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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.


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Julian Anderson – Incantesimi
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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

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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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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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Michael Finnissy – Aijal

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On a number of occasions, informed by periods of time spent in Australia (due to a paucity of work opportunities in the UK), Michael Finnissy has composed works inspired by Aboriginal culture. Most of these date from 1982–3, one of the earliest being Aijal for oboe, clarinet and percussion, the title of which is the Australian Aboriginal word for ‘sky’. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Dust (World Première)

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Perhaps the key recurring characteristic of Michael Finnissy‘s music is an engagement with existing musical ideas, embracing (and that’s exactly the right word) folk and popular idioms. This engagement is nothing less than an audible wrangling with it from root to tip, as though Finnissy were handling it like plasticine, moulding it into new shapes while considering its constituent elements, in ways that are both analytic and playful. And, indeed, unpredictable, as is the case with his short work Dust, composed in 2008. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Wild Flowers

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Michael Finnissy‘s musical output is dominated by his works for piano, which to date number around 200, most for solo piano plus others for piano duet and two pianos. For many people, Finnissy’s most well-known work continues to be his first great piano cycle English Country Tunes, a 40-minute, eight-movement journey through music inhabiting the extremes of rage and sublimity. (Coincidentally, today is the 30th anniversary of the première of the final version of that piece, given by Finnissy himself at the BMIC in London). Although indicative of all his music, Finnissy’s works for piano, no doubt due in part to it being the composer’s own instrument, seem to tap to a greater extent into the most intimate and heartfelt aspects of his outlook, somehow finding an expressive modus operandi that’s simultaneously elemental yet agonisingly personal. In Finnissy’s hands, the piano finds both pain and ecstasy. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – n

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In a little over a month’s time, it will be the 70th birthday of British composer Michael Finnissy, and so this year’s 5:4 Lent Series is dedicated to a celebratory exploration of some of his work. Despite his pre-eminence in many compositional circles, Finnissy remains a distinctly neglected figure, rarely heard at the UK’s more prominent music festivals and stubbornly absent from the repertoire of most of our orchestras and ensembles. He continues to be represented best by the collection of independent groups and ensembles that have always recognised the imagination and radical outlook that epitomise his work, though this inevitably means his music remains unknown to the vast majority of the concert-going public. Over the next few weeks, i hope to shed a little light on the diversity of his output, and in the process perhaps challenge some of the misconceptions—usually concerned with excessive difficulty—that have ignorantly dogged his work. i should point out that i am by no means an expert in Finnissy’s music; it has simply fascinated and moved me repeatedly throughout the last twenty-or-so years since i first encountered it. In addition to the Lent Series, i’ll also be exploring the current catalogue of recordings available of Finnissy’s music, and all being well we’ll be recording a Dialogue together later in the year. Anyone wanting to get a good introduction and overview of the composer’s musical life can find a nicely succinct biography on Finnissy’s own website. Read more

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Anna Clyne – The Seamstress (UK Première)

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The annual 5:4 Lent Series is almost upon us, but in the meantime one of the more striking premières i’ve heard recently is a new work for violin and orchestra from US-based British composer Anna Clyne. The work’s title, The Seamstress, comes from W. B. Yeats’ eponymous poem (see below), where a song is made into a coat “Covered with embroideries / Out of old mythologies”; the garment is subsequently robbed, yet the songmaker rather sanguinely concludes “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” Clyne’s song takes the form of what she calls an “imaginary one-act ballet”, with five distinct movements, the last recapitulating the first. The temptation would be to describe it as a violin concerto, but in many ways it really isn’t; the solo violin is by no means more important or significant than the orchestra at all times, indeed for much of the piece there’s a strong sense of duet, with the soloist frequently yielding centre-stage. All the same, the violin certainly acts in ways that could be called catalytic, instigating ideas and often leading the way elaborating them. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Richard Causton – The Flight (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, Premières | 2 Comments

A couple of days ago, amidst the predictable bucketload of Rutter, Willcocks, Ord, Goldschmidt, Ledger, Darke and so on, the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge produced something singular, rather marvellous and downright challenging, in the form of the newly-commissioned carol from Richard Causton (who is also Fellow in Music and Reader in Composition at the University). Causton’s typically thoughtful response reached far out beyond the narrow, preserved-in-aspic confines of the rest of the service, striking a contextually as well as musically dissonant chord by being informed at its core by the upheavals facing contemporary society:

Earlier this year I spent a great deal of time in libraries looking for a suitable text for my new carol and although I unearthed many old and very beautiful poems about the Nativity, I struggled to find one that I really wanted to set to music. I had a growing sense that at this precise moment it is perverse to be writing a piece about a child born in poverty, away from home and forced to flee with his parents, without in any way paying reference to the appalling refugee crisis that is unfolding.

I phoned my friend, the poet George Szirtes to ask if he might be prepared to write me a poem which could encompass some of these ideas. By complete coincidence, the very day I phoned he was in Hungary, at Budapest railway station talking to the refugees who were stuck there while trying to leave the country. Within days, George sent me a poem that is at once beautiful, eloquent and hard-hitting.

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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The CBSO Centre, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group‘s home, found itself seriously packed on Friday evening, for a concert in which the ensemble was joined by baritone Roderick Williams. Just two works were on the programme, Dominic Muldowney‘s An English Song Book, a BCMG commission from 2011 comprising five cabaret songs, two Shakespeare settings plus a new song unveiled on this occasion, and—no doubt the chief reason for the impressive turnout—Howard Skempton‘s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, also receiving its world première. It was a wise pairing; stylistically speaking the two composers’ works were worlds apart, yet various fundamental connections revealed themselves throughout the evening. Read more

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