Time to dismantle the hustings, take off rosettes and breathe a sigh of relief that the UK election, possibly the most tedious campaign I can remember, is finally done with. At least the end was exciting, though I hate to think of what it harbingers for the future of the UK. It’s good today to be back looking at musical things: a pretty good range of new CD releases.
On Bridge Records Paul Lansky’s Contemplating Weather is a choral cantata commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Western Michigan University School of Music. As the title suggests, it sets poems that examine various facets of climate. The style is attractive, though a little anodyne for my taste. Don’t let that stop you making up your own mind, however. On the same label, David Crumb’s new disk contains four chamber works, the most substantial of which, the three movement Red Desert for Baritone and Piano also lends its title to that of the album. There is plenty of meat on offer here, from the witty dialogue of Soundings to the vast contemplative spaces of Rock Cathedrals (first movement of Red Desert). It is well-written music, not afraid to embrace a wide harmonic range. Worth exploring.
Such advice also applies to two new disks on Signum, which, like the aforementioned, can also be Spotified. I’m going to write a little more about Judith Weir’s new choral disk Storm in a separate blog post, safe to say that I am enjoying it a great deal. Also just released is Tamsin Waley-Cohen’s programme of music for solo violin, which consists of works by Bartok, George Benjamin, Penderecki, Carter and Kurtág. I’ve only dipped into this. It’s serious and astringent fare, but rewarding for the same reasons.
On Naxos a new Penderecki album consists of two choral works, his Magnificat and the much later (and therefore less avant garde) Kadisz performed by the Warsaw Boys’ Choir, Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra under Antoni Wit. There is a disk of orchestral works by Zhou Long, including his Symphony Humen 1839; Joan Tower’s Violin Concerto, Chamber Dance and Stroke; Pinho Vargas’s opera Os Dias Levantados, an exploration of the coup of 1974 that ended Portugal’s fascist regime; the latest issue of Naxos’s series of orchestral music by Gian Francesco Malipiero, most substantially containing his Sinfonia degli eroi (Symphony of Heroes); and, more lightheartedly, a reissue of the definitive restoration of Korngold’s music for the 1938 Warner Bros.’ production of The Adventures of Robin Hood.
A couple of other Spotifiable options to finish. Dutton Epoch have just put together a 3 for the price of 2 deal on a collection of works by Arthur Butterworth, a Manchester-born composer who died in 2014. Symphony No. 1 and 4, and the Viola Concerto, plus an interesting monologue from the composer talking about his life and music are available for streaming. The music itself, as the composer says, takes an individualist route, not attempting originality but rather using familiar, especially tonal, elements to forge his style. On Decca meanwhile, there is a new two-disk collection of piano works by Philip Glass played by Valentina Lisitsa. It includes the famous opening to Glassworks, arrangements from the soundtrack to The Hours and Metamorphosis 1-5.
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I was sorely tempted to head from Basel to Prague in May: a month in a beautiful (and relatively cheap) European city with a major music festival sounded promising. As well as a wealth of other repertoire played by world class performers, new music events at the 70th Prague Spring Festival include: a revival of Ľubica Čekovská’s opera adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey on 19th; the Prague Philharmonic Choir singing John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis and Eric Whitacre on the same day; the Czech premiere of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Apotheosis from Symphony No. 6 on 21st; and Berio and Britten on 23rd and 27th. Unfortunately my commitments will keep me here, but, if you’re tempted, there’s still plenty of time to organise a visit; the festival runs from 8th–3rd June, (though the first few days are a flute and clarinet competition, the official opening concert being on 12th).
The York Spring Festival is looking to create a carnival atmosphere in the city over the course of the weekend of 9th–11th May, with a spirit of exploration and openness to all genres. There are some imaginative events on offer. On 9th Latrabjarg: an Ecological Requiem for electric cello, counterternor and chamber ensemble by James Cave and Christopher Mullender explores loss of culture and the natural world; the Dark Inventions’ concert on 10th mixes folk song with music by British composers, including the the work Firewheel by Philip Cashian. On 11th there is a morning of new music debate and discussion, the day being rounded off by a Nonclassical Contemporary Music Club Night at 9.30pm.
The Vale of Glamorgan Festival (12th–23 May) takes place in a variety of venues in South East Wales. This year the focus is on celebrating Arvo Pärt’s 80th birthday, with performances spread throughout the festival programme. There will also be the chance to hear music by British/Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova, including her Fantasy Homage to Schubert, Frozen River Flows, and the UK premieres of Such Different Paths and Of the Sun Born. World premieres include Between the Waves by Tom Green and Xiao Ying’s Septet. Other living composers represented include Peter Reynolds, John Adams, Richard Ayres, Tan Dun and Jaan Rääts. On 12th there is also a New Music Day, where the Nieuw Ensemble will play compositions by emerging composers at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
The English Music Festival (22nd-25th) focuses largely on an undeservedly neglected seam of repertoire: more conservative English composers of late 19th and 20th centuries, including figures such as Havergal Brian, Vaughan Williams, Alwyn, Parry, Stanford and Howells. There are also a couple of world premieres and a concert of music given by composer/pianist Lionel Sainsbury.
Some other festivals worth exploring in May, especially if you are nearby include: the Techtonics Festival (1st–3rd) in Glasgow; the Norfolk and Norwich Festival (8th–24th); the St. Davids Cathedral Festival in Pembrokeshire, Wales (22nd–31st); the Northern Chords Festival in Gateshead, Durham, Corbridge and Newcastle upon Tyne (25th–30th); and the Holland Festival (30th May–23rd June) in Amsterdam.
A quick heads up that the Proms programme is now published. You can see it here.
Also two Helen Grime world premieres worth seeking out: her Concerto for Clarinet and Trumpet will be performed on 7th May at Bridgewater Hall Manchester by the Halle with soloists Lynsey Marsh (clarinet) and Gareth Small (trumpet); a new String Trio by The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Wigmore Hall on 8th.
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There’s a trio of contrasting discs on Signum Classics this month. Flight is a collection of works by Oliver David (b. 1972) performed by violinist Kerenza Peacock with the LSO. It’s colourful if pretty light fare, music to be consumed. If you like the style but prefer something a bit more profound, you could check out Bob Chilcott’s dramatic St. John Passion with Wells Cathedral Choir conducted by Mathew Owens. Both recordings are available on Spotify. For the more adventurous I recommend Signum’s disk of chamber music by Thomas Adès. It contains his metrically dazzling Piano Quintet; Arcadiana, most remarkable for its moving homage to Elgar in its sixth movement O Albion; and The Four Quarters, which uses the daily cycle as its central metaphor.
Towards the end of his life John Cage wrote a series of works entitled Two. The number refers to the number of performers, with a superscript suffix (Two1, Two2 etc) denoting the piece within the series. WERGO has just released the performance of Two3 for Japanese shō and conch shells. The only performance I have heard of the work lasts for ten minutes, so I’m not sure how it becomes the two-disk epic presented here. Possibly for die-hard fans only. Also just released on WERGO is Giacinto Scelsi’s Suite 9 and 10 for piano performed by Sabine Liebner and a collection of organ music by Gerhard Stäbler. The latter takes it’s name from one of the pieces on the disk, Heiss! I’ve heard this wacky and experimental work, which is so full of original and fascinating sounds you barely realise you are listening to the king of instruments.
Two discs of electronic music. On Nimbus there is a three CD + 1 DVD complete collection of electro-acoustic works by Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001), who is often considered to be the father of New Zealand music. The disc derives its rootedness by using found musical material from the New Zealand environment. Audio tracks from the collection are available on Spotify. Also using found material is Karen Power’s it is raining while you listen, a series of frozen sonic moments for electronics/electronic+acoustic instruments. It is released by Farpoint Records in an attractive limited edition with poetry, texts and photographs commissioned by the composer.
Keep an eye out, finally, for the soon-to-be-released disk Wild Cyclamen on NMC. It contains songs by Hugh Wood exploring the themes of youth, love, lust and longing in settings of poetry by DH Lawrence, Laurie Lee, Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell.
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Whilst flicking between record label websites this afternoon, I came across the Composed app, a collaboration between Classic FM, Decca and Deutsche Grammophon that presents a curated list of classical music for £4.99 per month. I was unable to download the desktop version, which requires you to be in the UK, but my login to the Apple App Store seemed to be enough to persuade them of my Britishness. There doesn’t appear to be an Android version, which is short-sighted.
The feel of Composed is very ‘Classic FM’, with a high degree of emphasis on the core classical repertoire organised by moods, collections and composers. It all feels a bit dumbed-down if you’re an experienced consumer of classical music, though I liked the emphasis on searching by composer – if you prefer classical music this is how you choose a piece. It is a mistake, however, not also to allow searches by performer. It’s a decision, just like the trumpeting of ‘curation’, that feels like an admission that the collection lacks depth; the presence of only two record labels means that this is no Spotify.
Where the app might be useful is for those with a budding interest in classical music. The ‘moods’ and ‘collections’ sections are a lot of fun and contain heaps of good music, including the entire Classic FM Hall of Fame. There’s even a ‘Nervous Newcomer’ playlist, which contains a series of familiar lollipops to draw people in. And when you start digging deeper you can find some quite challenging stuff. There’s music by Boulez, Berio, Birtwistle, Cage, Henze, Varèse, Berg, Webern etc. I’m all for finding ways of introducing classical music to the masses and then maybe gradually winning them over to more recent fare.
The problem for Composed, however, is that Spotify also does themed playlists. Granted, it’s not as slick and Spotify costs twice as much, but you then get a far more comprehensive collection of classical music, plus the added bonus of having other genres – pop, blues, rock etc – available. As such, it’s difficult to recommend Composed, though, if you’re interested, the app gives you free access to its collection for a month, which by itself might make it worth investigating.
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Conversations is John Palmer’s new book published by Composer’s Edition in partnership with Palmer’s own enterprise, Vision Edition. It contains 20 conversations with major figures in contemporary music: 13 composers, 4 players, a conductor, tonmeister and founder of a music archive. It is an impressive list of names, including figures such as John Cage, Jonathan Harvey, Michael Finnissy, James Wood, Luc Ferrari, Richard Barrett, Evelyn Glennie and Nuria Schönberg-Nono.
Palmer is very deliberate in preferring the term ‘conversation’ to ‘interview’ – certainly the tone that comes across throughout is one of an exchange of ideas between friends. That said, the conversations don’t ramble. Most begin with questions about background and musical formation, leading to more specific questions as the conversation develops. Palmer manages this unfolding expertly.
The oft-repeated structure allows readers to gain useful perspectives. It is fascinating, for example, to see the varied routes by which each of the composers came to music. There’s the more traditional choir and organ background of Harvey and Wood and then those with much less conventional early years. Richard Barrett and Daniel Teruggi, for example, became composers relatively late in life, both having being primarily interested in science.
Palmer also does a good line in reusing more imaginative questions, which can be just as revealing of his own interests and motivations. These range from technical information about a composer’s electronic setup, to his frustrations about musicians’ inability to perform aleatoric scores. My favourite concerns Palmer’s belief that music has an intrinsic power to change people; he is convinced ‘that an accurate listening experience may not only stir new perceptions of life, but also trigger a radical change of consciousness…therefore, by multiplication, it can initiate a potential change in the world.’ It’s an interesting idea that provokes fascinating responses.
In the more specific questions it is abundantly apparent that Palmer both knows his stuff and has done his homework. He asks Wood about his coming across Aristoxenes’s treatise Stoicheia Rhythmika in the 1980s and the effect on his music, a vital key, it turns out, to understanding his development. He takes Harvey through all the key moments in his musical formation and understands the importance of Rudolf Steiner and the influence of Eastern religions upon his work. There are, likewise, penetrating questions about Richard Barrett’s socialism, Finnissy’s eclecticism, the influence of Borges on Casserley, the influence of Japanese music on Jim Franklin, mathematics in the music of Elliott Sharp.
Neither is Palmer afraid to ask difficult questions. Conductor Celso Antunes remarks at one point that ‘there are developments [in new music] which I find frankly boring and sometimes completely nonsensical in musical terms.’ With an elegantly polite preamble Palmer asks ‘I would like to know which music directions you perceive as being nonsensical and why? Can you be as specific as possible, please?’ There is a frank and revealing discussion with Evelyn Glennie about the loss of her hearing and some beautifully tongue-I think-in-cheek exchanges with John Cage. With the later, for instance, the questions ‘Do you actually hear the sounds you write while you are composing?’ and ‘You once said you don’t have a feeling for harmony. Is that really true?’ provoke unexpected and hilarious responses.
John Cage is, indeed, one of the ‘superstar’ conversations that will rightly attract people to this book. Others highlights include the wide-ranging and substantial interviews with Jonathan Harvey, Michael Finnissy, Evelyn Glennie and James Wood. I loved the spontaneity and energetic fun of Luc Ferrari’s conversation, despite the trouble he had speaking in English, and Nuria Schönberg-Nono offers a unique perspective on twentieth-century music, having been both the daughter of Schönberg and wife of Luigi Nono. Her role as a founder of a musical archive also has resonance for me here in Basel, with my daily visits to the Sacher Foundation. As well as these grand figures, however, you should read this book for those that you know less well or not at all. The interviews will have you scurrying to your computer to look for more information and musical extracts.
A number of the interviewees are particularly known for their electroacoustic and acousmatic composition. Some may find that limiting, but it is to mistake the purpose of the book: it doesn’t pretend to be a neat cross-section of contemporary composition. Palmer also has considerable experience in this area – a significant minority of his own output being for the medium – and this puts him in a good position to be able to ask the right questions. The result is that many of these conversations powerfully advocate a too often neglected field of contemporary composition.
Some of these conversations have already been published in music journals. If you are a regular subscriber or have access through JSTOR you might want to double-check how much overlap there is. For those without access, or even those who would like to have these fascinating, illuminating and entertaining conversations in one place, the book is an easy recommendation.
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A concert last night by students of the Hochschule für Musik revealed much about standards in Swiss higher education. The ambitious programme contained Cage’s First Construction (In Metal) and Six for six percussionists, Feldman’s Instruments II, Improvisations sur Mallarmé II (No. 3 from Pli selon pli) and Ligeti’s Piano Concerto.
The two Cage works are eminently performable by students, as was proved. I need not have been so sceptical that they could pull off the Boulez and the Ligeti, however. The two soloists coped brilliantly with the distinct virtuosic requirements of each work: soprano Céline Wasmer singing Boulez’s difficult lines with otherworldly expressivity; pianist Krill Zwegintsow providing machine-like stability in the Ligeti. Student Ensemble Diagonal likewise provided sensitivity in the former, thrillingly focus in the latter. Only in the Feldman did the need for fine control tax the players to the point where it was in danger of interfering with the meaning of the music. And this hardly surprised; the Feldman, which is a long span of pianissimo entries, often in difficult tessituras, requires phenomenal control. Conductor Jürg Henneberger, who is obviously a bit of a fixture here in Basel (he also conducted the Ensemble Phoenix concert on 16th), did a superb job leading these youngsters.
Tomorrow, the Hochschule in cooperation with OperAvenir, give their first performance of a new production of the Rape of Lucretia at Theater Basel. It’s one of the few Britten operas I don’t know at all, so I hope to visit before the end of the run on 25th April.
Talking of opera, 11th April sees the world première of Tansy Davies’s Between Worlds with ENO (performing at the Barbican, not the Coliseum). The title of the work derives from the dreadful scenario it describes: a group of people are trapped in one of the World Trade Center Towers, above where it has been hit and therefore unable to descend. They are, quite literally, ‘caught between earth and heaven, life and death.’ There are a total of eight performances the last being on 25th April.
There are two chances in the UK to hear works by emerging composers. The first is at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff on 1st April, where selected composers from the workshop stage of the Composition:Wales project will have their pieces performed by BBC NOW under Jac van Steen. Meanwhile in London the LSO Soundhub project will perform chamber compositions by Maxim Boon, Laurence Osborn, Helen Papaioannou, Robert Szymanek, Laurie Tompkins and Aaron Holloway-Nahum; all of whom are in the second year of their membership of the scheme.
The Budapest Spring Festival runs from April 10th–26th. As well as more standard orchestral fare, there are a few premières on offer. On 24th April there is there first chance to hear Péter Nógrádi’s Partita - Four paintings by Csontváry for the string orchestra, Zoltán Kovács’s Pictures of Taormina and László Dubrovay’s Csontváry - 3 symphonic images for orchestra. There are also works by Miklós Kocsár and Péter Tóth. The day after is the Hungarian première of Gyula Fekete’s piano concerto The Dream of the Red Chamber.
Other notable premières this month include James Macmillan’s St Luke’s Passion at the Barbican on 5th (London première); Robert Matthew-Walker’s Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano (world première) at Wigmore Hall on 12th; Jake Heggie's Camille Claudel: Into the Fire (European première) at the Barbican on 14th; David Matthews’ Symphony No. 8 (world première) at Bridgewater Hall on 17th; Georg Friedrich Haas’s Atthis (UK première) at Royal Opera House on 23rd–25th; and Christopher Rouse Prospero’s Rooms (UK première) at the Barbican on 24th. The New York Philharmonic are also in London around the middle of the month, bringing with them a taste of their Contact! series in the form of works by Daniel Bjarnasson, Timo Andres, Missy Mazzoli, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Shulamit Ran at the Barbican on 18th.
A ‘Happy Birthday’ to Pierre Boulez, who turned 90 just the day-before-yesterday. If you would like to listen to selections from the Barbican Total Immersion day, this is available on iPlayer for the next three weeks. There is also a 45-minute tribute programme with Petroc Trelawny, Paul Driver and Morag Grant. The celebrations of his work continue into April with Peter Eötvös conducting Livre pour cordes and Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna with the LSO at the Philharmonie de Paris on 20th and Matthias Pintscher conducting Syrinx, Memoriale and Sur Incises with Ensemble Intercontemporain at the Barbican on 28th.
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Another couple of interesting concerts here in Basel. I say in Basel, but the first was actually in Germany. One of the curiosities of this city is that its suburbs are in three countries: Switzerland, Germany and France. It goes a long way to explaining why everyone seems fluent in at least three languages.
I headed a bit further into neighbouring territory on 13th, however: to the Konzerthaus Freiburg (see first photo), where the Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg were playing Lachenmann’s Tableau, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 3 and Berio’s Sinfonia.
I was there mostly for the Berio, which I’ve never heard in concert. It was every bit as brilliant as I’d hoped, especially the crazy parody in the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Lachenmann – an immensely tall and impressive figure – was present for the performance of his Tableau. The work, I confess, left me nonplussed. Despite, to borrow a phrase from my more enthusiastic companion, the work being like a beautiful garden of sound, I had difficulty connecting these sounds into a comprehensible whole.
On 16th I headed to Bahnhof für Neue Musik, a little bit, perhaps, like Basel’s version of Nonclassical in London. It has a similar relaxed approach to concert going and makes use of a pretty interesting venue: the Gare du Nord Station near the border with Germany. There is a rather grand, if slightly faded, bar. You are then free to take your drink into the concert area, which used to be the station’s first class waiting room (second photo).
The concert programme consisted of Ensemble Phoenix Basel playing two works by young composers that had been awarded prizes by the group: Vladimir Guicheff Bogacz’s bulle apenas and Matthias Renaud’s Concerto for Piano and Ensemble. Both were written in response to John Cage’s Sixteen Dances, which formed the second half. Of the two, Vladimir Guicheff Bogacz’s was easily the most successful, partly because of the relative reserve with which it deployed the four available percussion players. It was a trap that Matthias Renaud’s Concerto did not, sadly, avoid; the work becoming a chaotic barrage of percussion sounds and extended techniques. It was a relief when the Cage came, which was an object lesson in deploying generous resources, using few notes, to maximum effect.
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One curiosity here has been the difference in pricing and audience attendance at the concerts I’ve been to. The large hall at Freiburg, Germany was completely sold out for a concert that consisted of mostly newish music. It cost €11. The Gare du Nord concert was 30 CHF (almost the same in euros); the Feldmann, Ligeti, Stahnke concert earlier in the month was 50CHF (which nearly provoked a wallet attack). These are prices that make me, a person that is enthusiastic about new music, think twice. They seem to have the same effect on others: neither Swiss concert was well attended.
DG have just reissued Boulez’s Le Domaine Musical collection, which can be added to my earlier guide to the composer’s recordings. It features performances from the seminal Paris concerts between 1956 and 1967, including works by Stockhausen, Berio, Messiaen, Varese, Kagel, Henze, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and, of course, Boulez. Perhaps, most intriguing of all, is the inclusion of two works by Giovanni Gabrieli, presumably to give context to other compositions on one of the programmes. Gabrieli as sixteenth century modernist, perhaps?
Also just reissued on the same label is Max Richter’s 2004 album The Blue Notebooks both on CD and vinyl, the latter being a sure sign of its popularity. I’d check it out on Spotify first if you are in any way tempted: you will either love or hate its zen-like simplicity.
Two Naxos disks containing chamber music that is neglected for different reasons. The first is a collection of music for violin and piano by little-known composer Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986). If you’d like to get an idea of the style it’s worth checking out his disk of chamber music with clarinet, available on Spotify. It’s not at all what I expected: by turns romantically lyrical, quirkily dissonant and ascetically controlled. Whilst Bernstein is well-known for his musicals and handful of choral and orchestral pieces, a new disk explores some of his music for piano, including an early Piano Sonata and his Anniversaries, a sequence of short pieces written for people close to him. Also on Naxos is a disk of two Malcolm Arnold films scores, The Roots of Heaven and David Copperfield played by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.
On WERGO Rolf Reim’s new disk contains four works, all of which draw upon story telling and theatricality to achieve their effect. The style is uncompromising but, at the same time, full of lightness and humour. This is particularly apparent in Lenz in Moskau, for trumpet, trombone, guitar, piano, two drums and recorded voice where a story is unfolded simultaneously in voices and instruments, the brilliantly sardonic interjections being easily as pictorial as the spoken text. Also on WERGO this month is Detlev Mueller-Siemens’ new disk TRACES, which contains four works for chamber ensemble written between 2002 and 2009; and Charlotte Seither’s Equal Ways of Difference that has five works written for combinations of violin, cello and piano.
On Métier David Gorton’s powerfully uncompromising new disc contains Orfordness for piano, Austerity Measures II for oboe and string quartet, Fosdyke Wash for piano and string quartet and the Second Sonata for Cello, with electronics. Orfordness, which also lends its name to the title of the disc, includes taped USAF messages about a UFO sighting. ‘This is eerie, this is strange’, says one of the men in the recording, a description that could well be applied to this unnervingly creepy music.
Sure to be popular is the Tallis Scholars’ Tintinnabuli, a programme of works celebrating the 80th birthday year of Arvo Pärt. Extracts are available to listen to here. The performances, typically of this group, sound gorgeous.
Two, as yet, unreleased disks worth looking forward to. Tomorrow NMC release a new disk of horn music by Peter Maxwell Davies, Gerald Barry, Colin Matthews, Huw Watkins, David Matthews, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Robin Holloway with the Nash Ensemble, Huw Watkins on piano and Paul Watkins on cello. At the time of writing extracts were not available, thought that sure to change on release day. Less imminent, though available now for pre-order, is Tyondai Braxton’s label debut on NMC on May 12th with HIVE, a recording of eight pieces that debuted at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2013. Scout I, the last track on the disk is available to listen to now.
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Despite waxing lyrical about the joys of being on the road, the comfort of a Pembrokeshire Christmas almost persuaded me to give up my nomadic lifestyle. I have finally, however, dragged myself away God’s own county and am back in Basel, Switzerland. Not particularly adventurous, perhaps, but the need for change has to be balanced by the need to get on with projects – for now Basel is the best place to continue work on the Dutilleux sketches, which is increasingly looking like it might occupy me for the next ten years.
It’s exciting to be back in a city with a thriving cultural life. On Friday I heard the Basel Sinfonietta play Ligeti’s Hamburgishes Konzert, Manfred Stahnke’s Trace Des Sorciers and Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light at the Musiksaal.
I’d heard the Stahnke in rehearsal the day before, where it had left me pretty unconvinced; there seemed to be little sense of structural cohesion and the players appeared to struggle with the microtonal tuning. It was strange, therefore, to be so won over in the concert. The balance was better in the hall and the many generous ideas did seem to form a larger narrative. A reminder not to rush to judgement.
The Sinfonietta played the Ligeti manfully, in particular Olivier Darbellay coped superbly with the extravagant extremes of tessitura in the solo horn part. The work remains, however, frighteningly difficult to perform. Four natural horns trying to pitch complex chords is a recipe for ensemble problems.
The Feldman presents its own issues, though here this is to do with balance and control in a long, essentially static, span. The Sinfonietta played brilliantly, however, with conductor Michael Wendeberg allowing the work to unfold without fuss. It was a disappointment when the piece ended, so hypnotically had it held me.
Boulez seems to be much on musicians’ lips in Basel. He is, by all accounts, in poor health and may not be able much to take part in his 90th birthday celebrations. One Boulez in Basel story crops up again and again, however, and is worth retelling.
Boulez had a long association with Paul Sacher, the founder of the city’s famous music library, and, until his death in 1999, would stay with him when visiting the city. This no longer being an option, in 2001 Boulez stayed in a local hotel. This was, unfortunately, just after the terrorist attacks in New York.
On seeing his name pop up somewhere on a computer, the local police did a background check on what, to them, was an entirely unknown figure. It had somehow found its way onto a list of possible suspects, perhaps because of some of his famously intemperate remarks about burning down opera houses and destroying all art of the past.
Given the attitude of Muslim extremists to music and other forms of art, as so disgustingly demonstrated by Isis recently, it is perhaps not surprising that the police were somewhat alarmed. Boulez was raided at his hotel, his passport and train ticket seized. After further investigations, and presumably some red faces, the situation was ironed out.
I’m told that the next time he visited Basel the Chief of Police was on hand to welcome him with a large bouquet.
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Harpsichord Music by Graham Lynch and François Couperin. Assi Karttunen (harpsichord). Divine Art dda25120.
Alex Ross describes Graham Lynch’s style as puzzling ‘over the classic distinction between ‘tonal’ and ‘atonal’, writing in praise of the neither-here-nor-there.’ It’s a pretty good analysis, though in the context of the works on this disk it, perhaps, underplays the extent to which the music is made up of recognisable (and therefore accessible) tonal elements. I’d also be coy about using the word ‘atonal’. Whilst often correct in the sense of being ‘not tonal’, the surface of the works abound with generous and attractive melodic writing and, even when the harmony is nicely unpredictable, the extensive use of pivot pitches always keeps the music centred.
Beyond the River God, for example, presents three tonally derived ideas at the outset: a spread extended chord, a lovely melody and rocking homophonic chords. They appear throughout, sometimes obviously in a cyclical sense, sometimes appearing to lurk under the surface directing harmonic traffic. Ay! is tonal (though always interestingly so), being made up of flowing arpeggios that are given point and poise by the gradually emerging tango rhythms beneath. Admiring York Waterfall and Present-Past-Future-Present are more stark, with In Peterna lying somewhere in between.
Structural matters are handled with admirable lucidity. The shape of Beyond the River God derives from Lynch’s use of the rondeau/couplet idea associated with the seventeenth century school of French clavecinists, most notably, François Couperin (five of whose works appear on the disk). In Admiring Yoro Waterfall the opening group of material, notably a two note whole tone figure, features several times, then gives way to a more obviously pictorial representation of the waterfall before returning at the end, all occurring over a carefully worked out pitch ground plan. The Six Strings from In Petenera elucidates a repeated phrygian idea based round a single pitch. Present-Past-Future-Present opens with a thoroughly explored ‘walking’ idea that reappears in the final movement. All the works also have a strong feeling of cadence, often underlined by a moment of silence before the launching of a new phrase, making the musical shapes easy to follow. Only in Sound Sketches did I feel that the musical argument was, perhaps, a little too pared down, neither the simple ground plan or arpeggiated surface providing enough interest. It is, anyway, only a very small piece at the end of the disk.
The pitfalls of a generous (nearly 80 minute) programme of music on a instrument with limited means of dynamic and timbral variation are obvious enough. In some ways, interpolating the music of Couperin with that of Lynch was a necessary practicality; the disc contains all of Lynch’s harpsichord music to date which, by itself, would not have been enough to fill the disk. It also, however, provides a happy solution to the ‘lack of contrast’ issue – the ear is never tired by one style or the other. Also, I have to say, the quality of Lynch’s writing is very much a match for that of his illustrious predecessor. Not that it’s a matter of competition, since the two styles sit very comfortably together: though, Beyond the River God excluded, Lynch seems to want to avoid drawing comparisons between his style and that of his antecedents, in its lucidity, fecundity and understanding of the medium there are definite parallels.
I’m not in a position to judge the authenticity of the ornamental minefield of the Couperin except to say that the performances strike me as stylish and assured. In the Lynch Karttunen plays with verve, commitment and a total grasp of the structural issues at play. A highly rewarding disk.
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