UK

Symphony Hall, Birmingham: Iris ter Schiphorst, Richard Strauss, Gustav Holst

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i had many reasons for wanting to hear last night’s National Youth Orchestra concert at Symphony Hall in Birmingham, not least of which was simply to hear NYO in action again. They are an astonishing orchestra, not merely able but mature, sensitive and abounding in talent; their rendition of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie a few years back is a particularly vibrant memory. Beyond this, i was intrigued to hear more music by German composer Iris ter Schiphorst, whose Aus Liebe had been one of the most striking works at the Arditti Quartet’s HCMF concert last year. But most of all, i wanted to hear Richard StraussAlso Sprach Zarathustra, a work i’ve known intimately since my teenage years but which i’ve never, until yesterday, had the opportunity to hear performed live.

There’s something very strange about this; the rest of Strauss’ tone poems enjoy regular performances in the UK, both at national and local level (particularly Ein Heldenleben, Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan), but trying to find a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra is almost impossible. In this respect, it’s completely the opposite of the other major work included in last night’s concert, Holst’s The Planets, a work so ubiquitous in the UK that it borders on the absurd. Hearing the Strauss and Holst in close proximity (a superb bit of concert programming) only makes the absence of Also Sprach in British concert halls all the more unfathomable. Read more

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Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff: John Pickard – Symphony No. 5 (World Première)

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It’s not often that, partway through an orchestral concert, i find myself imagining i’m a German paraglider. But that’s precisely how i felt yesterday evening in Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, during the world première of the Fifth Symphony by Bristol-based composer John Pickard. Not just any paraglider: Ewa Wiśnierska, who in 2007 famously became trapped between two thunderstorms, and subsequently found herself in an airborne hell, subjected to an almighty battering that lasted 3½ hours, during which she was propelled to an altitude of almost 10 kilometres, well above the height of Mount Everest. Pickard’s symphony lasted a mere 30 minutes, but it still gave me more than just an inkling of what Ms. Wiśnierska must have experienced.

The piece found itself in curious company, preceded by a pair of works that, although by no means as ferocious, were in their own ways just as animalistic. That’s not an adjective one tends to hear applied to Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, but ever since i was first subjected to the piece as an unsuspecting sixth-former, it’s always seemed entirely appropriate. Elgar’s cello cuts one of the most pathetic protagonists in the entirety of music; it whines like a bitch, squeals like a pig, bleats like a forlorn little lamb. People loftily proclaim all this to be ‘valedictory’, but this is an animal that deserves — needs — to be put out of its misery post-haste. But no, the orchestra unthinkingly, deplorably, allows it to ramble on incessantly for half an hour, offering superficially sombre utterances of sympathetic regret. After almost a century of farcical, fawning, flattering, fulsome, false adulation, it’s high time the Cello Concerto was called out for the ugly, moping piece of dilapidated dirge-tripe that it is. Soloist Alban Gerhardt presumably did his best to find some humanity in it, but it was hard to tell among the precarious intonation and lack of melodic connectivity emerging from his instrument (not exclusive to Elgar, they also blighted his encore). Before this abject travesty had come William Walton‘s Johannesburg Festival Overture, a work causing one to reflect that, prior to the emergence (and dominance) of Benjamin Britten, Walton sounds like the only British composer who actually seemed to enjoy himself. The tales of being sent tapes of African music for “inspiration” are at best a conceit; the piece is seven minutes of complete and utter Walton, a triumph of joy, vivid and jarring colouration and melodic and structural misdirection, all delayed resolutions, false cadences and madcap maracas. An unbelievably wonderful bestial romp, delivered to perfection by the BBC NOW with conductor Martyn Brabbins looking as though he might start dancing at any moment. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Offshore

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To conclude my Lent Series celebrating the work of Michael Finnissy, i’m turning to the composer’s first orchestral score, Offshore, written 40 years ago in 1976. It was composed in the aftermath of a traumatic relationship break-up, which no doubt accounts for a lot of things, not least the work’s title and particularly its surprisingly strange general demeanour. Offshore can prove disarmingly difficult to connect with on a first listening (i can recall my own initial attempt, which was an almost complete failure), in no small part due to the way that Finnissy works with the orchestra by fragmenting it into a collection of distinct sonic entities, united by gestural, behavioural, timbral and registral characteristics. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – John the Baptist (World Première)

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A great deal of Michael Finnissy‘s output is choral, encompassing the same broad range of expression as his instrumental music. John the Baptist, a short work composed in 2014, falls at the simpler, more immediate end of the continuum. Adapting words from the York Mystery Plays, Finnissy creates both a mouthpiece for the titular figure as well as something of a portrait of him. Two portions of the piece are bold and declamatory, full of confidence and heft but articulated in triple metre such that there’s a distinct element of dance. It’s a serious dance, through, the choir united in a punchy statement of both believe and intent, one that points the way to a greater power, “entire in fire”. But this bullish invocation of the trinity is also turned towards the absurdity of the idea of a deity requiring something its creation. It’s a line of uncertainty that emerges first in the other pair of sections, when pulse yields to a slow, soft form of introspection, laden with both awe and wonder as well as doubts, “I thank him ever, but am a-feared / I am not able to fulfil this deed.” Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Judith Weir

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Michael Finnissy‘s chamber work Judith Weir was composed as a 50th birthday present for her in 2004. Back in 1985, Weir had written a short piano piece as a gift for Finnissy titled Michael’s Strathspey, an all-too-momentary dazzlement littered with ‘scotch snaps’, the familiar rhythmic device associated with that traditional Scottish dance tune. For his return gift, Finnissy too calls on the strathspey, exploring it in a way that offers something of a variation on the approach taken in in Viitasaari and A-lang Felton Lonnen. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – “above earth’s shadow…”

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It’s abundantly clear in the works explored so far in this Lent Series that Michael Finnissy has a keen interest in melody. The ways in which he presents, transforms and contextualises melody are often startlingly simple, but in the case of “above earth’s shadow…”, for solo violin and ensemble, it’s handled in a more complex way. Composed in 1985, the piece takes its title from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, specifically a passage from one of the work’s later ‘Memorable Fancies’ in which a visionary encounter with an angel takes place. It’s not without a certain degree of extreme surreal imagery, even by Blake’s standards (including vast spiders revolving on fiery tracks around a “black but shining” sun within an “infinite abyss”; you get the idea); the encounter is somewhat confrontational, culminating in the narrator grabbing the angel:

I by force suddenly caught him in my arms, & flew westerly thro’ the night, till we were elevated above the earth’s shadow; then I flung myself with him directly into the body of the sun;

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Michael Finnissy – A-lang Felton Lonnen (World Première)

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An interesting, small-scale example of Michael Finnissy‘s take on folk music is his re-thinking of the Northumbrian tune ‘A-lang Felton Lonnen’ (“a long Felton lane”). Finnissy places the traditional Northumbrian pipes alongside piano, viola and cello, all of which initially sound saturated by the harmony, contours and the tone of the tune, which stands out in the foreground. The piano offers similarly decorative counterpoint, weaving around the pipes, while the strings lay down slow-moving sustained notes, effecting a kind of extension of the pipes’ drones. Read more

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