, each film of which Zimmer has emphatically marred – has been an ever more reductionist descent into some of the most unoriginal, flaccid, bombastic and manipulative histrionics ever created: musica generica, made all the more horrendous to experience due to its inherent terror of ever falling silent. It’s not just nature, it seems, that abhors a vacuum; Zimmer has clearly convinced himself that if the noises he’s generating (yes: generating, not composing) stop for even a moment, then all hope of maintaining the film’s impetus is lost.

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Only Connect 2019 (Part 2)

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The lack of ostentation in most of the music at this year’s Only Connect festival was perhaps nowhere more conspicuous than in a concert last Saturday devoted to French composer Pascale Criton. Performed by violinist Silvia Tarozzi, cellist Deborah Walker and singers Stine Janvin Joh, Signe Irene Stangborli Time and Liv Runesdatter (members of vocal group Song Circus), the concert featured three works of Criton’s. Two of them were solos, and they highlighted just how elusive is the nature of Criton’s material. In Circle Process, the whole nature of playing the violin wasn’t simply stripped back to its essentials, but sublimated and abstracted, Tarozzi primarily concerned with varying forms of friction, the by-product of scuffing and scraping her instrument. From such pitchless (non-)fundamentals, the piece opened out into a complex semi-focused pitch that, while never really deviating, was nonetheless permanently unstable. Only towards the work’s end did Tarozzi become more demonstrative, but even then her wild gestures were a litany of seemingly static harmonics that soon receded back to the pitchless place from whence they began. The process was somewhat reversed in Chaoscaccia, Walker’s cello setting out in a network of dancing ricochets and groaning pitches that occasionally moved close to forming unisons. Criton undermined the boldness of this opening by pushing the material back into nebulous, abstract territory, Walker giving convoluted articulation to harmonics that, again, were fundamentally static. The work’s conclusion was uncanny, a sequence of crescendos from nothing, each abruptly silenced, as if an unseen presence were directly intervening to cancel things out. Read more

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 1)

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At the northernmost edge of Tallinn, looking out over the Baltic Sea towards Finland, is a huge concrete edifice called the Linnahall. Built during the Soviet occupation, it was constructed as part of the USSR’s hosting of the 1980 Olympic Games, as a coastal hub for the boating events. It’s a place i’ve gone to visit each time i’ve been in Tallinn during the last four years, to savour, and marvel at, its complete incongruity. Of course, Tallinn has the usual complement of modern office blocks, skyscrapers and the like, the scale and sharp edges of which are themselves at some remove from the more modest sizes and gentler inclines of the Old Town and the remains of its surrounding wall. But the Linnahall is different: it’s the personality, if you will, of the architecture that feels so completely alien: massive, brutalist, sprawling and immovable, a testament to human engineering, designed to make an enormous impact. It is, in every sense of the word, imposing. And everything about that, it seems to me, is at odds with the temperament of so much Estonian contemporary music, where the tone is more nuanced and focused, emphasising such things as contemplation and perhaps smallness, informed by the natural world, organicity and intuitive creativity, open to more than just what we immediately see and sense, less about making a big impact or impression than just unassumingly being one. The Linnahall is Tallinn’s ‘other’: as congruous to the city as an astronaut’s footprint on the surface of the moon.

This year, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the country’s annual Estonian Music Days, the festival hosted the ISCM World Music Days, and even before setting off for Estonia i wondered if the bringing together of these two very different festivals would result in a similar kind of incongruity. Would it be EMD slash WMD, adjacent to each other; EMD and WMD, happening together but separate entities; EMD within WMD, one embedded in the other; or even EMD versus WMD? In previous years as i’ve tentatively begun to know better the thought and practice underpinning Estonian contemporary music, i’ve been (and continue to be) fascinated at its relationship with the rest of the musical world. Such as it is: i think it’s fair to say, putting it mildly, that the relationship is a complex one; i’ve detected varying quantities of disinterest and/or bemusement, and occasionally even hostility, toward what goes on beyond the country’s borders. So the effect of the collision of these two particular festivals was always going to be extremely interesting. Read more

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The Dialogues: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir

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i’m excited to present a new instalment in my series The Dialogues. On this occasion, i’m in conversation with Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, whose music has become increasingly well-known in recent years. In the UK, her work has started to appear with more frequency on concert programmes, and there’s a chance to hear her most recent orchestral work, METACOSMOS, at the Proms over the summer (and a CD including the piece will be coming out around the same time). While her reputation is growing, detailed explorations and studies of her work are pretty scarce, so our Dialogue will, i hope, substantially increase understanding of Anna’s musical outlook, intentions and methods.

We met at her home at the end of November last year, and i want to express my appreciation to Anna, her husband Hrafn, and to their beautiful cat Mosi (who sharp-eared listeners will briefly hear at one point) for their generous time and hospitality. i’m also very grateful to Sam Wilcock at Music Sales for festooning me with assorted scores and recordings to help with my research and preparation for the Dialogue. For more information about Anna’s music, check out her website, she also has a YouTube channel featuring a number of pieces, and there’s plenty available on Spotify.

As in all the Dialogues, i’ve included numerous excerpts of Anna’s music throughout to illustrate and elaborate upon the various topics of our discussion. A list of these excerpts, and the times when they occur, can be found below, together with links to buy the music. The Dialogue can be downloaded from the below link or streamed via Mixcloud. Read more

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