vocal

Proms 2017: Anders Hillborg – Sirens (UK Première)

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It’s quite unusual to be sitting down to enjoy the Proms première of a piece you already know quite well. But that was the case with Anders Hillborg‘s Sirens, which received its first UK performance a couple of days ago by Swedish sopranos Ida Falk Winland and Hannah Holgersson with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by James Gaffigan. Fifteen months ago, when reviewing its CD release, i found Sirens to be deeply problematic, so it was good to be able to revisit the piece afresh, in a new performance.

As the title suggests, the work’s theme is taken from Homer’s Odyssey, recounting the adventures of Odysseus as he seeks over a ten-year period to return home to Ithaca, to be reunited with his family. One of the more memorable trials he faces is confronting the Sirens, dangerous beings who entice sailors to their doom with intoxicatingly lovely music. Following advice from Circe (who, in an another memorable scene earlier, temporarily turns half of Odysseus’ comrades into pigs), they survive the encounter by stuffing beeswax into their ears, blocking out the music, though Odysseus, evidently of the ‘look but don’t touch’ inclination, has himself tied to the ship’s mast in order to experience the music while being unable to act upon it.

To experience Hillborg’s Sirens, in a literal sense we the audience assume the role of Odysseus (referred to by his Roman equivalent of Ulysses in the text), and Hillborg – or, rather, the singers and orchestra – become the Sirens. One’s response to the piece entirely depends on the extent to which you either are or aren’t ‘seduced’ by it. i’ll come back to this shortly. Read more

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Proms 2017: Roderick Williams – Là ci darem la mano (World Première)

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As i noted in my introduction to his answers to my pre-première questions, until the announcement was made about this year’s Proms in April, it had passed me by completely that Roderick Williams, as well as being one of Britain’s most well-known singers, is also a composer. Unsurprisingly focused on vocal and choral music, he stated that his compositional starting point is often the text, and that’s the case in his new work too, a madrigal setting of ‘Là ci darem la mano’, words by Lorenzo Da Ponte that originally formed part of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The words are a duet between the eponymous protagonist and Zerlina, whom Giovanni attempts to seduce despite her already being betrothed to the peasant Masetto. You can regard this as playfully or as seriously as you like, but there’s more than a slight ‘Carry On‘, nudge nudge wink wink character to it.

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Proms 2013: Charlotte Seither – Language of Leaving (World Première)

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What is this “I”: is it my physical presence, is it the temporality in which I stand and pass away, is there an independence of my thoughts from that which I am, or is my entire being merely a fiction of me myself?

This metaphysical conundrum is the starting point for Language of Leaving by the German composer Charlotte Seither, given its world première at the Proms last Wednesday by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers conducted by Josep Pons. It’s a question as circular as it is taxing, subjective and strange, and Seither’s gambit is to seek a way into it via speculative music, avoiding a direct mode of expression in favour of a large tapestry of weird, fantastical sonics, equal parts humanistic, supernatural and magical. Setting a text would be impossible in a context such as this, so Seither instead uses words by Francesco de Lemene in the most oblique and intangible way, reducing them to a collection of hints, glimpses and afterthoughts. Read more

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Proms 2012: Simon Bainbridge – The Garden of Earthly Delights (World Première)

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The final Proms Matinee last Saturday week featured one of the more substantial and aspirational of this season’s new works. Simon Bainbridge has turned for inspiration to one of art’s most well-known and -loved works, Hieronymus Bosch‘s The Garden of Earthly Delights (image), seeking to bring it alive as a chamber cantata. Composed for countertenor and mezzo-soprano soli with a modestly sized ensemble and additional chorus, it was given its first performance by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Nicholas Collon. Read more

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Proms 2012: Michael Finnissy – Piano Concerto No. 2, Harrison Birtwistle – Gigue Machine (UK Premières) & Brian Elias – Electra Mourns (World Première)

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Last weekend’s Proms Matinee was the concert i had been most eagerly awaiting in this year’s season, featuring as it did some of my favourite composers and three premières. Back in April i opined that this concert “may just turn out to be the highlight of the whole season”; i think that prediction was pretty close to the mark. Read more

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John Cage – The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | 3 Comments

Austerity is probably not the first characteristic that would come to mind when describing the music of John Cage, and yet that’s precisely what dominates his short song The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, composed in 1942. The text is extracted from a passage (on page 556) of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

(click to see text)

night by silentsailing night…
Isobel…
wildwoods’ eyes and primarose hair,
quietly,
all the woods so wild, in mauves of
moss and daphnedews,
how all so still she lay neath of the
whitethorn, child of tree,
like some losthappy leaf,
like blowing flower stilled,
as fain would she anon,
for soon again ‘twil be,
win me, woo me, wed me,
ah weary me!
deeply,
Now evencalm lay sleeping; night
Isobel
Sister Isobel
Saintette Isobel
madame Isa
Veuve La belle

Cage sets these words for voice and piano, on both of whom he imposes severe restrictions; the singer has just three pitches at their disposal (F#, G# and C#) while the pianist isn’t even allowed to open the lid, playing instead on the outside of the instrument. Cage flirted with strict pitch restrictions a few years earlier in the Five Songs for Contralto (song no. 3, “in Just-“, also uses just three pitches), but the atmosphere he establishes here is much more sombre and unsettling. The voice is instructed to sing without vibrato, and the result is a strange cross between sacred chant and folk song, somehow elegant and crude simultaneously. Read more

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György Kurtág – Scenes from a Novel

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | 3 Comments

A profound sense of melancholic introspection pervades the next piece in my Lent series, György Kurtág‘s song cycle Scenes From a Novel. Kurtág composed the work in 1982, setting 14 texts by the Russian writer Rimma Dalos, texts that are in perfect sympathy with the composer’s penchant for exceptionally short but highly expressive music. The 15 songs (one of the texts is used twice) project loneliness above all else, but not resulting from unrequited affection or imagined reciprocity; on the contrary, this is a loneliness born out of experience, the product of a love both lived and celebrated, but that has ultimately been blanched, torn and downright thwarted. Yet the texts betray a deeper complexity, and as the songs progress their message becomes increasingly conflicted; desire is undermined by disappointment, temptation yields to regret. Contrast the texts of the 11th and 12th songs (titled Again and Sundays Without End respectively), where impatient expectations dissolve into blank, monotonous boredom:

I’m waiting for you again.
How slowly comes
the day after tomorrow.

That’s another
Sunday over.
That means the next will come.

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