HCMF 2016: Richard Uttley, Quatuor Diotima

by 5:4

Having packed out Phipps Hall at HCMF last year, pianist Richard Uttley‘s Saturday morning recital found him in the considerably more fitting space of St Paul’s Hall. Taking place on a stunningly cold day—local temperatures hovering around -1°C—the audience was healthy in size but not in general well-being, peppering the concert with (in one case, worrying close proximity) blasts of coughage. Quite apart from anything else, Uttley deserves considerable kudos for the way he tenaciously maintained concentration. Similar to Seth Parker Woods’ recital the previous day, Uttley performed four works, two of which involved technology.

Eric WubbelsPsychomechanochronometer displayed a tense relationship with the top end of the keyboard, which repeatedly acted to initiate a motoric pulse. Beneath this, Wubbels introduced increasing amounts of elaborate floridity, Uttley’s fingers glancing off the keys as though they were red hot. Multiple times the music splintered, losing the pulse (and potentially the plot), flying around the keyboard in such a way as to make one realise assorted strings had been prepared. But that high pulse, modifying itself, could never truly be shaken off, the piece concluding under its influence once again in a series of shivering flurries. Careful, poised placement of notes occupied the formative moments of Chaya Czernowin‘s strange, four-minute fardanceCLOSE. Very low, rich tremolandi were ambiguous as to whether they reinforced or undermined this, and the music’s subsequent eruptions into quasi-quotational fortissimo chords hardly clarified things one way or the other. Their presence made for a curious effect, as though all the assorted pitches played hitherto were suddenly aligned, instantly transitioning from chaos to coherence. It was all delightfully strange. Continuing his penchant for mistreating the Fender Rhodes organ, Michael Cutting extended this with the aid of two reel-to-reel tape machines for the world première of his I AM A STRANGE LOOP V. Four movements ensued, each utilising the tape machines in order to record and play back slowly-degrading loops of what Uttley was doing, forming delicately complex duets and trios. The first and last were exercises in relaxed prettiness, the former using the Rhodes like a vibraphone, striking its pickups with a soft mallet, the latter establishing lovely ambient rotations that were (rather nicely) eventually crudely silenced. The second coated assertive chords with cycling analogue grit and fuzz, while the third, very different, focused on creating an ever more dense cloud of noise (Uttley now thwacking the pickups), ultimately crushing its pitch content. It was as fantastic to listen to as it was to watch, Cutting demanding a great deal more from a pianist than one might expect. Composer-supposedly-in-residence Georg Friedrich Haas had been strangely and sadly conspicuous by his absence since the opening weekend, so the final piece in Uttley’s recital, Haas’ Ein Schattenspiel (‘a shadow play’) was most welcome. This also involved the pianist interacting with a recording of what they had just played, but in Haas’ case the music is shifted up by a quartertone and becomes the basis for what appears to be a kind of infernal machine, pitting the performer to stay on track and synchronise with the subtly altered renditions of themself. Behaviourally, the piece shifts between strict metrics and more fluid episodes, the latter at one point introducing figurations heavily redolent of Debussy. But it was the dread rigidity that dominated, leading to an exhaustingly brutal denouement with Uttley’s hands pounding the keys as though his life depended on it, and then at the very end silently catching resonances from the middle of the keyboard, but looking for all the world as though he’d collapsed from the sheer effort. Another blinder of a concert from Huddersfield’s most radically lyrical pianist.

The early evening brought Quatuor Diotima to St Paul’s Hall for a concert featuring just two works, the world première of Sam Hayden‘s Transience and the UK première of Enno Poppe‘s Buch. One of the qualities i’ve always valued in Hayden’s work is its challenge: i don’t go to them for anything approximating superficial beauty, but to experience material that’s thorough, rigorous, being extensively put through its paces. That’s certainly the case with Transience, to the point where i must confess on this first listening i felt rather lost as it progressed. Its modus operandi is exceptionally clear: at first i wondered if it was due to the page turns, but no, the piece features a significantly halting delivery that makes the music sound as though it was constructed from a very large number of relatively small modules (which it may well have been). These are grouped into (i think) six general ‘movements’, and it’s possible to detect changes afoot as we progress through them. Violence plays a big part in Hayden’s music and it’s to the fore at the start, phrases concluding with such ferocious rips one feared for the integrity of the instruments. But these rips were often succeeded, caught perhaps, by a quiet suspended note or tremolando. This intimation of two types—indeed, extremes—of material was extended in the second movement where violence was juxtaposed with lyricism, heard in bursts of melody thrusting forward, though slippery, sounding unstable. Passing through subsequent movements—which i was convinced were getting progressively shorter—there’s the impression that Hayden is gradually turning the behavioural focus around, away from the violence in favour of the more delicate materials. But towards the end, everything gets riled up, softer (ish) but still pretty fierce. This made for a disconcerting conclusion that left me wondering to what extent i’d really grasped the music’s trajectory and purpose.

Poppe’s Buch is practically a celebration of unity, five movements filled with distinctive communal modes of action. The first explored convoluted unity in the upper strings, the cello being the odd one out, sounding almost at one with everyone else. The second movement was wondrous: a plaintive, muted near-unison subjected to endless glissandi slithering, beginning as a quartet before being passed around in various solos, duos and trios; there was a continual sense that the tempo had become totally erratic, causing everything (rhythm and pitch) to slide queasily around. The irony here was that, following a large eruption partway through, the music returns to its original slithery state, seeming to re-establish stability yet with material fundamentally unstable. The next two movements were similar to each other, the quartet offering different takes on the same general argument; universally forceful and feisty in the third, it exhibited sharper, more extreme contrasts in the fourth. Poppe turned everything to ice in the final movement, a near-static surface with more detailed ideas occasionally bubbling up to the surface, leading to a sequence of solos; whereupon at its conclusion it sounded as though the quartet were desperately trying to bring into consonant focus music that was only just unresolved—which they didn’t achieve, but their dogged labouring with material almost at the cusp of clarity was mesmerising.

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[…] embracing both the lyrical and experimental aspects of the instrument (and of Uttley himself). At HCMF 2016, he gave the first performance of Michael Cutting‘s I AM A STRANGE LOOP […]

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