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George Benjamin – Viola, Viola; Three Miniatures for Solo Violin; Into the Little Hill

Posted on by 5:4 in Miscellaneous | 1 Comment

George Benjamin is one of the first contemporary composers in whom i became interested, as a teenager. It’s difficult to pin down or articulate quite what i find appealing in his music, and in fact reasonably often i’ve found myself ambivalent about certain pieces. There’s an intensity and earnestness of intention that can be a double-edged sword; his works may come across as somewhat over-wrought and rather too cerebral, but personally i would prefer that to something insufficiently considered any day. Whatever; here are three works from a concert given by Ensemble Modern at the Bockenheimer Depot in November 2007. Read more

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An absolute must-have: Steven Wilson – Insurgentes

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases | 3 Comments

It may only be two-thirds of the way through January, but already i’m fairly sure that i’ve heard the album that’ll be my best of the year: Steven Wilson‘s Insurgentes. Wilson is the musician behind, among other acts, Porcupine Tree and Bass Communion, and Insurgentes—the first album he has released under his own name—brings together the best elements of those projects and much else besides. Strictly speaking, it was released last year, in a limited edition of 3,000 copies; the retail version was to have been released at the end of February this year, but appears to have been pushed back to March. However, in true Trent Reznor style, if you pre-order, you’re immediately given a link to download the entire album in mp3 format (256Kbps) to tide you over. Read more

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In Memoriam Michael Tippett

Posted on by 5:4 in Anniversaries | Leave a comment

Today is the anniversary of the death of Sir Michael Tippett, and last week was the anniversary of his birth. To mark both occasions, here’s a collection of his music from a service of Choral Evensong that dates back to St Peter’s Day 2005, from St John’s College, Cambridge. It’s a recording i recently discovered in my archives, on a video cassette, so the quality doesn’t quite live up to the digital recordings i make today; all the same, it’s a nice clear reproduction, taken from digital radio.

Almost all the music in the service was by Tippett, beginning with his neo-renaissance motet Plebs angelica, mellifluous and texturally very thick throughout. The canticles are Tippett’s setting for St John’s College (composed in 1961 to mark the 450th anniversary of the founding of the college); the Magnificat is brilliantly virile, startlingly muscular from the outset, and the Nunc dimittis is no less interesting for its relative softness, individual voices sounding stark, even vulnerable against a gentle choral backdrop, occasionally punctuated by the organ, contributing strange singular clusters. Instead of a single anthem, the choir performed no fewer than all five of Tippett’s Negro Spirituals from ‘A Child of our Time’. They’re given a thoroughly spirited performance (no pun intended), the singers quite clearly relishing the material. “Steal Away” (in my opinion the best of the five) is performed with great delicacy, and the baritone soloist is superb; and “Go down, Moses”—which, more than the others, tends to sound significantly weaker than its original orchestral version—is strikingly brought to life here, the final bars given a suitably authoritative tone. To finish, the voluntary was Tippett’s meandering, rather mundane Preludio al Vespro di Monteverdi. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Lennox Berkeley & Judith Weir

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, Premières, Seasonal | 7 Comments

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!. To celebrate the feast, here’s a selection from the renowned Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that took place yesterday at King’s College, Cambridge.

After the fifth lesson came I sing of a maiden by Lennox Berkeley, a sublime creation, its ostensible simplicity containing some lovely harmonic piquancy. Berkeley was the first composer to be commissioned to write a new anthem for this service, back in the early 1980s, beginning an admirable tradition of commissioning a new work each year. Read more

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Ancient and modern: Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto, Miroirs des temps; Chris Dench – Passing bells: night

Posted on by 5:4 in Miscellaneous | 4 Comments

i’ve been a fan of Unsuk Chin‘s music ever since she returned to instrumental writing in the early ’90s with Akrostichon-Wortspiel. At the end of last month, Radio 3’s ‘Hear and Now’ featured Chin’s more recent music. The Violin Concerto is awash with invention; all the talk of open strings is simply an opening gambit, from where it departs into vivid and distinctly unfamiliar territory. Often, the use of open strings is redolent of Berg’s concerto, but it’s unfair to latch onto that association, as Chin really does operate in a world apart. It’s much more akin to Ligeti’s concerto, and Chin acknowledges this in her interview during the programme, where she refers to her piece as an ‘answer’ to Ligeti’s. She also speaks of a desire to avoid a conventional orchestral sound through the introduction of ununusal instruments; the final movement of the concerto features steel drums, which inject a fittingly exotic and unconventional twist to the work as a whole. Miroirs des temps, with dense multi-part crab canons, is a compositional tour-de-force, but also rather strange. It doesn’t begin in the most auspicious way, the singers sounding, frankly, drab against the gentle interest of the orchestra; and when it then lurches into pastiche, i admit i had to restrain myself from stopping listening. It broadens into more interesting areas, though, as it approaches its middle; the fourth movement, dark and indistinct, is especially exciting. But, of course, this is a “mirror of time”, and so the less interesting faux Machaut and drabness return as the work progresses; not her finest work, by any means, but equally not without some very special moments—it’s just a shame that they are only moments. This performance of the Violin Concerto was given bu Hae-Sun Kang and the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by James MacMillan. Read more

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James MacMillan – String Quartet No. 3 (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières | Leave a comment

Here’s a recording of James MacMillan‘s most recent work, the String Quartet No. 3, premièred by the Takacs Quartet on 21 May, at the QEH in London. i don’t know either of MacMillan’s previous two quartets, but this new addition is a fairly ambitious work. MacMillan speaks in his preliminary discussion (illustrated with examples by the Takacs) of the melodic, cantabile quality of the material, and this is highly evident throughout, especially in the lyrical first movement, the principal theme of which has a distinct Jewish flavour. Strange, disjunct gestures begin the second movement, ominous and disquieted. From them, melodic fragments appear, many of them cast from a similarly disquieted mould: the viola embarks on a short restless journey, buzzing like an angry bee; later all four combine to sound like a heavily wheezing concertina. On a couple of occasions, dance figurations try to assert themselves, only to be thrust brusquely back into the maelstrom and promptly dissipated; the movement ends much as it began, one of MacMillan’s most fascinatingly strange creations. The lyricism returns for the final movement, which is the most conservative and familiar of the three. It is all melody, led powerfully by the first violin, charting a trajectory into the most achingly high regions of its E string, its three companions forming a supportive trio at its base. At the summit, it repeats plaintively, and everything turns harmonic, fading into transparency. Read more

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Choral Evening Prayer (Buckfast Abbey): music by Philip Moore

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières | Leave a comment

It’s been a while since i’ve featured Choral Evensong on here; they really haven’t been terribly interesting of late. However, today’s service of Choral Evening Prayer took place during the annual Exon Singers Festival from Buckfast Abbey in Devon. Buckfast is a place close to my heart; i’ve been there a number of times, and it’s a sublime, gorgeous place, with spacious gardens populated by a plethora of types of lavender, and its shop selling monastic goods from around the world, including the renowned and highly-charged liqueur Chartreuse. A thriving monastery, it’s not surprising that the worship from Buckfast should be measured and thoughtful, offered with the greatest of care, making it a dual delight for the listener, both in terms of style and content.

Focus of the service was on composer Philip Moore, former director of music of York Minster. Read more

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