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Dave Price – Twitcher

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The next miniature work in my Lent Series is something a little different from the norm. Dave Price uses an array of game calls and bird whistles in conjunction with a piccolo to create his taut, playful and at times downright hilarious three-minute Twitcher.

Those of a prog rock disposition may find Pink Floyd’s Several Species of Small Furry Animals coming to mind during the work’s long opening section, cycling rhythmic ideas hocketed left and right with all manner of unexpected punctuations, embellishments and hiatuses. After about 80 seconds, everything gets significantly cranked up: the metre becomes shorter and seemingly quicker and there’s less overall sense of rhythmic control, finally leading to a prolonged eruption of wild wails, squeals and ratchet bursts. Price lets out all the pent-up tension with a violent bang, whereupon the piece discovers an altogether new kind of order, the piccolo articulating a Latin-like melody, the music no longer twitching but swaying and dancing to a close. Read more

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Peter Maxwell Davies – Unbroken Circle

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The next of my Lent Series miniatures is Unbroken Circle, a four-minute piece for alto flute, bass clarinet, viola, cello and piano by Peter Maxwell Davies. It was composed in 1984, a year that would prove to be an anguished one for Max: his mother, Hilda, had a severe stroke midway through the year (from which she would never recover, dying nearly two years later) and his father, Tom, perhaps in response to this, collapsed and died a few months later, on Christmas Eve. Unbroken Circle slightly predates these twin tragedies, receiving a private first performance on 1 June of that year (in Bath, where the work’s dedicatee, William Glock, was being awarded an honorary doctorate; the public première took place on 30 November), yet the distinct air of soft melancholy that permeates the work seems to foreshadow the events that were soon to come. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Double Hocket

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Brevity may well be the soul of wit, but the challenges it raises from the perspective of the listener can be considerable. Everything becomes ultra-compact: no sooner has an idea been presented then we’re on to another – or, more usually in this context, a different facet of the existing one – with little or no time to join the dots and reflect. Regardless of the music’s actual momentum, it can sound like a sprint, the work’s double barline already in view as the piece begins, and we can feel forced to race to keep up. That’s particularly true, i think, of the next work in my Lent Series focusing on miniatures, Harrison Birtwistle’s Double Hocket for piano trio, composed ten years ago in 2007. One can only imagine that hearing this in a concert – or, more specifically, hearing it just once (not that there’s any excuse for that, considering its length) – might well prove somewhat unrewarding, an aural equivalent of being vigorously prodded with knitting needles for two minutes. However, there’s an interesting little drama taking place within the Double Hocket, though if you’re not careful it might take your eye out.  Read more

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Howard Skempton – Here’s the Tender Coming (World Première)

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Back to the Lent Series, and to a completely charming and surprisingly poignant little miniature by Howard Skempton. Here’s the Tender Coming is a Northumbrian folk tune, and Skempton’s arrangement of it dates from 2011, appropriately written for Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell plus the addition of a string quartet. Despite the cheeriness of the tune, the song is distinctly melancholic: the ‘tender’ of the title refers to the approaching ship—to all intents and purposes a prison—that, following the actions of the press gangs, would take away men by force to fight in the war against the French.

Here’s the tender coming, pressing all the men;
Oh dear hinny, what shall we do then?
Here’s the tender coming, off at Shield’s Bar,
Here’s the tender coming, full of men-o’-war.

The song is especially potent (and, one assumes, quite unusual) as it’s written from a woman’s perspective, capturing her utter desperation at the thought of losing, literally, the bread-winner of the family.

If they take thee, Geordie, who’s to win our bread?
Me and little Jackie better off be dead.

Read more

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Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 3. Piano music

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It’s only a few days until Michael Finnissy‘s 70th birthday year comes to an end, so in the nick of time, here’s the final part of my retrospective of his music released by his most loyal label, Metier. In turning to the piano music, i’m conscious that, to some extent, i’m setting myself up for failure. The piano is of such massive, fundamental significance to Finnissy – his website lists 172 works for the instrument, more than half his entire output – that to engage with this music meaningfully would require many more thousands of words than i can devote to them on this occasion. By my own admission, then, never will a surface have been so barely scratched. But it doesn’t take much more than a scratch to start uncovering a wealth of inspirations – musical, philosophical, political, sexual, ideological, technical – teeming within these works to an extent that, even for Finnissy, is startlingly extensive. There is, initially at least, something overwhelmingly daunting about this, yet it would be a mistake to regard Finnissy’s piano output as so many multi-faceted puzzles that can only be ‘got’ once all of their extrinsic influences have been grasped, parsed and assimilated. Nothing, i would venture, could be further from the truth: without wishing to put words into the composer’s mouth, i have little doubt that the notion of his music as some kind of ‘test’ would be completely anathema to Finnissy. Besides, all of them – without fail – communicate themselves with an immediacy and power that sets them apart both within his own output as well as from the majority of 20th and 21st century piano-writing. They can be enjoyed at surface level and also in the rich, subterranean layers of inspiration that lie beneath. To me, Finnissy’s piano music seems not unlike a kind of archaeological artefact: the more one goes digging, the more unexpected delights are to be discovered.

Metier has released four albums of the piano works, which doesn’t sound like a lot but they nonetheless constitute over ten hours of music, including some of Finnissy’s most important works for the instrument. Released over a period of fifteen years, these releases successively grow in terms of both scope and duration. All but one of them are performed by arguably the composer’s most definitive interpreter, pianist Ian Pace. Read more

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Electric Spring 2017

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts | 8 Comments

i was fortunate to catch four-fifths of last week’s Electric Spring festival, Huddersfield University’s annual exploration and celebration of things electronically musical. As usual, attention was focused on a daily evening concert, featuring a substantial programme preceded by one or more relatively brief opening acts. The festival’s emphasis on electronic music felt conspicuously different this year; the connection seemed pretty tenuous in Thursday’s concert showcasing three films (admittedly all including electronically-created or -processed music to some extent, and the event was a tie-in for the university’s Sound and Music in Documentary Film symposium, which was taking place at the same time), as well as drummer Dave Smith’s Saturday gig, which employed little in the way of electronics beyond a few loops, some reverb and a modicum of pitch-shifting. i mention this more as an observation than a complaint: the concerts were no less enjoyable for their relatively minor use of electronics, but it’s fair to say that these two events, in retrospect, seemed more like vanity projects for the particular members of staff who organised them than deeply meaningful contributions to Electric Spring’s general ethos. Or maybe Electric Spring is going somewhere else in future; i guess we’ll see. Read more

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Howard Skempton – Piano Concerto (World Première)

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Another interesting première from 2016, also performed at the Tectonics festival, also for piano and orchestra, also featuring John Tilbury as soloist, is Howard Skempton‘s Piano Concerto. This is a work that i’ve been more than usually interested to hear. In conversations throughout the last couple of years, Howard has talked about this piece with me on numerous occasions, though his marvellously inscrutable way of describing it meant that, beyond knowing there was a Stravinsky connection, and that 12-note ideas were not unimportant, the piece remained pretty much a mystery. In fact, it turns out the link to Stravinsky is a big one, organisationally: Skempton has modelled his concerto on Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra, both by structuring the work in five short movements and also by utilising virtually the same instrumentation (substituting a second bassoon for Stravinsky’s clarinet, adding a pair of horns and ditching the harp and celesta). Read more

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Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 2. Chamber music

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As with his vocal works, Michael Finnissy‘s chamber music is represented on four Metier discs, comprising around twenty pieces composed across three decades, from 1977 to 2007. This is only a miniscule proportion of Finnissy’s vast quantity of chamber music, but it nonetheless provides a valuable demonstration of various aspects of his compositional language. Above all, his omnipresent engagement with existing musical materials, which while often manifested in Finnissy’s music to varying degrees of convolution and obfuscation, could hardly be more overwhelmingly obvious in Metier’s 2013 CD featuring two works for piano quintet. Read more

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New releases: Morton Feldman, Jonty Harrison, Chaya Czernowin

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It’s been good to get back to the plethora of new releases that have have found their way to my door in recent weeks and months. While i don’t like to make spurious connections between disparate pieces of music, i’ve been fascinated at the way various composers explore the interplay between what we might call the ‘virtual’ and the ‘actual’. In Morton Feldman‘s 1976 ‘Beckett trilogy’—comprising Orchestra for orchestra, Elemental Procedures for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra and Routine Investigations for six players, released together on a CD from Wergo titled Beckett Material—this interplay manifests itself, as it so often does in his work, in the implications of a tension between the aurally deliberate and coincidental. In Orchestra, for example, we hear a collection of seemingly disjointed bursts of material, brief slivers of ideas, as though Feldman had extracted a load of ‘salient points’ from a host of sources and strung them together. The result is music that constantly seems significant yet what it signifies is moot, continually reconfigured by context. In tandem with this is one’s perception of what constitutes a ‘connection’ between ideas, prompting a continual reappraisal of whether imitation and continuity are actually taking place or are imagined by-products of Feldman’s placement of materials. This extends even to something as simple as a melody; a recurring idea in all three pieces involves the irregular cycling of a small group of pitches that at first appear melodic but soon seem either arbitrary or subject to a more unpredictable type of permutation. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Mark Knoop + Juliet Fraser

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Festivals, Premières | 6 Comments

My final concert at HCMF 2016 was in St Paul’s Hall in the company of pianist Mark Knoop and soprano Juliet Fraser, who presented the UK premières of two song cycles, Michael Finnissy‘s Andersen-Leiderkreis and Bernhard Lang‘s The Cold Trip, part 2. Despite the fact that some of the Finnissy was not in English, it was unfortunate that we were not given the texts for either piece, as it was often unclear precisely what was being sung (more to do with St Paul’s Hall than with Juliet Fraser), a real shame considering the fact that these were both substantial vocal works. Regardless of this, though, The Cold Trip, part 2 made its intentions really very clear within the first few minutes: using Schubert’s Winterreise as its inspiration (in this case, being ‘part 2’, focusing on the latter half of that cycle), Lang’s text comprises cut-up minute quotations, allusions and references to the Schubert in conjunction with a live piano part and piano samples executed by a laptop. This, Lang contends, creates a ‘meta-composition’ in which the sampled elements establish a palimpsest of the Schubert. It really and truly does not. Read more

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HCMF 2015 revisited: Naomi Pinnock – Lines and Spaces (World Première)

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There are just four days to go until the start of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and UK audiences get the chance–denied them at most other festivals on these shores—to experience some of today’s most experimental, radical and open-minded music-making. All being well i’ll be there for the duration once again, but in the meantime, as something of an appetite-whetter, i want to revisit something from last year’s festival.

Partly but not entirely due to the presence of Jürg Frey as composer-in-residence, HCMF 2015 was characterised by a distinct thread of simplicity and restraint, obtaining the maximum effect, power and overall use from relatively spare and at first glance potentially unpromising material. Of course, in such contexts as these words like ‘simplicity’ and ‘restraint’ become themselves redefined, to the point that a pianissimo note from Jacob Ullmann becomes shockingly outré, or a change of chord from Chiyoko Szlavnics feels as though the whole world has either been tilted on its side or stopped spinning on its axis.

Lines and Spaces by UK composer Naomi Pinnock occupies a not dissimilar place of compositional thought. Drawing on the minimal abstract art of Agnes Martin for inspiration, the piece, for solo piano, is made up of six short movements, the even-numbered of which correspond to the lines of the title. Simplicity of the kind i mentioned above reigns here, each ‘line’ located around an extended, repeated middle C (the relative speed of the repetition decreases across the three movements). The first is coloured by a single C an octave lower, the second by a D and B immediately above/below, followed by some pedal smudge. The third is struck with a glancing triadic blow that retains more than enough consonance to keep the ‘line’ stable until it too is smudged before fizzling out, its string muted. Read more

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Proms 2016: Julian Anderson – Incantesimi (UK Première)

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As the end of the Proms draws nigh, the new works seem to have been taking on an increasing delicacy. And, to a large extent, simplicity, Julian Anderson‘s Incantesimi taking inspiration from the orrery, a mechanical reproduction of the the solar system, showing the position and motion of its planets and moons.

Anderson’s Incantesimi, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle (for whom it was written; they gave the first performance in Berlin in June), doesn’t so much emulate an orrery as allude to its machinations. To that end, while there isn’t a convincing sense of recurring, concentric ideas (despite the programme note’s claims), there are clearly differentiated ideas at play; furthermore, although these ideas aren’t particularly interesting in themselves, the way Anderson juxtaposes them is far more engaging, and it’s at this level of what one can imagine Messiaen calling a ‘counterpoint of personnages’ that Incantesimi works strongest. The most prevalent idea is a never-ending line on the cor anglais, which makes its way over and under everything else. Much of this “everything else” is, in contrast to a great deal of Anderson’s previous work, pleasantly ambiguous, occupying a dark and mysterious soundscape launched from a rather fantastic opening, slow, low and laden with contrabassoon and double bass growls.

The work’s different ideas tend to have distinct timbral/registral qualities, enabling the piece to play with notions of density and stratification; every now and then this results in a compressed pile-up, in due course answered by more separated, sparser material. Anderson’s use of the orchestra has some nice moments of novelty, particularly a very strong episode a little over halfway through, where vast amounts of wind and gesture are met with what sound like car-size hailstones falling from on high, interspersed with brief glimpses of high string fragility. What all this amounts to is hard to say; it may not be terribly profound, but beneath its shifting surface details, the piece does have some depth. And while Incantesimi as a whole isn’t exactly memorable (though moments like i’ve just described certainly are), yet the looser approach to structure, allowing the piece to feel relatively mobile and spontaneous, is demonstrably effective. It would be nice to hear what happens if Anderson loosens the reins still further.


Programme Note

I hear a special quality in the way the Berlin Philharmonic colours slow music. I also think Sir Simon Rattle has a wonderful way of carrying and characterising long lines. There’s rhythm and flow. So I decided to write something showing off that. In Incantesimi, I use five musical ideas that orbit each other in ever differing relationships, somewhat like planets in an orrery. The cor anglais plays a special role with recurring solo lines. The work is an eight-minute span of time on the outside, but it gives a sense of being much more expansive, which is an illusion only music can give.

—Julian Anderson


Julian Anderson – Incantesimi
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Proms 2016: Thomas Larcher – Symphony No. 2 ‘Kenotaph’ (UK Première), Sally Beamish – Merula perpetua; Bayan Northcott – Concerto for Orchestra (World Premières)

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Following on from Emily Howard’s Torus, two further Proms premières have continued the relationship with the orchestral concerto archetype: Bayan Northcott’s Concerto for Orchestra and Thomas Larcher‘s Symphony No. 2, which began life as one but developed in a different direction. Larcher’s symphony was commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Oesterreichische Nationalbank, but far from being celebratory, the piece, dourly subtitled ‘Cenotaph‘, is bound up in thoughts and feelings instilled by the ongoing refugee crisis. Although not programmatic, Larcher has used the symphony to compose an ‘outcry’ at the sense of helplessness he felt. Read more

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Proms 2016: Piers Hellawell – Wild Flow; Emily Howard – Torus (World Premières); Marlos Nobre – Kabbalah (UK Première)

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The most recent Proms premières have demonstrated particularly keenly the highly differentiated approaches being taken by this year’s crop of composers, and while some works at first glance appear to be nothing but effervescence and froth, closer examination proves otherwise. In the case of Piers Hellawell‘s new orchestral work Wild Flow, dedicated to and given its first performance by the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Payare, there’s plenty of froth, though it’s been whipped up into a particular dense and sticky consistency. Composed also to mark his own 60th birthday, Hellawell’s aim was to write “immediate” music that “wants to uplift and exalt the spirit”. Four of the work’s five movements are fast and energetic, around a slower central section. The opening, to a clanging bell, suggests the first round in a boxing match, and while Wild Flow isn’t exactly pugilistic, it certainly displays a kind of Varèsian muscularity crossed with a curiously gymnastic melodic attitude. Music seeking to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, perhaps? Read more

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Proms 2016: Georg Friedrich Haas – Open Spaces II, Gérard Grisey – Dérives (UK Premières), Mica Levi – Signal Before War; David Sawer – April \ March (World Premières)

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Finally. Five weeks into this year’s season, the Proms at last finds its way, Red Riding Hood-like, away from the safe, well-trodden path into the unfamiliar terrain of the avant-garde. Twice, in fact; first thanks to the London Sinfonietta, whose afternoon concert at Camden’s Roundhouse last Saturday (there’s presumably a clause somewhere prohibiting anything too radical from being performed within the Royal Albert Hall), conducted by Andrew Gourlay, presented new works by Georg Friedrich Haas, Mica Levi and David Sawer alongside, among other things, Ligeti’s great classic Ramifications. And later that evening, Ilan Volkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra brought Gérard Grisey’s Dérives to these shores. Quite a day! Read more

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Proms 2016: Malcolm Hayes – Violin Concerto; Huw Watkins – Cello Concerto; Charlotte Bray – Falling in the Fire (World Premières)

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Three Proms, three world premières, three concertos, one for violin, two for cello, all lasting around 25 minutes. The similarities between them go little deeper than these most basic facts, though, each occupied with a very particular soundworld, aesthetic, and relationship between soloist and orchestra. The results were similarly mixed. Read more

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Proms 2016: Helen Grime – Two Eardley Pictures (World Première)

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A pair of paintings by Scottish artist Joan Eardley constitute the starting point of Helen Grime‘s new two-part work, premièred last week at the Proms, Two Eardley Pictures. The paintings are of the same place, the Scottish coastal village of Catterline (where Eardley lived and worked), painted from similar but subtly different viewpoints, both portraying its houses and fields beneath the sullen grey of a heavy, immense winter sky. They’re beautiful images, conveying a directness and authenticity that immediately pull one into their biting chilly freshness. It takes a certain amount of goodwill to find parallels in the music Grime has composed; aesthetically, it often sounds worlds apart from Eardley’s winterscapes. Read more

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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)

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Premières | 19 Comments

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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