Proms 2022: Hannah Eisendle – Heliosis (UK Première)

by 5:4

Does it matter if the way a composition sounds doesn’t bear any meaningful resemblance to the composer’s stated inspiration? That’s a question that often suggests itself when listening to contemporary music, and it has completely dominated my listening to Austrian composer Hannah Eisendle‘s new work Heliosis, which received its first UK performance at the Proms on Saturday. To be fair, it’s an internal wrangling i shouldn’t have been experiencing: my preference for many years has been either to ignore composer’s stated intentions altogether, or only to consider them after listening. Yet – here we are. ‘Heliosis’ is a term indicating the effects of excessive exposure to the sun, typically sunstroke and sunburn, or the scorching of plant life. A quick glance at the NHS website confirms that the typical symptoms of this include tiredness, dizziness, headache, feeling sick, cramps, fast heartbeat and weakness. What it doesn’t suggest is that you’re likely to transform into a zombie who can’t resist marching and dancing.

Hannah Eisendle

For some reason, this is precisely how Eisendle wants the orchestra to behave. From a highly rhythmic clattery opening, there’s barely a moment during Heliosis when the pulse goes away. There’s a brief passage early on, after the opening, when it’s not obvious, and a couple of minutes later it seems to have vanished altogether, switching attention to a contrabassoon idea. Yet the music inevitably and always finds its way back to driving metric regularity. Sometimes its momentum is arguably sapped a little – such as three minutes in when the prevailing texture collapses somewhat – yet for the most part the work is, considering its stark title, surprisingly spritely and energised, often blankly upbeat. Far from showing any signs whatsoever of tiredness or disorientation, this is an orchestra firing on all cylinders, if anything getting ever more faster as it progresses. Maybe Eisendle was only interested in the fast heartbeat from that list of symptoms.

So – does it matter? In general, yes, i think it does: titles should be meaningful, and if the correlation between what we’re told and what we hear is tenuous – or, as here, essentially non-existent – it’s frustrating, disorienting and makes one question the composer’s choices and reasoning. And specifically with regard to Heliosis, yes, again i think it does; if the music was strikingly original, more than just a sequence of polite, conventional, highly organised, borderline cinematic chase sequences along a road to nowhere, then perhaps it wouldn’t matter in the slightest. But sadly, that is precisely what Heliosis is.

The UK première of Heliosis was given by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop


Hannah Eisendle - Heliosis
  • Loved it! (33%, 12 Votes)
  • Liked it (22%, 8 Votes)
  • Meh (14%, 5 Votes)
  • Disliked it (11%, 4 Votes)
  • Hated it! (19%, 7 Votes)

Total Voters: 36

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“there’s barely a moment during Heliosis when the pulse doesn’t go away” – I don’t think the double negative is what you mean?

Interesting that in the Gavin Higgins review you said ‘what’s in a name’, because I find Higgins’s title much more problematic. Concerto Grosso implies something specific musically that the piece doesn’t really deliver on; I was expecting some interesting interplay between the two ensembles, but the use of the ensembles were quite unremarkable. I enjoyed that piece much more on a second listen, partly because it sounds much more blended on recording than live, which works to the piece’s advantage; I found it frustrating to listen to live. RAH’s acoustic certainly didn’t help.


Unlike Heliosis’s programmatic title, I don’t find the Concerto Grosso title problematic. It may not conform to a Baroque definition, but then expecting it to in the 21st century is rather like worrying because a symphony has ten movements or doesn’t have a minuet and trio as its third movement.

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