If a programme of music for two violins does not sound like a very appealing prospect, check out Retorica's debut disk, just released on NMC. Violinists Harriet Mackenzie and Philippa Mo have made it something of a mission to bring this little-known repertoire to a wider audience. Even the name of their duo - the Italian feminine form of the word rhetoric - is a reflection of this: just as rhetoric could be said to be artful persuasion in speech, they seek to do the same through their playing. They succeed here by the oratorical bucket-load.
The all-English programme consists of: Jim Aithison's Syruw: Five Kazakh Tableaux, John McCabe's Spielend, Moeran's Sonata for two violins, William Croft's Sonata IV Op. 3 No. 4, David Matthews' Eight Duos, and Alan Rawsthorne's Theme and Variations. It is a well thought-out programme; many of the pieces have a distinct feeling of place, especially by their link to the English pastoral tradition (or in some cases their reaction against it). The Croft, placed mid-programme, in itself a lovely piece, also acts as a clever amuse oreilles before we return to the twentieth-century for the last two works. It also ends with the same lilting rhythms with which the Matthews begins, providing a nice sense of connectivity.
There is a strong pictorial element in many of these works, none more than the first on the disk, Jim Aitchison's Syruw. The composer has long forged connections with the art world, and this piece was designed to be performed with an exhibition that explored Kazakh life and textiles. It consists of a series of delightful and expertly-realised vignettes, from the stillness of the opening, whose little disturbances presage the gentle breeze of the second movement through to 'an exaggerated tale', which seems capture a storyteller in the very act. The Matthews has a similarly visual feel. There is a sense of connectedness between some of the movements, especially in the emphasis on the pastoral and, in the sixth movement entitled 'Contra-Pastoral', its urban equivalent. The whole can also, however, be understood as a series of hors d'oeuvres-like 'moments', each element entire unto itself, but much more satisfying when consumed together.
The other three twentieth-century works on the disk use more abstract structures. In the case of the Rawsthorne this is a closely argued theme and variations, though the emphasis on short movements provides a not dissimilar feeling to the Aitchison and Matthews. There is no doubting the fact, however, that this was intended as a much more serious work, the theme of the opening being skilfully and inventively manipulated throughout, with the final movement recapitulating some of the early variations in order to bring the piece to a satisfyingly cogent close. Spielend, the German word for 'playing', by John McCabe is based upon the idea of the musicians 'playing their themes against each other and playing with the musical material.' The thirteen-minute, single-movement work, begins with exhilaratingly spirited hocketing interspersed with flourishes. It is followed by a long central section that explores two reminiscences of the Violin Sonata of Poulenc before returning to the vigour of the opening. Moeran's Sonata for Two Violins is the most traditional of the twentieth-century works on the disk. The influence of English folksong is everywhere imprinted on the music, though his frequent diversions into more adventurous harmonic territory avoids the 'cow-pat' element of which many of his contemporaries were guilty. This is especially evident in the final movement in which, after 12 straightforward passacaglia statements, the music is allowed to roam more freely.
What is especially striking about the pieces on this disk is that, perhaps because the limited resources force the composers to make every note count, each has a structural tautness that facilitates rapid engagement with the listener. This is not to say the composers give away everything too quickly; far from it, this is music that challenges and rewards repeated hearings. The other extraordinary quality of these works is the way in which each composer has made limited resources sound rich and even symphonic. In this they are aided by the brilliant performances of Mackenzie and Mo. It is clear that they not only understand the subtleties of the music they are playing but they want to 'wow' you into loving it as much as they do. In this they totally succeed. The recording too strikes an excellent balance: it is both intimate but with sufficient acoustic spaciousness for the music to feel full.
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Having written a eulogy to the music of William Mathias not many weeks ago, I managed to forget to mention the upcoming North Wales International Music Festival, which was founded by the composer. It runs from the 22nd-29th September and focuses on more popular contemporary music, making a special feature of the works of Karl Jenkins and royal composer Paul Mealor. The twentieth anniversary of the composer’s death will be marked by performances of his Anniversary Dances and Let the People Praise Thee O God. His daughter, Rhiannon Mathias, will give the festival Eucharist address on 23rd September.
A heads-up also for Ultima, the Oslo Contemporary Music Festival, which runs from 6th-15th September. The introduction to the festival from Director Mars Petter Hagen makes a virtue out of pointing out that there is no theme, but instead links will become clear as the festival unfolds: ‘whether it is in the intervals, between the concerts, at the fragile acoustic micro level in a newly composed and never performed piece, in a brutal, musical collision, or somewhere totally different.’ That may sound a bit nebulous, but a quick glance at the programme, here, reveals a very wide range of interesting concerts.
On Septermber 19th, finally, the BE OPEN Sound Portal arrives at Trafalgar Square as part of the 2012 London Design Festival: ‘An alien black, rubberised structure will be home to finely-tuned audio technologies aimed at delivering pure acoustic experiences to visitors in the middle of Trafalgar Square.’ It will also play host to musicians and sonic artists who have been commissioned to produce new works in the space. More information is available via SaM.
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There are several festivals that feature new music in September. I’ve included a selection of concerts from them in my monthly round-up on CT's concert page. As always, however, a more complete programme can be found by browsing individual festival websites: the Warsaw Festival of Contemporary Music (16th-24th September); the Festival de Música de Alicante (21st-29th September); Musikfest Berlin (31st August-18th September); and Beethovenfest, Bonn (7th September-7th October). I should also make special mention of the Presteigne Festival, which I forgot last month. Whilst it started on 23rd August, it still has a few days left to run. There is much left to enjoy. Tomorrow, for example, there is the chance to hear Sally Beamish’s String Quartet no. 2 ‘Opus California’ and the world première of Michael Berkeley’s Oboe Quintet. The festival’s final concert on 28th August contains Paul Patterson’s Allusions for two violins and string orchestra and the world première of the revised version of Sally Beamish’s No, I’m not afraid.
Of the other individual concerts, Fish Music (see photo), taking place in Plymouth on 13th September, especially caught my eye. It comprises a sound installation where fish in an aquarium become musical notes. Their position in relation to a stave placed in front of them is interpreted by improvising musicians. Whilst its success no doubt relies more upon the skill of the performers than the position of the fish, the concept is a fascinating one; I imagine the combination of the hypnotic movement of fish and music is felicitous indeed.
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Okay, I admit it: hosting the Olympics was not such a bad idea after all. As I've watched I have found myself whooping, shouting, crying with joy and often turning the television off because I can't take the stress. This is strange, since I've not much more than a passing interest in sport. Granted, I enjoyed seeing Andy Murray avenge his defeat at the hands of Roger Federer, and it's been thrilling to see the cyclists and rowers perform so brilliantly. Maybe, however, it's because the spirit of the Olympics, especially in the journey athletes have to make in order to achieve mastery, is something with which musicians can connect. Music, like sport, demands sacrifice.
New CD Releases
The Olympics continue to be a source of inspiration this month for composers taking part in the 20x12 project. There are three new tracks available on NMC: Aidan O'Rourke's jauntily minimalist TAT-1, inspired by the first transatlantic telephone cable; the astringent and powerful mini-opera Our Day by Conor Mitchell, set against the backdrop of events in Northern Ireland in 1972; and Oliver Searle's mercurial Technophobia, which brings together conventional and unconventional instruments played by young disabled musicians and their peers.
Elsewhere, as musicians concentrate their efforts on the concert hall, there are only a few new recordings. The music of Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) features in two releases. There is a collection of his music for two pianos - Barcelona Blues, Tres Divertimentos, Sum Vermis and 5 Invocations al Crucificado - on Naxos; and Partita 1958, Cinco Canciones Negras, the premiere recording of Calidoscopi Simfonic and Sinfonia de Requiem on Chandos. Described by Aaron Copland as 'The Messiaen Monster', the Turangalila-Symphonie, now acknowledged as one of the great works of the twentieth century, receives a new recording with Juanjo Mena and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra on Hyperion. Warner Classics, finally, have released a very enticing 6 CD collection featuring pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing music by Debussy, Ives, Messiaen, Ravel, Carter, Boulez, Beethoven and Liszt.
If you missed the BBC Proms over the last week, I thoroughly recommend picking up the world premieres of James MacMillan's Credo and Charlotte Bray's At the Speed of Stillness on BBC iPlayer (follow my links). Some may find the MacMillan difuse, but there is no doubting his ability to make the familiar - both in terms of raw musical language and established forms - seem excitingly new. The Bray, in contrast, showed commendable focus. Other works still available on iPlayer as I write include Knussen's Symphony No. 2 with the BBC Philharmonic under Noseda and the UK premieres of Langgaard's Symphony No. 11 Ixion and Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's Incontri played by BBC Symphony Orchestra under Dausgaard.
A quick reminder to finish. For those interested in Sound and Music's excellent Embedded programme, there are still a few days left to apply. There are three calls: no.w.here, an organisation based in Tower Hamlets that combines film production alongside critical dialogue about contemporary image making; Music Hackspace, a platform that supports the development of innovative new projects using new technologies; and BBSO, which offers a year-long partnership to write new works of up to 12 minutes for symphony orchestra. The deadline for these calls is August 13th. More details are available on the Sound and Music website.
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Whilst I've just updated CT's concert listings for August, there is such a range of concerts this month that I would also recommend checking out individual festival programmes, of which many of the concerts are a part.
In the UK, the BBC Proms continues throughout August. For a quick summary, take a look at my preview blog, here. Also worth checking out is the exciting and innovative Tête à Tête opera festival. It runs from 2-19th August and contains over 70 performances from 30 companies. I've not tried to summarize this wealth of performances on the concert-listing page so strongly recommend taking a look at the programme for yourself. The Edinburgh festival also gets going on 9th August and includes a number of concerts that include new and recent music. I've included several of these in CT's listing or, alternatively, you can look directly on the festival's music page, here.
On the continent the Lucerne Festival Summer Festival runs from 8th August to September 15th and this year focuses on the theme of 'faith' with a particular emphasis on the music of the two composers-in-residence, Philippe Manoury and Sofia Gubaidulina. The Salzburg Festival got under way on 20th July and continues until 2nd September. It contains, almost as a festival within a festival, a series of 14 concerts, entitled Salzburg Contemporary. This features a host of exciting music, including works by Lutoslawski, Heinz Holliger, Zimmerman, Dallapiccola, Berio, Boulez, Scelsi, Ligeti, Stravinsky and Berg.
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A quiet month. Only Naxos – as usual – has produced new albums of recent music. Three of these are in its American Classics series. There is a recording of music by Alan Hovhaness with his Symphonies 1 and 50 and Mount St. Helen with Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Peter Menin's Symphony No. 3 and the concertato Moby Dick, also with the Seattle forces; and a programme of David Del Tredici piano works, the first recording in a complete survey, including: Aeolian Ballade, Ballad in Lavender, Ballad in Yellow, S/M Ballade and Gotham Glory. The Hovhanesss and Menin, who were near contemporaries, make an interesting contrast, the Hovhaness wholly refusing to engage with modernism, Menin more astringent even if still essentially tonal. Del Tredici, who unlike the other two is still alive, is known as the father of American Neo-Romanticism. His works are attractive and approachable, though, especially in the 'pianistic terror' that is S/M Ballade, with plenty of substance too.
Perhaps the most important of Naxos's releases this month is a new recording of Maxwell Davies's Symphony No. 3 and Cross Lane Fair, since it is features the composer himself in charge of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. The symphony owes much of its structure to the principles of architecture, though Davies has also written that 'the architectural proportional devices...related at least as directly to the spiralling mollusk shells on my desk...and to the spirallings of the huge breakers crashing in from the Atlantic on that same shore.' Like many of his pieces, therefore, it is very firmly rooted in his adopted island of Orkney. Written in four movements that might, in their slow-fast-fast-slow plan, owe something to Mahler 9, it is a work of great power that, nevertheless (and perhaps like Mahler), requires the listener to work at its understanding. As if to sweeten the deal it is paired with the much lighter Cross Lane Fair, an attractive and accessible work that is inspired by memories of a fairground near Salford.
The 20x12 project continues to be a great source of discovery and, to my mind, the most interesting offshoot of the Olympic Games. NMC have recently released three new pieces in the series: The Voyage by Michael Wolters, Zatopek! by Emily Howard and Fire by CT founder David Bruce. These new works greatly enrich what was already a delicious smorgasbord of new music. As before, they are available as a subscription download, and as individual tracks on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify.
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Perhaps you needed to be a brass player fully to appreciate Mark Anthony Turnage's Canon Fever, the world première of which opened the First Night of the Proms on Friday. Ruthlessly and relentlessly written, it provided the BBCSO players with a chance to exhibit the exuberant, atavistic side of their musical personalities. The result was three minutes of exhilarating music. It was a breath of fresh air in a concert that then descended into patriotic navel-gazing. Catch it on BBC iPlayer whilst you can.
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A short guide to the music of William Mathias, who died 20 years ago on 29th July.
I hail from the same part of the world as this most brilliantly communicative of composers. As with all who attended the old grammar school in the unexceptional town of Whitland, Carmarthenshire, I used to sing a work by Mathias at the beginning and end of every term, his School Song. Born in the town in 1934, Mathias had written the piece whilst a pupil at the school at the age of 11 or 12. It is a precocious work, with a shapely tune that comes to a rousing close, supported by effortlessly successful harmony. It is sad that, on turning comprehensive in 1989, the School Song, possibly Mathias's most performed work, was dropped.
The gusto with which normally unparticipative pupils sang Mathias's School Song suggests that his ability to communicate was an inherent part of his musical personality. It was a tendency that would eventually leave him, like Britten, at odds with the post-war avant-garde. Mathias was acutely aware of this. At the 1979 Menai Music Festival Lecture, he articulated his personal view that early twentieth-century innovations had led not, as some in the avant-garde believed, to a new unified system, but to the disintegration into various systems in which a composer should find his own place. It now seems obvious that this view was correct. As for his position in this pluralistic scene, in a BBC documentary devoted to his music, he railed against what he saw as the limited expressiveness of some twentieth-century music, which, he felt, sometimes gave the impression 'that music is there to talk insistently about tragedy, that it must always be unpleasant because that is the essence of our time.' He underlined this by going on to say that 'music...does many things: it can be tragic...[but]...it can also be extremely happy and it can be, in my view, an act of praise.'
These statements provide the key to understanding Mathias's music. The composer showed an uncanny knack for writing music of great range, both within pieces and between pieces, which nevertheless sounds like it is by the same person. By this I mean that he was just as capable of writing a good tune forged from tonal materials (though not actually using tonal procedures) as well as 'difficult' textures with high levels of chromatic density. As with the music of Benjamin Britten, this makes him a good starting point for those wishing to become accustomed to the sounds of new music. This was the function Mathias served for me as a teenager as I gradually got to know his music. It unlocked my ears, accustoming me to more adventurous sounds, which then allowed me to explore more experimental music.
The most familiar works by Mathias are his carol sequence Ave Rex, which includes the perennially popular Sir Christemas; A Babe is Born; and Let the People Praise Thee O God, the anthem written for the ill-fated wedding of Charles and Diana. All are rollicking pieces, superbly written for maximum tuneful effect. Whilst there are many other works in a similarly attractive style, Mathias also wrote more serious church music. There is the visionary and transportive As Truly as God is Our Father, the astringent Jesus College Service and the cerebral Four Latin Motets. There are three good discs for those who wish to explore this music: Christ Church Cathedral Choir conducted by Stephen Darlington on Nimbus, Wells Cathedral Choir and Matthew Owens on Hyperion and one released by the American choir Gloriae Dei Cantores, conducted by Elizabeth Patterson. My personal favourite, especially because of the immediacy of the recording, is Stephen Darlington and Christ Church. A better choice for newcomers, however, might be Matthew Owens and Wells Cathedral, since the disc also contains several of Mathias's organ works, including his catchy Processional. This provides a way into his substantial and serious organ works such as Berceuse, Antiphonies and Fenestra. These have been recorded both by John Scott on the organ of St. Paul's Cathedral on Nimbus and Reichard Lea (in a double disc survey of Mathias's complete organ output) on the organ of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral on Priory.
Mathias was also known for his large choral-orchestral works. One of these, World's Fire, is, sadly, unrecorded. This Worlde's Joie, Mathias's rumination on the seasons of the year and the stages of life, is available on Lyrita with an orchestral version of Ave Rex and his powerful setting of the thirteenth-century poem Elegy for a Prince. Perhaps his choral best (a phrase he himself used of the work) is, however, his Requiem Mass written in memory of his mother, Lux Aeterna. Whilst clearly deriving inspiration from Britten's War Requiem it is, in contrast, a work of extraordinary radiance. It is available in an electric performance with the LSO and Bach Choir conducted by Willcocks on Chandos. It is one of my most treasured recordings.
Mathias's output also includes a number of concertos, three symphonies and a wide variety of chamber music. Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2 Summer Music are available on Nimbus with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) under the baton of the composer. They make a fascinating pair. The first energetic and tuneful, the second dark and brooding. The years between the two symphonies were marked by orchestral works that Mathias called 'landscapes of the mind': Laudi, Vistas, Helios and Requeiscat. Helios and Requiescat, are available with the Third Symphony and Oboe Concerto, also with BBCNOW on Nimbus. Laudi and Vistas are available on Lyrita together with some early works -- Dance Overture, Divertimento for String Orchestra, Invocation and Dance and Sinfonietta -- that are both brilliantly written and outrageously good fun. The middle movement of the Harp Concerto shares both thematic material and the lamenting atmosphere of Elegy for a Prince, but is typically framed by two highly attractive and accessible movements. It is also available on Lyrita together with his Clarinet Concerto and the infectiously raucous Piano Concerto No. 3. For those interested in exploring Mathias's chamber music I recommend two discs: a recording of his three string quartets with the Medea Quartet on Metier and a disc that includes Mathias's Sonata No. 1 and No. 2 and Piano Trio on Koch.
For more information, visit the composer's page at OUP.
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On July 2nd, Avid Technology, the company who recently acquired Sibelius Software, announced a major restructuring. This included the shedding of 350 jobs and the sell-off of the audio peripheral division M-Audio and its consumer video division to Corel Corp in Ottawa for $17 million. According to an article on pro-tools-expert.com this restructuring will also include the closure of Sibelius's UK office. They quote one Sibelius team member as saying: 'this is heartbreaking, it took us 15 years to build this business and it took Avid 15 months to wreck it.' Whilst Ian Bruce, Director of Communications at Avid, stated yesterday on Twitter 'Let there be no doubt - Sibelius stays with Avid', it remains unclear as to how the reorganization will affect future development of the software.
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I've just updated CT's concert listings for July. Festival season gets into full swing this month, however, so, with so much going on, it would hard to make that list comprehensive. Instead I'll also try to summarize the festivals in which much of the music is being played, as well as a few highlights.
The Buxton Festival runs from 7th- 25th July. It is dedicated to music, opera and books. Whilst that doesn't include much in the way of contemporary music there is, nevertheless, a new productions of Britten's masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw, to look forward to on 16th and 20th July.
The Cheltenham Music Festival (4th- 15th July), contains a number of interesting new music concerts, handily summarized on their own page. It includes a Goehr Horn Trio première, a production of Edward Rushton's opera Babur in London and a concert of new music given by the BBC Singers that includes five premieres.
The Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival starts on 7th July and runs almost to the end of August. The focus of the programme this year is on Chinese culture, including the contemporary music scene. Details can be found on the festival website, here.
The Festival 'Aix en Provence (5th-27th July) features the world première of George Benjamin's new opera Written on Skin. It is based on an Occitan legend from the 12th century and explores the consequences of self-discovery and the limitations of human power. Performances are on 7th, 9th, 11th and 14th July.
There is also a new opera at this year's Bregenz Festival, Detlev Glanert's Solaris, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem. The work was also turned into a great film by Andrey Tarkovsky in 1972, so this new interpretation will have much to live up to. The premiere is on 18th July.
The Salzburger Festspiele runs from 20th July to 2nd September. It contains a series of concerts entitled 'Salzburg contemporary', including works by Lutoslawski, Dallappiccola, Boulez, Berio, Zimmerman, Scelsi, Ligeti and Stravinsky. A complete guide can be found here.
There are two other music festivals that may be worth investigating, though, at the time of writing, neither had published their programmes. They are the Schlern Festival (5th-25th July) and the Highscore Contemporary Music Festival (23rd July- 4th August). Both promise updates soon on their websites. Finally, don't forget that the Proms season gets going this month. A full preview can be seen in my earlier blog post, here.
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