Proms2010

Proms 2010: Jonathan Dove – A Song of Joys (World Première)

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i think Tom Service put it best, a few years ago, when he described the Last Night of the Proms as a “calcified cadaver”. It is, there’s no question: beneath the merriment and the klaxons lies an occasion that died many, many years ago; it’s a concert in aspic, filled with a misfitted agglomeration of works that culminate in a trio of singalongs which have at least made the transition from jingoistic anthems to party favourites. It’s almost as bad as Choral Evensong, for goodness’ sake. Anyway, turning away from such blatant party poopery for a moment, it does at least promise something new each year, and last night the opportunity fell to housewives’ favourite, Jonathan Dove, whose A Song of Joys was given its first performance, starting the concert.

Dove has turned to that most ambitious of poets Walt Whitman for his text, lines from the poem whose title Dove has borrowed for his own. And it’s a big text; the scope of Whitman’s vision is akin to that of Psalm 8, conjuring a vista of creation from the vantage point of song. Such epic scope as this makes it all the more disappointing that Dove’s response to the text is so simple and unimaginative. Dove probably wasn’t allowed longer than his 5-minute duration, but did he really have to move through the text in such a perfunctory way? One phrase dutifully follows another, never really bringing alive the words or tapping into their vision, still less presenting one of Dove’s own. It’s all terribly functional: loud and light, with lots of big tunes—but not a hint of the genuine, deep excitement from which Whitman’s words no doubt sprang. In fact, the choral evensong analogy remains apt; what Dove has composed is a secular but unavoidably John Rutter-esque anthem that would sit perfectly comfortably within an edition of Songs of Praise. So, was it suitable to start the Last Night of the Proms? with Tom Service’s description of the occasion foremost in mind: yes, absolutely. Read more

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Proms 2010: Robin Holloway – RELIQUARY – Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots (World Première)

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Prize for the longest title bestowed on a piece in this year’s Proms must surely go to Robin Holloway‘s RELIQUARY – Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Robert Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’, given its world première two days ago. Holloway has taken Schumann’s last five songs—deemed, it seems, by scholars to be of relatively poor quality—and both orchestrated them as well as providing them with a larger context, a framework within which they sit; Holloway describes how “[the] work as an entity … contains the five original songs as within a mediaeval reliquary, surrounding the precious remains within a suitable setting, tactful and unobtrusive for the most part…” (from the programme note).

To that end, Holloway has put himself in Schumann’s compositional shoes, to the extent that the opening Prologue works so convincingly as a preliminary to the first song, that i didn’t even notice it at an initial listening. This stylistic reserve continues throughout the song (“Abschied von Frankreich”); while the orchestration does sound, at moments, a touch richer than Schumann might have written, the language is faithful, with little to suggest a much later hand has been involved. Until, that is, the very end of the song, when a muted call from the horns causes the style to shift, allowing in some poignant dissonances, all the more cutting in this context. It leads pretty much seamlessly into the second song (“Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes”), in which Holloway’s voice is much more demonstrable—right from the start, in fact: the opening celesta motif almost made me gasp at its stylistic difference. But one gets the impression, quickly, that this song was most in need of assistance; Schumann’s treatment of the text (a prayer for her new-born son’s safety) is somewhat perfunctory and fragmented. While this isn’t helped by Holloway’s interpolation of a number of silences, it is significantly enriched with what he calls a ‘halo’, provided by celesta and strings, continuing throughout; it sits surprisingly comfortably above the song, giving it a delicate, even transcendent dimension. Read more

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Proms 2010: Tansy Davies – Wild Card (World Première)

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The prepenultimate première at this year’s Proms was one i’ve been very much looking forward to: Tansy DaviesWild Card, receiving its first performance this evening. i’m fortunate to have had a number of lengthy conversations with Tansy in the last year or so, and her compositional mind is an attractive combination of frivolous spontaneity and thoughtful deliberation. This engaging dichotomy is also brought to bear in her new work; indeed, as she says beforehand, speaking of the tarot cards that inspired it, “they’re all about systems and games, patterns…”.

It opens with the Devil card, the bass clarinet luxuriating in a kind of rude profundity. Melodies quickly develop, doubled on multiple woodwinds (strings form a backdrop), calling and swooping above the rhythmic patterns laid down by the percussion (the High Priestess and the Magician, perhaps). Texture is apparently just as important as tunes, though, and as the melodies subside, harp and piano introduce a series of rough, blurting gestures, the percussion tickling from behind. The two are then brought together; over an insistent bongo, the woodwinds bleat a fragmented tune, swiftly restoring the melodic ideas from earlier. In just a few minutes, Davies has made it clear hers is going to be a diverse piece, chopping and changing with serious alacrity. But likewise, what also becomes clear is that the programme note—in which she carefully describes her musical interpretation of each of the 22 tarot cards—could be a tad dangerous, potentially lulling the ear into perceiving Wild Card as a purely episodic piece—a kind of test where one listens out for and mentally ticks off each card as it appears. But Wild Card is more—well—wild than that; Davies has constructed a far more complex work than first impressions suggest, the ideas relating to individual cards by no means confined to neat, tidy episodes but recurring, quixotically, when it seems appropriate (or even inappropriate). Read more

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Proms 2010: James MacMillan – The Sacrifice – Three Interludes (London Première)

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The Proms is now well into its final straight, and the week began with the London première of James MacMillan‘s The Sacrifice – Three Interludes. As the title suggests, MacMillan has extracted the music from his 2007 opera, The Sacrifice.

First of the three is “The Parting”, which opens, disarmingly, like a John Williams-esque bit of film music, continuing in this vein for several minutes. Eventually it coalesces into something deeper; a curious music, driven by the strings, taking some strange harmonic twists (akin to one of Shostakovich’s slow movements), before being abruptly snatched by the brass and percussion. This throws a bit of light and air into the mix, and leads to some brief excitement in the woodwinds, though not for long, finally descending back to the mood from which it sprang. The interlude concludes with the greyest of passages (now Wagner springs to mind), muted, melancholic, ashen.

A “Passacaglia” follows, and if the opening moments suggest Britten or Lutosławski, such notions are quickly dispelled by the boistrous melody that chirps up, setting the tone for where things are going. The music originally accompanied the scene of a marriage feast, and there’s a fair amount of merriment in MacMillan’s material, although equally, the ominous presence of the ground bass, coupled with the nasal quality of much of the music, makes for an ambivalent mood (MacMillan’s programme note bluntly states, “It will end in violence”). Read more

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Proms 2010: Weir, Musgrave, Northcott, Ferneyhough, Taverner, Harvey and Jackson

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The final Proms Saturday Matinee, two days ago, featured the BBC Singers, exploring a variety of contemporary works inspired by early music. The singers were joined for the occasion by the Arditti Quartet and members of Endymion, with David Hill presiding.

The concert opened with Judith Weir‘s millennial composition All the Ends of the Earth. Weir’s innate sensitivity in writing for voices is superbly demonstrated here, the sopranos exploring increasingly complex melismas; they’re answered at intervals by the lower voices, who are backed up by soft harp and percussion. The melodic lines soon become concentric, fast and slow simultaneously, an obvious tip-of-the-hat to Weir’s inspiration for the piece, Perotin. The lower voices’ contributions become more and more static, less and less frequent, as the piece progresses; greatest emphasis is given to the often stratospheric sopranos, whose repeated Alleluia refrain carries real weight, despite the altitude. Towards the conclusion, both the lower voices and the instruments get more caught up in the celebration, the choir ultimately uniting at the very end. Read more

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Proms 2010: Martin Matalon – Lignes de fuite (UK Première)

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On Thursday evening, the Proms was treated to the UK Première of Argentinian composer Martin Matalon‘s Lignes de fuite (“Lines of convergence”), tackled with obvious relish by the splendid BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

The work opens, appropriately, with a single static line, passed between the horns, gradually coloured and fragranced by the percussion and woodwind; it’s a captivating introduction, pregnant with potential. Matalon doesn’t take any time whipping his material into shape, however; the music is positively marshalled around the orchestra. Special attention is given to the brass, who deal with their passages with brusque efficiency, while the strings (aided by celesta) strike more elegant poses, their lines almost coyly twirling their way upward. The structure is given space and more interesting shape by brief episodes where everything momentarily stops, a chance for everyone to get their bearings before launching off somewhere new. Read more

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Proms 2010: Graham Fitkin – PK (World Première)

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Graham Fitkin found himself in a sea of populism and accessibility for the world première of his new work PK, performed at the Proms on Monday. The title of his work comes from a reference to the Cornish village of Porthcurno—home of the well-known Minack Theatre, and where, coincidentally, i just happened to be a couple of weeks ago. The piece is related to the village’s connections to early telegraphic communications (Marconi’s ground-breaking first transmission took place only a short distance away, at Poldhu, on the neighbouring Lizard peninsula), and Fitkin has therefore turned to Morse code as inspiration for his material. Read more

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Proms 2010: Albert Schnelzer – A Freak in Burbank (UK Première)

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A week ago at the Proms—a more innocent time, before seemingly everyone started talking about Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new work for all the wrong reasons (Beyoncé) instead of the right ones (it’s crap)—came the first UK performance of Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer‘s wonderfully-titled A Freak in Burbank. Schnelzer is at pains to stress the connection he feels in this work to director Tim Burton, desiring it to exhibit a parallel kind of quirkiness to that found in Burton’s movies. The work began with Joseph Haydn as an inspiration, but while the size of the orchestra is of late 18th century dimensions, Haydn as an explicit point of reference is more-or-less lost entirely—Schnelzer’s half-apology that Haydn’s influence remains in “the use of G.P. and the transparent textures” isn’t terribly convincing. Read more

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Proms 2010: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Hammered Out (World Première)

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Who’s this i see, shambling toward me like an unkempt Elvis Costello? why, it’s Mark-Anthony Turnage, the most unassuming pugilist in contemporary music. No-one likes to pick a fight in sound more than Turnage, and back in the early 1990s, when (thanks largely to Simon Rattle) he first became widely known, his orchestral pieces Three Screaming Popes and Drowned Out were an unexpected and very welcome intrusion into the largely rather staid fare then being offered up by more established composers. Two nights ago, his latest orchestral work, Hammered Out, was given its world première at the Proms.

Its opening sounds are fabulous—vast, radiant, angry chords, alternating with silly little rapid flurries; this is the Turnage one knows and loves. But then something beyond weird happens; bless my soul, can Turnage really be drawing on Beyoncé Knowles in the work’s first episode?! Back in early 2009, Knowles put out a stonker of a single called “Single Ladies”; a thin song, lyrically, but damn it was infectious, the absolutely scrumptious chorus buzzing with bass overkill. So what on earth is it doing here? The brief, brilliant opening of Hammered Out, we’re told, originates in Turnage’s forthcoming opera about Anna Nicole Smith (even more tawdry subject matter than Powder Her Face), a woman whose over-documented marriage was the subject of a great deal of grim squabbling, both ante- and post-mortem. The subtitle of Beyoncé’s song is “Put a ring on it”, so perhaps Turnage has his tongue in his cheek placing his quotation directly after the references to Anna Nicole Smith. Rational explanations aside, hearing Turnage’s attempt at transcribing it is seriously embarrassing (are those sleigh bells i hear, for goodness’ sake?!); orchestras just don’t ‘do’ dance music well—anyone else remember Adès’ “Ecstasio” from a few years back?—and i found myself squirming uncomfortably in my seat. Read more

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Proms 2010: Bent Sørensen – La mattina (Piano Concerto No. 2) (UK Première)

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This year’s Proms has already had a couple of concerto premières, and the third, from Bent Sørensen, is one for piano and orchestra. Inspiration for the work, La mattina (Piano Concerto No. 2) is in part connected to Mozart, and Sørensen has opted for an orchestra of like size (no clarinets or heavy brass); while the piece is stated to have five movements, the transitions between them are difficult to discern, and it comes across more simply as an episodic, single-movement. Read more

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Proms 2010: Cage, Cardew, Skempton and Feldman

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A few hours after the bizarre final notes of Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 4 had faded away, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra came to the Royal Albert Hall to present the Proms with a late-night performance of rather more experimental fare.

They began with one of John Cage‘s most important early works, the percussion sextet First Construction (in Metal). The word ‘construction’ couldn’t be more apt; Cage really went to town on the structure of the work, all of it based around the proportions 4 : 3 : 2 : 3 : 4. Composed in 1939, it would be another decade before Cage would begin his written dialogue with Boulez, but such scrupulous, numerically-based structures foreshadow what would become central to the French composer’s own compositional preoccupations. For all their intricacy, however, First Construction‘s structuralisations are not particularly audible, not that this militates against the work in any significant way. The instrumentation is so colourful, their deployment so brash and fanciful, that it’s simply a non-stop joy to behold, moving from passages of mechanised regularity to more rhythmically obscure material, where the pulse is harder to perceive. What’s most striking, though, is how fresh it continues to sound: 71 years young. Read more

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Proms 2010: Arvo Pärt – Symphony No. 4 ‘Los Angeles’ (UK Première) plus Mosolov

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Last Friday evening’s Prom concert, given by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, brought to the UK Arvo Pärt‘s first symphony in almost four decades: his fourth, subtitled (with both geographical and theological connotations) ‘Los Angeles’.

However, before Pärt’s work—in an imaginative, even provocative bit of concert programming—came a short work by the relatively obscure Russian composer Alexander Molosov: The Foundry. More boisterous than bombastic, Molosov’s work is a soaring paean to industry, not merely praising but actually personifying the relentless energy and force of contemporary machinery. The pace isn’t particularly quick, but the sheer power expressed in the music is rather daunting. Molosov’s orchestral writing is bold and exhilarating, the brass writing in particular (especially the eight horns, 2’05” into the recording) perhaps laying down the groundwork for the kind of material John Williams would compose in his film scores 50 years later. Its quality makes it all the more tragic that the remaining portions of Molosov’s ballet suite Steel (of which The Foundry was the opening movement) are lost. The conclusion of the piece brought to mind a portion of John Ruskin i read the other day (in ‘The Nature of Gothic’), where he writes of how one must “be satisfied to endure with patience the recurrence of the great masses of sound or form” and “bear patiently the infliction of the monotony for some moments, in order to feel the full refreshment of the change”; the conclusion of The Foundry feels almost as though Molosov’s ideas have left him, the music oscillating round and round and on and on, incessantly—only for the monotony to be thrilling broken in the work’s final flourish. Read more

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Proms 2010: James Dillon – La navette (UK Première)

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As far back as 1988, in his seminal essay on what was, at the time, laughingly called ‘the New Complexity’, Richard Toop described the Scottish composer James Dillon—even within that narrow niche—as an ‘outsider’. Over two decades on, in Dillon’s sixtieth year, little as changed; he remains relatively unknown within the UK, but one imagines this hardly troubles him very greatly; in the pre-performance interview snippet, Dillon comments on how “my references [are] very much not the kind of obsessions that seem to be peculiar to Britain in particular…”. Having heard already in this year’s Proms a fair smattering of the kind of ‘obsessions’ that do occupy the British mainstream, it took no more than a few seconds of Dillon’s La navette (given its UK Première last Thursday) to become aware just how different is the kind of musical language with which he speaks. His is a musical world seemingly without limits, certainly without borders; Dillon’s fascination with all manner of worldwide customs and philosophies informs his work from its conception to its surface. Read more

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Proms 2010: Huw Watkins – Violin Concerto (World Première)

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Tuesday 17 August’s Proms concert brought the world première of Huw WatkinsViolin Concerto, the second new violin concerto heard this season. The opening movement sets a commanding tone, its fast tempo instigated by the solo violin, surrounded by pointillistic contributions from winds and upper strings, firmly drummed in place with massive bass thuds. In no time at all, the soloist seemingly accelarates… only for everything to stop abruptly, and a brief lyrical interlude ensues. Gradually, the initial mood is re-established—although not the pace, which has been seemingly blunted somewhat by the interlude. Large, looming melodic suggestions are put forward by the strings, but the violin seems quite happy to ignore them all, dancing on their surface and into another lyrical excursion; for all its romanticism, Watkins is leaving no doubt as to who wears the pants in this relationship. And this is swiftly confirmed as the violin emerges from its episode into a manic burst of notes that gets the orchestra very excited (they clearly just want to bang a lot in this movement)… whereupon, once again, all is stopped even more demonstrably than before; this violin is something of a tease, is it not? Read more

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Proms 2010: Tarik O’Regan – Latent Manifest and Alissa Firsova – Bach Allegro (World Premières)

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For this year’s Proms, Saturday 14 August was designated “Bach Day”, and buried beneath all the BWVs were two new works, by Tarik O’Regan and Alissa Firsova, both works described as ‘arrangements’.

O’Regan’s approach, as he saw it, was to tease out ‘hidden’ musical lines within the opening movement of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 3 BWV 1005. Who’d have thought that, buried within Bach’s music, was a whole load of post-John Adams material waiting to get out? The conductor, Andrew Litton, says in the interval discussion that his criterion for judging a great transcription or arrangement is “when you listen to it, you don’t wish you were hearing the original…”, and on that basis O’Regan comes off rather badly. All the same, Latent Manifest has some nice orchestrational moments, preventing it from being entirely dull.

Firsova roots herself in the last movement of Bach’s Viola da gamba Sonata No. 3 BWV 1029 and, thankfully, she doesn’t try so obviously to be seen to be clever. The title, Bach Allegro, says it all; unlike O’Regan’s work, which was nothing of the kind, this is a true arrangement, allowing Bach’s material to stand squarely in the foreground. While the orchestration is a little dry, there are some beautifully quirky moments, including an amusing brief dialogue between tubas and piccolos (Berlioz would be proud), as well as a hilarious bit of counterpoint proffered by, of all things, a flexatone (Gordon Jacob would be proud). It’s by far the superior offering, and the audience was clearly able to perceive that as well. Read more

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Proms 2010: Stephen Montague – Wilful Chants (World Première) plus Takemitsu

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A world première from Stephen Montague is always an exciting prospect; while hardly an avant-garde figure, he’s highly unpredictable, and one imagines neither the BBC nor the audience could have envisaged what Montague would ultimately present them with in his new work Wilful Chants, given its first performance by the BBC Symphony Chorus with London Brass and O Duo, on 8 August. The work states its intentions immediately, opening with a hectic maelstrom of vocal sounds including half-whispered words, rolled ‘r’s, loud chanting, glissandos, whistles, guttural grunts and the like. The cumulative effect, driven along by a brisk pulse, is entrancing, even hypnotic, the ear constantly pulled left and right, by no means making out the filigree of details (which is hardly the point), but simply trying to hold on for the ride. A climax is reached, and things shift into pitched territory, the brass making uncanny, muted oscillations that suddenly bloom as a dark chorale, into which the choir is swiftly drawn, although remaining in the middleground at this point. A more simplistic chorale follows, sounding distinctly eastern-European; the occasionally half-heard brass oscillations keep things from becoming too conventional or familiar, however, and as the resultant high point appears to be becoming all too generic, it pulls itself apart before getting too portentous, dissolving in a new plethora of noises, accompanied by percussive clatterings. And in no time at all, the conventional trappings are long forgotten as merry mayhem breaks out everywhere, the two elements—noise and song—wonderfully blended in a thrilling street party of a finale. Read more

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Proms 2010: Julian Anderson – Fantasias (London Première)

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Saturday 7 August’s Proms concert saw the first London performance of Julian Anderson‘s 25-minute Fantasias, a work the National Youth Orchestra has been playing around the country for the last few days, all under the direction of Semyon Bychkov.

It’s a work in five movements, the first of which puts the spotlight firmly on the brass section, about whom Anderson festoons a capricious collection of fanfare fragments, each of which gets thrown around like a drunken (almost pugilistic) hocket. It’s breathless, exhilarating stuff, showing the composer’s skill at collective brass writing (at times suggestive of some of John Pickard’s work). The remainder of the orchestra join in at the second Fantasia, the strings given something slow and potential, the winds to a large extent hiccuping at intervals (all very ‘Faber’); thankfully, it does broaden out into something less generic, first softening into a rather nice mush of overlapping strings atop tinkling celesta/harp offerings, before a semi-boisterous final few minutes where the instruments flounce around with gusto, like a chorus of dandies out on the town. Read more

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Proms 2010: Hans Abrahamsen – Wald (UK Première) plus Knussen, Bedford and Benjamin

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So, where were we? Ah yes, The Proms; my catchup starts with the concert that took place on Friday 6 August, given by the splendid Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

Oliver Knussen‘s Two Organa is a work all the more engaging for its entirely lopsided nature. The first ‘organum’, “Notre Dame des Jouets”, could perhaps best be described as “sugar and spice and all things nice” (although without very much spice); exploring just white notes, it’s derived from an earlier incarnation, composed for a diatonic music box, and while undeniably rather fun, there’s little more going on beyond froth and fancy. The latter movement, on the other hand, could not be more different, drawing heavily on Knussen’s more characteristic, harmonically rich palette. In the wake of such a frivolous predecessor, the dense, concentric lines at work here come as something of a shock, given gravitas by the imposing presence of deep gongs. But it restrains itself from becoming ponderous, swiftly reducing into a sparser mixture, the lines given more room to move, fragments of the imagined organum sliding in and out of view. Read more

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Proms 2010: George Benjamin – Duet (London Première)

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Another day, another première—this time, it was the first London performance of George Benjamin‘s Duet, for piano and orchestra. In the solo rôle is the unsurpassable Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and he precedes Benjamin’s work with a rendition of György Ligeti‘s “Mesto, rigido e ceremoniale”, the second piece from his enthralling Musica ricercata series. It’s a piece that’ll be immediately familiar to anyone who knows Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, and Aimard superbly taps into its dark, profoundly unsettling mood. Built upon disarming repetitions and extreme dynamics, it’s unlike almost anything else in the piano repertoire (except, perhaps, for the sonatas of Galina Ustvolskaya); substantial way beyond its mere three-minute span, the piece suffuses the air with mystery, establishing a dense, almost choking atmosphere for Benjamin’s Duet, which follows without a break. Read more

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Proms 2010: Brett Dean – Amphitheatre (London Première)

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Tonight’s Prom concert opened with another London première, Amphitheatre by the Australian composer Brett Dean, who won last year’s prestigious Grawemeyer Prize. The work was composed a decade ago, and appropriately enough was presented this evening by the Australian Youth Orchestra, conducted by the effervescent Mark Elder.

The clarity of Amphitheatre‘s opening gesture is immediately undermined by the lugubrious, half-lit shapes and fragments that succeed it, the music not so much happening as lurking. Rocking chords, bizarre brass buzzes and tentative, shivering percussion paint a whoozy, intoxicated backdrop from which—eventually, suddenly—concrete ideas arise, pummelling a melody into existence, before descending (or expanding) into dense clamour that impacts the ears with a myriad colours and timbres. Things become subdued; and in an unsettling stillness, the brass quietly convulse—in this work, it seems, as the textures assume a softer quality, the more tense and spasmodic the ensuing behaviour becomes. Quieter still, and things do genuinely seem to calm down, only to be—again—finally questioned by the work’s close gesture, an unnerving, nervous tic. Read more

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