vocal

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, given by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Clark Rundell, 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:

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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Julieta Szewach – Dikyrion

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The next piece in my ongoing Lent series is an unusual setting of the Lord’s Prayer by the Argentine composer Julieta Szewach, which was broadcast on Radio 3 in 2008. Dikyrion uses the Aramaic version of the text, in a setting for mezzo-soprano and tape. The work was one of two selected as “outstanding” in the 11th International Rostrum of Electroacoustic Music, which took place in 2007 in Portugal (more info here). It’s easy to see why they came to that conclusion; Szewach’s piece is not only markedly different in tenor and temperament from the majority of electroacoustic music one tends to hear these days, but the soundworld she creates is both deeply immersive and very beautiful indeed. The word ‘dikyrion’ refers to a 2-branched candlestick used in Orthodox Christianity, that represents the dual nature of Jesus, both divine and mortal.

The atmosphere Szewach creates is a profound one, ethereal and mysterious. She abstracts the text, stretching and aerating it, turning it into mere shadows of words at the start, mere whispers of them towards the end; enclosing them at both points are low, solemn notes that toll out like deep gongs. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 9. Oceanos

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If I want a water of Europe, it is the black
Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight
A squatting child full of sadness releases
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

The penultimate stanza from Rimbaud’s La Bateau ivre, one of the inspirations behind James Dillon’s Oceanos, the climactic work that brings his Nine Rivers epic to an end. Having explored eight different kinds of ensemble, Dillon finally unites them; it’s not explicitly described as such, but with nine woodwind, seven brass, six percussion, piano, harp and 11 strings, plus live electronics and a choir of 16 voices, Oceanos is undeniably a work for choir and orchestra—not a large one, to be sure, but an orchestra nonetheless. As such, captured in that evocative title, it has a breadth of scope far beyond that of its predecessors, a broadness that also results in some of the slowest, most weighty material in the entire cycle.

But that’s not how things begin, with an initial rush of energy from voices and percussion, the latter dominating in a splashy metallic display involving triangles, cymbals, metal sheets, gongs and tam-tams. These gradually become gentler, allowing the voices to be heard more clearly, although the specifics of the text (about which i’ve been unable to find any information; the score clearly shows phrases in Latin, French and Scots Gaelic) remain indistinct. After a few minutes both the percussion and the voices—having turned to hushed whispers—stop, exposing the underlying electronics which, enhanced by a static string chord, sound like an wall of electricity, crackling with energy, wind billowing around it. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 3. Viriditas

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Having moved seamlessly between its first two components, Nine Rivers enters an entirely new area with its third piece, Viriditas. A work for 16 voices, it was commissioned for the BBC Singers, who gave the first performance in Brussels in early 1994. The word ‘viriditas’—Latin for ‘greenness’—has an interesting provenance, its strongest association being with Hildegard of Bingen, for whom it was a deeply inspiring concept, ubiquitous in her writings. Fragments of Hildegard’s poetry are one of four textual sources used in the piece, together with an “early 16th century alchemical paraphrase of the Latin mass by the German alchemist-astrologer-priest Nicholas Melchior of Hermannstadt” (better known today as Melchior Cibinensis), an extract from a Marian hymn attributed to Albertus Magnus and an “anonymous Hebridean ‘weaving’ song or incantation”, this last being in Scots Gaelic, and as such the only non-Latin text Dillon has used. Inspirationally speaking (Dillon doesn’t set it to music), the relevant stanza from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre is this one:

I have dreamed of the green night with dazzled snows,
A kiss slowly rising to the eyes of the sea,
The circulation of unknown saps,
And the yellow and blue awakening of singing phosphorous!
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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Proms 2011: Peter Maxwell Davies – Il rozzo martello; Georges Aperghis – Champ-Contrechamp (World Première); Harrison Birtwistle – Angel Fighter (UK Première)

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Last Saturday’s Proms matinee was devoted to new music, featuring no less a line-up than the BBC Singers and the London Sinfonietta, both conducted by David Atherton.

The concert opened with Peter Maxwell DaviesIl rozzo martello, a sombre and rather austere choral work that comes across as older than its mere 14 years would suggest. Unlike so many composers of contemporary choral music, Max is happily unequivocal in his mode of expression, but this also makes the piece a bit of a tough listen, so it benefits from repeated listenings, which ‘soften’ the ostensibly hard edges. It proves, at times, to be captivating; the opening, where overlapping plainsong-esque lines sustain their final note, gradually building a rich chord, is a rather magical way to start the piece, and it ends no less impressively, in a deliciously soft morass of lower voices. It’s often the male voices who have the most striking material, including a dense homophonic episode around halfway through, and some unexpected loud whispers towards the end. A difficult piece, no doubt, but given half a chance, an increasingly rewarding one. Read more

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Proms 2010: Hans Abrahamsen – Wald (UK Première) plus Knussen, Bedford and Benjamin

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So, where were we? Ah yes, The Proms; my catchup starts with the concert that took place on Friday 6 August, given by the splendid Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

Oliver Knussen‘s Two Organa is a work all the more engaging for its entirely lopsided nature. The first ‘organum’, “Notre Dame des Jouets”, could perhaps best be described as “sugar and spice and all things nice” (although without very much spice); exploring just white notes, it’s derived from an earlier incarnation, composed for a diatonic music box, and while undeniably rather fun, there’s little more going on beyond froth and fancy. The latter movement, on the other hand, could not be more different, drawing heavily on Knussen’s more characteristic, harmonically rich palette. In the wake of such a frivolous predecessor, the dense, concentric lines at work here come as something of a shock, given gravitas by the imposing presence of deep gongs. But it restrains itself from becoming ponderous, swiftly reducing into a sparser mixture, the lines given more room to move, fragments of the imagined organum sliding in and out of view. Read more

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Bath International Music Festival, Bath Abbey: Dhafer Youssef – Les Ondes Orientales (World Première)

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Last Wednesday, the Beloved and i were at Bath Abbey, for a “Messiaen Centenary Celebration” given as part of the Bath International Music Festival. In addition to Messiaen‘s rarely-performed Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine and a keyboard concerto by J. S. Bach, the concert included the world première of Les Ondes Orientales by Tunisian composer Dhafer Youssef. Pianist Joanna MacGregor is the artistic director of the Bath Festival, and she also took part in the piece. Read more

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