violin

Proms 2019: Peter Eötvös – Alhambra; Tobias Broström – Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul (UK Premières)

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The last two premières at the Proms have both been concertos: Alhambra, the third violin concerto by Peter Eötvös, and Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul, a double-trumpet concerto by Swedish composer Tobias Broström. It’s been interesting to note how their overall approach to narrative is, at a fundamental level strikingly similar, while their respective modus operandi could hardly be more different.

As the name suggests, the inspiration for Eötvös’ Alhambra is the eponymous ninth century palace in Granada. By his own admission, Eötvös hadn’t been to visit the Alhambra before writing the piece (his first time in Granada was at the work’s world première earlier this month); the concerto is instead an imaginary walk around the palace complex and grounds. The nature of this walk, emphatically led by the violin throughout (with a scordatura mandolin as an occasional sidekick), is capricious. Its outlook is divided, inexorably drawn back and forth between impulses that tend to the reflective and the jaunty. The oscillating effect of this is demonstrated in the opening minutes: the violin’s opening solo, ostensibly searching, is suddenly forgotten in a flash of flamboyance; withdrawing inward, the music then opens out into a high register burst of lyricism, surrounded by chiming percussion – something that will recur several times during the piece – before descending into a rollicking sequence of pure merriment with the rest of the orchestra.

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Only Connect 2019 (Part 1)

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There’s something absolutely right about the bringing together of Norway’s Only Connect – a festival that, as its name implies, encourages one to question (inter)connections between ostensibly disparate musics – with Tectonics, Ilan Volkov’s peripatetic festival the name of which evokes fundamental, underlying bedrocks that continually meet, connect and rupture. Taking place last week in the city of Stavanger, in the south-west of Norway, it’s only the second time the two festivals have conjoined, and the results were often appropriately volatile. That being said, one of the things that struck me powerfully during the festival – and this echoes my experience of Only Connect last year – was its almost complete lack of ostentation. The impacts it made were frequent and deep, but there was rarely an overt sense that this is what was actively being sought by the composers and performers. i’ve long felt that a certain kind of nonchalance – by which i mean the avoidance (or at least, the disguising) of obvious signs of audience direction or manipulation – is essential to the most powerful musical experiences, and at Only Connect that was its prevailing character, and i’ve no doubt this was a major factor in making those impacts as deep as they were. Read more

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Proms 2018: Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 3 (UK Première); Rolf Wallin – WHIRLD; Bushra El-Turk – Crème Brûlée on a Tree (World Premières)

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Quite apart from anything else they may embody, this year’s Proms premières have occupied pretty much the entire span of the profound—trivial continuum. At its most extreme, this has been exemplified by the most recent new works, which have ranged from a compositional exploration of infinity culminating in a state of enraptured transcendence invoking mysticism, Rilke and Rückert, to a recipe for making custard.

The source for British-born, Lebanese composer Bushra El-Turk‘s short, culinary song Crème Brûlée on a Tree is a Thai cookbook by chef Andy Ricker that includes a recipe for custard using the smelly, so-called “king of fruits”, durian (the title possibly comes from this NPR article about the fruit). Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – still (World Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50The next piece i’m looking at in my Lent Series celebrating the music of Rebecca Saunders is something of an exception on 5:4, as it’s a work i’ve written about before. Saunders’ violin concerto still dates from 2011, and i explored the piece six years ago, following its first UK performance at the Barbican in February 2012. The world première, performed by the same forces – soloist Carolin Widmann and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling (Lionel Bringuier directed the UK première) – took place several months earlier, on 29 September 2011 at the Beethovenhalle in Bonn, as part of that year’s Beethovenfest. It’s fascinating to return to this piece and appraise it afresh, both from the perspective of that alternate performance as well as with regard to Saunders’ other work.

Once again – it’s tempting to say ‘as ever’ – Saunders draws on Samuel Beckett for inspiration: the title of the work comes from Beckett’s short story Still, the final lines from which Saunders quotes in the preface to the score:

As if even in the dark eyes closed not enough and perhaps even more than ever necessary against that no such thing the further shelter of the hand …
Leave it so all quite still or try listening to the sounds all quite still had in hand listening for a sound.

This is expanded upon in Saunders’ usual way through having meditated upon the meaning and connotations of the word ‘still’, which she likens to “unchanging, ongoing, with an exhausting insistence, always, in essence, the same”, “stasis … two starkly contrasting states, in a fragile state of equilibrium” and “the framing of sound with silence, of ‘stillness’ imagined – silence being an endless potential, waiting to be revealed and made audible”, leading to a behavioural character summarised as “pulling gently on the fragile thread of sound, drawing out from the depths of imagined silence; or alternatively, sound erupting from the stasis of relative silence”.

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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: Michael Berkeley – Violin Concerto (World Première)

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Violin Concertos are a regular feature among the new works premièred at the Proms, and the first of this year’s came from Michael Berkeley, given by violinist Chloë Hanslip with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. Berkeley’s work remains somewhat underappreciated in the UK, despite his prevalence over the years on TV and radio, maybe because he’s viewed as a traditionalist. There’s some truth in that, but the reality is, i think, more subtle. First of all, Berkeley is abundantly open to new ideas, and his support for the music of other composers has been considerable (his tenure directing the Cheltenham Music Festival, where every concert included a contemporary work, is one of the steepest apogees in its history). As far as Berkeley himself is concerned, his work thrives on a balance between a soundworld broadly steeped in richly complex definitions of consonance, from which he is prepared to depart as and when necessity dictates. Aesthetically speaking, Berkeley always makes this tension a comfortable one, in the sense that he is clearly at ease going where he likes (and as such, makes an interesting contrast with James MacMillan, whose work often sounds ill at ease balancing its inherent tendency to convention with extrinsically imposed urges towards modernism). His new Violin Concerto arguably embraces and makes a feature of that tension more than ever before.

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Per Nørgård – Three Nocturnal Movements (World Première)

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It’s Constitution Day (Grundlovsdag) in Denmark today, the closest the country gets to a national day, so i thought i’d mark the occasion with a piece by one of the country’s best-known composers that i’ve been spending time with lately. It’s a re-thinking by Per Nørgård of one of his earlier works, Remembering Child, a viola concerto written in 1986 in commemoration of Samantha Smith, the 13-year old American girl who became famous for contacting Yuri Andropov to express her fears about the possibility of a nuclear war between Russia and the USA. Material taken from that piece, in conjunction with some “nocturnal sketches”, resulted in a new double concerto for violin, cello and chamber orchestra simply titled Three Nocturnal Movements.

Concertos, whether composers intend them to or not, inevitably raise the question of the nature of the relationship between soloist(s) and orchestra, with concomitant aspects of influence and power-play, the individual pitted against the mass. But in the Three Nocturnal Movements, the answer to this question is obvious: from start to finish the two soloists are emphatically at the helm of the entire musical argument. This stems directly from a generalised atmosphere of somewhat lugubrious vagueness, from which even the soloists are not exempt. On the one hand, it’s apparent that violin and cello have something important to say, from the outset tripping over themselves to articulate it (literally, the two lines overlap each other throughout). Yet on the other hand, it’s also apparent that a predetermined sense of direction is seemingly very far from anyone’s minds. Pensivity reigns. Read more

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Proms 2015: Luca Francesconi – Duende – The Dark Notes (UK Première)

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The concerto form is a popular one for new works at the Proms, and the most recent, Luca Francesconi‘s Duende – The Dark Notes (originally intended for the 2014 Proms), has, i think, set the bar higher than any of the last few years. ‘Duende’ is a somewhat complex Spanish term implying aspects of heightened emotional response to artistic stimulus, which the work’s soloist, violinist Leila Josefowicz, summarises as a “hypnotic, demonic zone in which a performer loses themselves in the feeling and emotion and in the physicality of what they’re doing […] and it can also be angelic”. To tap into this, and also partly to obviate the pitfall of rehashing conventions, Francesconi has sought to revert “back to primal matter […] something which is hidden energy; [an] unknown, uncharted land which is within each one of us, beyond originality”. 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 2013: Peter Eötvös – DoReMi (UK Première)

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The penultimate première of this year’s Proms almost didn’t happen last Thursday, when two of the trio of percussionists failed to turn up, resulting in seven or eight rather tense minutes while presumably a host of minions dashed about behind the scenes attempting to find and drag them onstage. It falls to these three players to begin DoReMi, the second violin concerto by Peter Eötvös, so their eventual arrival was met with a generous round of applause as well as, one imagines, some hefty sighs of relief. Eötvös composed the work for Midori, the title being a pun (of sorts) on her name, in addition to its obvious reference to the notes C, D and E (in solfège); she was joined by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – still (UK Première)

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Tonight saw the UK première of the latest work by Rebecca Saunders, her violin concerto still. Saunders’ music has been a growing musical passion of mine for a while; as such, i’ve already begun a longer article surveying her work, but i’ll leave that for another day, and for now focus on the concerto. It was composed for soloist Carolin Widmann, and the performance, which took place at the Barbican, was given by her with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, directed by Lionel Bringuier. These same forces (directed by Sylvain Cambreling) gave the première of the work last September at the Beethovenfest in Bonn.

The piece is in two movements, together lasting around 20 minutes. In the preamble, Widmann interestingly notes how the piece bore the provisional title rage, a title that seems in keeping for a composer who’s twice written pieces called fury. However, both of those pieces (for double bass solo and double bass plus ensemble respectively) avoid hackneyed tropes of aggression, their protagonists engaged instead in a music that is surprisingly restrained, but pent-up and seething. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto

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Last year, in my article about the Total Immersion day devoted to the music of Unsuk Chin, i didn’t say much about the Violin Concerto, which was omitted from the BBC’s broadcast. However, in November they finally got round to broadcasting it, so here it is. The performance, at the Barbican in London, was given by Jennifer Koh with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov. In the concert hall, Koh’s violin often struggled to be heard above the considerable orchestral forces pitted against it, so it’s good to hear the balance so nicely restored in the broadcast.

Despite being composed in a familiar, four-movement plan, it’s a piece rather difficult to unpick. In some ways, the textures are simpler and more defined than usual, but this is countered by material that is highly organic. It opens in a dense place, lower notes moving vaguely while the soloist draws a high line filled with open strings and natural harmonics. The brass are the first to become apparent, chords shifting in the background, their movement causing everything momentarily to swell, and then halt. The soloist’s first cadenza is wiry and (in the best sense) aimless, its twists and swoops more a result of fun than purpose. But Chin is just as concerned with momentum as with reverie, and she soon pushes the violin back into a pace that becomes ever more swift, culminating in a moto perpetuo that’s urged on by orchestral stomps. Another cadenza ensues, more rapid than before, and a sustained brass chord ushers in the movement’s climax, which sends the frantic soloist plummeting. The slow second movement places heavy emphasis on Chin’s trademark use of percussion. Read more

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Proms 2011: Harrison Birtwistle – Concerto for Violin & Orchestra (UK Première)

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As already noted, this year’s Proms season has seen an abundance of new concertos, the last and most substantial of which was given its UK première on 7 September: the Concerto for Violin & Orchestra by Harrison Birtwistle. Birtwistle wrote the work for soloist Christian Tetzlaff, who gave the first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra earlier in the year; on this occasion he was joined by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson. Read more

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Proms 2011: Thomas Larcher – Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra (World Première)

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Last Thursday’s Prom was an all Austrian affair, opening with the world première of Thomas Larcher‘s Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra; Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley were the soloists, pitted against the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra directed by Ilan Volkov.

Beforehand, one wondered if it might prove to be the most tantalising new work heard this year; alongside the twin soloists, Larcher has included a peculiar concertino quartet comprising accordion, electric zither, percussion and prepared piano (played by Larcher himself). Within minutes, though, it became abundantly clear that we were in very similar territory to that explored by Pascal Dusapin in his String Quartet/Concerto ‘Hinterland’/’Hapax’ three weeks ago. Throughout the first movement, Larcher, too, is hyperactive almost to the point of absurdity, but certainly well beyond the point of irritation. His material feels like the result of a large-scale collage, one put together from microscopic, barely-similar fragments. There are, admittedly, notions of unity in the movement—an occasional returring motif, and an oscillating chord progression redolent of film music—but they can do little to prevent the music from coming across as skittish and schizophrenic. Read more

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Detlev Glanert – Musik für Violine und Orchester (UK Première)

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On 11 February, getting on for 15 years since its world première in Darmstadt, Detlev Glanert‘s Musik für Violine und Orchester arrived in the UK, in the hands of Stephen Bryant and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of David Robertson.

The first movement, ‘Cantus’, is linked to Orpheus, who, according to legend, was an inspirational singer. Sedate and measured, the violin’s opening phrases—pensive ascending scales—are slowly taken up by the orchestra, leading to a rudimentary pulse. It may seem facile to speak of an ‘awakening’ at the start of a piece, but there is a distinct sense of the instruments flexing their muscles in readiness for what’s to follow. A confident sforzando begins the movement proper, in which the violin assumes an overtly ‘narrative’ mood, occasionally deviating from prosaic mutterings to engage in a flurry of melodic fancies that seems to receive an eager response from the orchestra. All the same, over time it projects a slightly empty and dynamically flat brand of lyricism, somewhat without a cause; it’s easy to be distracted by the delightful touches going on around it, such as the light repeated notes in the woodwind. Read more

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Proms 2010: Huw Watkins – Violin Concerto (World Première)

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Tuesday 17 August’s Proms concert brought the world première of Huw WatkinsViolin Concerto, the second new violin concerto heard this season. The opening movement sets a commanding tone, its fast tempo instigated by the solo violin, surrounded by pointillistic contributions from winds and upper strings, firmly drummed in place with massive bass thuds. In no time at all, the soloist seemingly accelarates… only for everything to stop abruptly, and a brief lyrical interlude ensues. Gradually, the initial mood is re-established—although not the pace, which has been seemingly blunted somewhat by the interlude. Large, looming melodic suggestions are put forward by the strings, but the violin seems quite happy to ignore them all, dancing on their surface and into another lyrical excursion; for all its romanticism, Watkins is leaving no doubt as to who wears the pants in this relationship. And this is swiftly confirmed as the violin emerges from its episode into a manic burst of notes that gets the orchestra very excited (they clearly just want to bang a lot in this movement)… whereupon, once again, all is stopped even more demonstrably than before; this violin is something of a tease, is it not? Read more

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

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

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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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