HCMF 2014: Lohengrin, Philip Thomas, Aurora Orchestra

by 5:4

Not that the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival needs to reinforce its cutting edge credentials, but if it did, featuring Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Lohengrin on the opening night would certainly do it. The piece is cast in a single act—but an act of what? this is the question that pervades the work and abides long after it has finished. The certainties are these: that Sciarrino’s starting point is Jules Laforgue’s story, featuring the figure of Elsa, a “virgin in distress, falsely accused of murdering her brother”, and that the music is performed by 15 players and three singers, the majority of whom are prerecorded and worked into an electroacoustic element, while five of those performers appear on stage alongside, most prominently, a solo voice. Everything else is to a large extent open to interpretation. One implication is that the soloist is Elsa, the performance physically informed by the plethora of intense emotions resulting from her fraught situation. Yet her words—always fragmentary, often expressed extremely quietly—encompass those of other characters too, in addition to portions of narrative. Putting that ambiguity on one side for a moment, the five on-stage players could be read as familiars of the soloist, and even, as the work progresses, emotional/psychological avatars, channelling aspects of her state of mind (particularly at the very end, when her voice becomes tightly constricted). Back to the ambiguity: the overall impression is that this is all taking place in the crazed, delirious mind of the woman, for whom the fragmentary, ephemeral recounting of events might be personal (i.e. she is Elsa) yet could equally be distorted/co-opted ‘memories’ from a story she perhaps once heard (i.e. she has reimagined herself as Elsa). Either way, her mode of expression—often borderline silent, as though speaking to herself, peppered with a host of verbal and physical tics—describes a state of insanity, and also artifice, the woman almost resembling an animatronic person, regularly returning to a kind of ‘default’ pose. But all of these interpretations together challenge the veracity of what is playing out, both in terms of context (who or what is singing) and content (personal or co-opted memories). Despite this, however, the emotions are real, and the result on stage is often harrowing, the audience becoming voyeuristic observers of a state of mania reaching its ultimate point of decline.

It’s a remarkable, provocative work, one where the ambiguities are an integral part of Sciarrino’s concept; his narrator could not be anything but unreliable. Organised by nyMusikk Bergen, last night’s performance was superbly and imaginatively presented, with Sofia Jernberg’s central portrayal of the woman mesmerising and disturbing in equal measure.

The manner of Elsa’s delivery came to mind when listening, this morning, to the central work in Philip Thomas‘ piano recital, the world première of Christian Wolff‘s Sailing By. This, too, emerged through a fractured series of isolated phrases, but here seemed to be lacking anything approximating a connection, apart from being played within the same context. To call it ‘whimsical’ would be to understate the overwhelming sense of passivity it displays; even Thomas’ focused intensity wasn’t enough to bring plausibility to its arbitrariness. Howard Skempton‘s new miniature Oculus, on the other hand, felt about as organised as a piece could be. Fashioned from triads, Skempton toys with them in different orders, putting them through their permutational paces, resulting in all manner of oblique cadential hints and near misses. A piece that would no doubt yield more with repeated listenings. That statement applies even more to Michael Finnissy‘s latest major work, Beat Generation Ballads, also receiving its first performance. A cycle of five pieces, the first four, each relatively short, confine themselves to a single area of study, often with striking simplicity. ‘Lost but not lost’ features fiercely scurrying passages that keep alighting and pausing on certain pitches, whereas ‘naked original skin beneath our dreams & robes of thought’ is a soft, intimate piece evocative of earlier music, as though Finnissy was turning it over in his hands, examining its nature. ‘Lonely Banna Strand’ doesn’t simply draw on an Irish rebel song but seeks violently to embody its protest, while ‘Evans, Harry, Scott, hearts foolish’, ostensibly accessible, proved disarmingly impenetrable. But it’s the epic final piece, ‘Veränderungen’ (‘changes’), lasting around 30 minutes, that dominates. Practically a cycle within a cycle, its sequence of variations (based on the preceding four pieces) explores an astonishing variety of material. One wouldn’t ordinarily say this of Finnissy’s music, but it almost felt too much, yet not in the sense of an idea stretched too thinly—in fact, the opposite, the endless stream of new ideas and avenues of enquiry was so rich that it was difficult to take it all in. Many more listenings needed in this case (partly also due to the resonant acoustic of St Paul’s Hall, which fogged over much of Finnissy’s more filigree passagework).

In terms of stamina alone, Philip Thomas’ performance was a major achievement, but more than this, the way he moved so easily between extremes of sensitivity and violence was marvellous to witness, making for an exhilarating recital.

At the Town Hall, this afternoon, six members of the Aurora Orchestra joined forces to present Michael Gordon‘s hour-long Timber. The piece is composed for six simantras, untuned blocks of wood used in Greek liturgical music. In many ways the piece is a contemporary re-examination of the territory first tackled by Steve Reich’s Drumming. Here, though, the emphasis is as much on harmonic shifts as on rhythmic interactions. To speak of harmony in relation to untuned pieces of wood may seem incongruous, but the relativity of their pitches is captured in the resonance produced by the continuous percussive strikes, creating a kind of ambient cloud entirely coloured by whichever of the six players is being most assertive, creating a fascinating harmonic movement. Over the course of the hour, there were episodes that felt protracted, momentum suffering a little from repetition, but for the most part Timber is an excitingly effective and surprisingly beautiful creation. This is particularly true of its opening, a dazzling synchronised tremolando, dazzling not just due to its sonic effect, but due to the remarkable timing and accuracy clearly required of the performers, and the six players of Aurora, both here and throughout, demonstrated superlative control.

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Colin rose

Rather too much of old men’s nostalgia for their youth this year so far and more to come, Prog rock, the English experimental school of easy to do music, Worby and Wolff etc.
Then the best performance I have heard of Lohengrin, what a wonderful singer and all is perfect

Stuart Russell

Good write up! Though we many need to agree to disagree over “Timber”- whilst I strongly agree over Aurora Ensembles wonderful performance I rather felt the score too derivative, long and boring! More the point I felt it under used the highly skilled players whom I felt could do so much more with that format given the chance. To be honest the opening has been done in both Steve Reichs “Electric Counterpoint” and “New York Counterpoint” with the same tremolando effect. I felt this piece did too little in too much time. Ok rant over!

alan munro

I thought the Finnissy work the most enjoyable of the recital. Often His piano works can be intimidating to the newcomer but this one i found a little more approachable although the wealth of material presented is astonishing. The least said about Wolff the better. In some circles, criticising Wolff is on a par with pushing your Granny off a cliff but i’m afraid the music i have heard at Huddersfield, Tectonics and Radio 3 leaves me cold, unmoved and uninvolved.

Chris L

Hi Simon

Your respect for Skempton’s methods prompts me to wonder whether you’ve ever heard this eerie little piece, courtesy of (get ready for this…) a distant descendant of the uncle of Gesualdo’s ill-fated first wife (apologies for sound quality)…


The Finnissy was broadcast a few days back and very closely miked to combat the washy acoustic so probably fared better on the radio. This struck me as one of Finnissy’s less successful works. Conceptually strong, but rather flat as a listening experience. The talk by the composer beforehand held my attention but the notes didn’t. For a livelier recent piano piece by MF I’d recommend Z/K.

[…] most recent large-scale composition, the piano cycle Beat Generation Ballads, premièred at the 2014 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. The work comprises five movements, the first four of which are very short, only two or three […]

[…] very own HCR label. It’s a work i’ve waxed lyrical about twice before – after the world première at HCMF 2014 and in celebration of Finnissy’s 70th birthday – and Philip Thomas‘ marvellous new […]

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