UK

Richard Barrett – Opening of the Mouth (UK Première)

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To bring my little ‘death season’ to a close, a major work that confronts the subject in the most breathtakingly imaginative and radical way. Richard Barrett‘s Opening of the Mouth, composed over a five-year period from 1992-97, is a daunting work even to begin to write about, partly due to its scale—lasting a little over 70 minutes—but perhaps more due to its material intricacies and structural ingenuity, both of which invite various ways to be parsed. From one perspective, the work is a cycle, comprising a host of discrete compositions, many for solo instruments: abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben for percussion solo, CHARON for bass clarinet, Largo for soprano, koto and cello, Schneebett for soprano, mezzo-soprano and ensemble, Tenebrae for mezzo-soprano, electric guitar, ensemble and live electronics, knospend-gespaltener for C clarinet, air for violin and von hinter dem Schmerz for amplified cello, in addition to two electronic works, Landschaft mit Urnenwesen and Zungenentwürzeln. Barrett does not simply tessellate these pieces to make a larger whole—far from it: they occur simultaneously as well as consecutively, sometimes whole, sometimes fragmented, overlapping and interweaving with each other and with new material, Byzantine architecture rendering convoluted music of utmost sophistication.
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John Woolrich – In the Mirrors of Asleep

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A recurring aspect in most of the death-related pieces i’ve recently explored is ambiguity, and that’s even more the case in John Woolrich‘s short work for five players, In the Mirrors of Asleep, composed in 2007. i hope Woolrich won’t take it amiss when i say that what i find most telling is the music’s inconsistent sense of direction and diffuse emotional sensibility. In this context, those are attributes that transcend their inherent uncertainty and speak just as clearly (if not more so) than via direct statement. In essence, the ensemble—comprising flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano—betrays a thoroughly mixed psychological habitat. There’s radiance to be found, at the start, and at the fringes of various subsequent materials, particularly the music’s tendency (one of several) to express itself through slow melodic movement. These passages allude more than they emote, but that’s mainly because they aren’t afforded the opportunity to fully expound (or wallow in) their heavyweight sentiments. Woolrich breaks them off, often with spritely episodes of light, staccato counterpoint that fall into concentric patterns like multiple ticking clocks. Read more

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David Sawer – Flesh and Blood (World Première)

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For Remembrance Day, i’ve chosen a new work from David Sawer that engages with death and loss in a poignant but surprisingly passionate way. Flesh and Blood is a 25-minute dramatic scena for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, setting a text by playwright Howard Barker. Although not staged, the soloists do wear costumes and assume the roles of a soldier and his mother, the two of them exploring aspects of memory and resignation in the face of the Soldier’s imminent, permanent, separation and loss. That’s one way of looking at it, although the nature of the situation is nicely enigmatic; parts of the piece could just as well be taking place in absentia, within the Mother’s imagination, either in the wake of the news no parent wants to hear or with understandable dread at its fatalistic inevitability. Read more

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Gabriel Jackson – Justorum animæ

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The aspect of death explored in Gabriel Jackson‘s short choral work Justorum animæ is on the peace it brings to the souls of the departed, a fitting theme for today, being All Souls’ Day. The Latin text is drawn from the offertory from yesterday’s liturgies for All Saints’ Day, originating in the apocryphal book of Wisdom, and like so many texts (and human acts) that grapple with death, it is primarily focused on the living, seeking to bring some reassurance to we who are left behind. Their souls, we are told, “are in the hand of God”, and while the second line seems a bit confusing—how can they not be touched by “the torment of death” when they are patently dead?—the overriding message that no more harm can come to them is self-evidently true.

Jackson’s music embraces the soothing thrust of the words, setting them almost like a lullaby, lilting phrases atop soft, oscillating diatonic chords that appropriately defy a sense of cadential finality. Read more

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Proms 2014: Judith Weir – Day Break Shadows Flee (World Première); Zhou Long – Postures (European Première); John Adams – Saxophone Concerto (UK Première)

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The latest round of Proms premières got one thinking about the relationship between expectation/innovation and engagement. It was Judith Weir‘s new work that got this particular ball rolling around the mind. A composer already at the less adventurous end of the new music spectrum, in recent years her music has increasingly seemed imaginatively torpid, practically treading water. Day Break Shadows Flee, composed for and premièred by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, went to essentially no lengths at all to challenge that assessment. Read more

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Proms 2014: Brett Dean – Electric Preludes; Bernard Rands – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (UK Premières); Benedict Mason – Meld (World Première)

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New works at the Proms regularly come in the form of concertos, violin and piano continuing to be represented most. The planned performance of Luca Francesconi’s Duende – The Dark Notes (a work i’d been very much looking forward to) on 7 August was unfortunately cancelled due to soloist Leila Josefowicz having just given birth to her third son. However, that disappointment was more than mitigated by its fine replacement, Brett Dean‘s Electric Preludes, also a violin concerto—but for the 6-stringed electric violin, accompanied only by strings—and also receiving its first UK performance. Read more

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Proms 2014: Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes (UK Première); Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory; Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’ (World Premières)

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The three Proms premières given at the end of last month make for an interesting comparison, with regard to the relationship between material and intention. There was no little weight being hefted around; Jonathan Dove‘s Gaia Theory aspired to James Lovelock’s hypothesis of the same name, concerning ideas of ‘self regulation’ in the systems that make up our planet, whereas Gabriel Prokofiev‘s Violin Concerto took both its subtitle, ‘1914’, and its narrative from aspects arising from the commemorations of World War I. Heavyweight stuff, then, making Simon Holt‘s inspirational starting point of a mythical god waking from slumber seem almost triflingly trivial by contrast. The results, though, were rather different.
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Proms 2014: John Tavener – Gnōsis & Requiem Fragments (World Premières)

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In the wake of John Tavener‘s death in November last year, more mainstream music festivals have been rather tripping over themselves to offer posthumous tributes; the Cheltenham Festival devoted two concerts to his music last month, and the Proms has done likewise, including the world premières of two of Tavener’s last compositions, Gnōsis and Requiem Fragments. It makes sense to consider them together as, not surprisingly, they operate and speak with a markedly similar manner and tone of voice. Gnōsis, scored for solo mezzo-soprano, alto flute, percussion and strings, sets not so much a text as a small collection of words drawn from three religious traditions, Hindu (‘sat’ = ‘being’, ‘chit’ = ‘consciousness’, ‘ānanda’ = ‘bliss’), Christian (‘Jesu’ = ‘Jesus’) and Islam (‘lā ilāha illā-llāhu’ = ‘there is no god but God’). Requiem Fragments, for SATB choir, 2 trombones and string quartet, incorporates a few passages from the familiar requiem mass alongside a similar selection of words, in this case all Hindu: ‘Brahma’ (the god of creation), ‘ātma’ (the supreme reality/self), ‘Manikarnika’ (a renowned site for cremations) and ‘Mahapralaya’ (referencing a final absorption of everything back into the universe). Read more

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Proms 2014: Roxanna Panufnik – Three Paths to Peace (European Première)

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Religion is for many the place where peace meets its end, falling at the hands of inharmonious ideologies in the hearts and minds of their most violent advocates. On the one hand, the claim that religion—one or many—is directly to blame for most of the innumerable wars and conflicts that have dogged and continue to dominate civilisation is debatable, yet the claim that religion is often directly associated with their respective protagonists’ motivations is unquestionable. All of which may or may not have been on the mind of Roxanna Panufnik, whose new work Three Paths to Peace received its European première at the Proms a couple of weeks ago, appropriately performed by the World Orchestra for Peace, but embarrassingly directed on this occasion by one of modern conflict’s least strenuous opponents, Valery Gergiev. Read more

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Hope without hope: Mark-Anthony Turnage – L’espoir (from Speranza, World Première)

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There’s an interesting small addendum to be made to my article a couple of days ago, reviewing recent CDs. i commented that LSO Live has released the world première performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s large-scale orchestral work Speranza, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding. However, what the disc doesn’t contain is the entirety of the piece as heard on that first occasion. Anyone in the concert hall or who (like me) heard the live broadcast may be forgiven for feeling some dismay at discovering one of the most curious but lovely parts of the piece to be entirely absent from the CD release. Turnage initially conceived Speranza in five movements, each titled with the word ‘hope’ in different languages, and it’s the original fourth movement, L’espoir, which he appears to have decided to excise from the work. Considering the pair of interviews i’ve heard where Turnage discusses Speranza, one could perhaps have seen this coming; on both occasions (once prior to the performance, the other on the BBC’s The Strand Archive), Turnage’s description of the five movements rather skirts over the fourth, almost apologising for it, both in terms of compositional individuality—with reference to the use of borrowed melodies, which Turnage states “I did nothing to actually”—and also aesthetic, essentially dismissing it as “a real moody piece … more of a textural piece, which is unusual for me, just chords and rather desolate tunes”. Read more

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Alison Kay – Flux (World Première)

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Next in my Lent Series is a piece by a composer whose work i’ve encountered precisely once. Born in 1970, Alison Kay‘s studies took her from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to the Royal College of Music to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and finally to Sussex University; since 2004 she’s been back at the RCM in a teaching capacity. Beyond this, neither i nor, it seems, the internet, knows much about Kay or her music, save for a short piece included on a 2001 NMC release, and this instructive quotational nugget:

I enjoy the physicality of music. In composition, the potential to craft and shape structures from the most intimate timbral nuance to the most intense, dramatic structural gesture opens endless possibilities. I try to create visceral, three-dimensional music that has the potential to encompass exciting rhythmical impetus, rich timbral and harmonic language, textural shapes and surfaces, and a sense of varying movement and weight through time. I always start from the perspective of the physical properties of instruments and performance spaces. I see the interpretation of my music by performers and listeners as an integral part of the compositional process.

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Naomi Pinnock – Words (World Première)

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Today marks the first day of Lent, and as the start of the season so nicely coincides with International Women’s Day this coming Saturday, for this year’s 5:4 Lent Series i’m going to celebrate music by women composers. To begin, a thoroughly enigmatic work from Naomi Pinnock, Brit-born but now living in Berlin. Words, completed in 2011, was composed while Pinnock was a participant in the London Sinfonietta’s ‘Blue Touch Paper’ programme. The piece establishes an uneasy relationship with familiarity, beginning with the instrumentation, which, alongside a pair of clarinets, percussion and standard-issue five strings, are to be found an accordion, cimbalom and harp, in addition to a baritone soloist who acts as figurehead for the ensemble. The coupling of a singer with that innocently simple title is deceptive; Pinnock’s text exists as a collection of semantically sequestered fragments, a boiled-down distillation of meaning into, yes, words—but words that together pack all the concise, clusterbomb power of Samuel Beckett:

why solve a night without why without silence without why nothing why again nothing why Read more

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Valentine Weekend: Laura Bowler – Irresistible Demands of the Flesh (World Première)

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To bring this inverted Valentine Weekend to an end, i’m turning from the intimacy of duets to the large-scale, inflamed overload of the orchestra. Laura Bowler‘s Irresistible Demands of the Flesh is an audacious exploration in sound of the theatrical tenets of Antonin Artaud, specifically the desire to push performers to a point of extremity in order to unlock something fundamentally true. The piece (the title of which appears to be from an entry about Michel de Ghelderode in The Cambridge Guide to Theatre) in part achieves this through an avoidance of conventional notions of idiomaticism and performance, seeking to place the members of the orchestra emphatically outside their traditional comfort zones. It does much the same thing for the listener, coming across not so much the product of an act of composition as a 12-minute slab of spontaneously seething organic sound, elemental and overwhelming. Read more

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Valentine Weekend: Gavin Higgins – Three Broken Love Songs

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My Valentine Weekend continues today with an intimate survey by Gavin Higgins of a failed relationship, his Three Broken Love Songs, for basset clarinet and piano. Composed in 2006 for the clarinettist and composer Mark Simpson, the work falls into three movements, bearing demonstrably blunt titles. ‘…Two bottles of wine later…’ takes as its starting point the soaring opening glissando from Rhapsody in Blue (which, coincidentally, was premièred just over 90 years ago), but sidesteps Gershwin’s dancing airiness in favour of material that initially broods and swoops. Glissandi colour the clarinet’s melodic intentions repeatedly, indicative of an ongoing process of aural inebriation that culminates—responding to a heavy sequence of piano pounding—in a series of ecstatic shrieks. A climax indeed. Read more

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HCMF 2013 revisited: James Clarke – 2013-V (World Première)

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If there’s one thing that unites almost the entirety of the contemporary music spectrum, it’s a fondness for allusive titles. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, of course, but it can have the unfortunate side effect of encouraging too many listeners to switch off a portion of their critical faculties, under the illusion that all that needs to be done is to match aspects of the content to the title and the piece will thus have been ‘understood’. But at HCMF 2013, Brian Ferneyhough—no stranger to titles as multi-faceted as his music—remarked on the disjunct of sorts between title and content, speaking of his personal need for something titular before any meaningful compositional work can begin, yet stressing the fact that this subsequent process involves significant quantities of improvisation and spontaneity, indicating the title in no way dictates or necessarily even guides the subsequent material. Nonetheless titles, whatever the composer’s intent, conjure up something that simply cannot be ignored when listening to the music. To obviate this potential programmatic distraction, James Clarke has adopted an altogether more aloof approach. A glance at his list of works reveals a striking change from 2006 onwards, his composition titles moving from the exotic (Twilight / Dämmerung) to the obtuse (Untitled No.1) to the clinical (2006-K – ‘K’ indicating that the work was composed for Klangforum Wien), redolent of those given by Xenakis to his stochastic works of the 1950s. This has been Clarke’s approach ever since, a simple statement of the year and a letter hinting at some aspect of the instrumental line-up, thereby avoiding all allusive implications. Read more

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Proms 2013: John Woolrich / Tansy Davies – Variations on an Elizabethan Theme (World Premières)

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Last Saturday’s Proms matinee focused on a work created 60 years ago to mark the Queen’s coronation. Instigated by Benjamin Britten, he and five other composers each wrote a variation for string orchestra based on the Irish tune ‘Sellenger’s Round’; titled Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, the complete suite was given its first performance in June 1953 in a concert marking the coronation at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. For last Saturday’s Proms performance, given by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Paul Watkins, the suite was expanded with two additional variations, composed by John Woolrich and Tansy Davies. Read more

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Proms 2013: Diana Burrell – Blaze; Edward Cowie – Earth Music I – The Great Barrier Reef (World Premières)

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Last Monday saw a world première at each of the day’s Prom concerts. Having recently returned from Norway myself, the afternoon concert in Cadogan Hall was especially welcome, featuring the Norwegian brass group tenThing, led by Tine Thing Helseth; for them Diana Burrell had composed a new work, Blaze. The evening performance was given by the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda, including the première of the first work in a new orchestral cycle by Edward Cowie, Earth Music I – The Great Barrier Reef. Read more

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Proms 2013: David Matthews – A Vision of the Sea (World Première)

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Down the road in my old stamping ground of Cheltenham, there’s an art exhibition regularly to be found in the town’s sumptuous Imperial Gardens. The exhibition is for those with an urge to put paintbrush to canvas, resulting in a desultory cluster of dog portraits, depictions of Cotswold stone houses festooned in technicolour flora, landscapes dripping with more water than colour, pastel cloudscapes, a few rash stabs at abstract expressionism and—incongruously, considering the town’s distance from it—paintings of the sea. Perhaps you can see where i’m going with this. There are, admittedly, occasional gems to be found amidst the the borrowed imagination, the second-rate technical skill, the pastiche sensibility and the instinct for superficial gratification, but it’s rare for even these works to escape the pull of their less ambitious companions. Memories of this exhibition came flooding back as i sat through the world première from last night’s Prom, David MatthewsA Vision of the Sea, performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. Read more

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Mixed but strong & accessible: Joseph Phibbs – The Canticle of the Rose

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A few weeks back, NMC Recordings brought out the latest in their ongoing ‘Debut Discs’ series, this time devoted to the music of Joseph Phibbs. It’s an ambitious album, presenting two lengthy song cycles alongside a cluster of additional songs and a pair of instrumental works, focusing on soloists Helen-Jane Howells and Michael Chance, with the Navarra String Quartet.

The opening piece, Flex for violin, cello, flute and piano, arguably serves as a paradigm for much that follows. Inspired by the physicality of movement, Phibbs likens it to a “miniature chamber ballet … reflecting an underlying sequence of dances”. This is explored via a sequence of episodes that swing back and forth between poles of firm insistence—fiery rhythmic poundings forcing the music along—and soft passages of demonstrably lyrical character. There’s a strong sense of continuity between these respective types, but the regularity of their structural oscillations gradually works against the overall sense of motion in the piece as a whole. They seem to cancel each other out, leaving Flex feeling like a rather histrionic kind of equilibrium. The first of the two cycles, The Canticle of the Rose for soprano and string quartet, experiences a similar problem. Its six songs draw on one of England’s most beguiling and bemusing poets, Edith Sitwell, encompassing a wide range of emotional intents. Phibbs embraces their contemplative character, and he’s at his most interesting when conjuring up the strange, semi-static environments that permeate the cycle. Elsewhere, in the more rapid songs, there’s a kind of over-familiarity to the material (plus predictable word-painting) that lessens their interest and at times even lends them a certain generic quality. The back and forth in mood causes the cycle to wrong-foot itself, resetting the atmosphere too readily, but it’s especially uncomfortable at the end, when two bold, harrowing songs (‘Gold Coast Customs’ and ‘The Canticle of the Rose’) have their potency shattered by the cycle’s light, whimsical epilogue. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Tree of Strings (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 2 Comments

A couple of summers ago, the Beloved and i could be found on a small boat offshore from the idyllic town of Portree, on the east coast of the Isle of Skye. Taking in caves and sea eagles, we sailed along the edge of the smaller island of Raasay, a sparsely-populated but beautiful sliver of land nestling between Skye and the Scottish mainland. This remote place was home to Harrison Birtwistle during part of the 1970s and ’80s, and is central to the last string quartet i’m featuring in this year’s Lent series, his Tree of Strings, composed in 2007. The title originates in a poem written by another Raasay resident, the renowned Hebridean poet Sorley Maclean (whose work i highly recommend), and the piece seeks to tap into both subjective memories and objective history of Raasay, a place that, despite its diminutive size, saw its fair share of drama, both with respect to the Jacobite conflict as well as piracy. Read more

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