It was with great sadness that I learnt of Claudio Abbado’s death on Monday. He is perhaps best known for being appointed as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic following Herbert von Karajan’s retirement and then sudden death in 1989. Abbado was, however, a much more passionate advocate of contemporary music than his notorious predecessor, whose occasional forays felt like tokenism when set alongside his vast discography of core works. Before expanding the Berlin Philharmonic repertoire, Abbado had also set up Wien Modern specifically to present key works of the twentieth century. Under his direction it has become one of the great European music festivals. It might also be speculated that the more open-minded approach of Abbado prepared the Berliners for the even more radical Simon Rattle.
From his recorded legacy I pick two treasured albums, neither, incidentally, with the Berlin Philharmonic: his emotionally charged recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and Kammersymphonie Nr. 1 by Schoenberg, Autoritratto nella note by Sciarrino, and 6 Bagatellen and Dopplekonzert by Ligeti with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The transitional musical vocabulary in the Schoenberg is, in particular, brilliantly shaped.
Using their extensive concert database, the people at Bachtrack have put together a fascinating analysis of classical concerts during 2013. Unlike CT, their listings do not concentrate on contemporary music so, using their data, it is possible to perform a crude assessment of the state of contemporary classical music as compared to classical music in general.
Most remarkable has been the extent of the 2013 Britten 100th birthday celebrations; internationally the composer was the fourth-most performed during the year (and the most performed in the UK), above such big beasts as Schubert and Brahms. Only Mozart, Beethoven and Bach did better. Perhaps surprisingly, given it is one of his more difficult and expensive works to mount, the most performed of his oeuvre was the War Requiem. Two other anniversary composers also did quite well: Poulenc climbed a little to 30th place, whilst Lutosławski moved from 79th in 2012 to 48th in 2013.
Hearteningly, a high proportion of music performed in 2013 is relatively recent. The graph at the bottom of their infographic shows concerts and operas divided by historical period. In all parts of the world surveyed, twentieth and contemporary music make a hefty proportion of total works performed, even if music by more recent composers makes up a much smaller fraction of this total. Of performances of music by living composers Arvo Pärt comes highest at 38, James Macmillan second at 45 (he is highest in the UK) and John Williams third at 77. More disheartening is the extent to which composition is still dominated by men. The highest entry for a female living composer is Judith Bingham at 202, followed by Unsuk Chin and Kaija Saariaho. The situation, incidentally, is not much better for conductors, with only Marin Alsop breaking into the top 100.
Most people would identify Britten as being at the softer end of twentieth-century music and would say that his popularity tells us something about enduring musical tastes: that, like the Queen (as Maxwell Davies cheekily revealed), most concertgoers have a hard time with dissonance. It is confirmed not only by the popularity of Pärt, Macmillan and John Williams in the Bachtrack listing, but also by my much less scientific analysis of CT’s 2013 concert listings where Britten is, again, the clear winner, with Steve Reich second, Stravinsky third and John Adams fourth.
In all this, however, I think that there are signs that audience tastes have matured. In my own experience as a listener one is, in the first instance, drawn to works are closest to the tonal music we tend to experience as children. When I first heard Britten’s War Requiem aged 14 I thought it was the most astonishing racket after Mozart’s K.626. Gradually my ears accustomed and I am now shocked by very little, even if I am occasionally bored or outraged by bad contemporary music. Audiences appear to be going through the same process. They still favour, and probably always will, music that still retains some kind of pitch centre and melodic line, but are nevertheless becoming more adventurous in their tastes – after all, there is plenty that does challenge in Britten, Stravinsky, Macmillan, Reich, Adams and even, away from the big Hollywood tunes, John Williams.
One last thing that came out of digging around CT’s 2013 concert listings was the sheer volume of living composers, some 450, who had music performed during the year. CT, just like Backtrack, does not pretend to be definitive, so this must represent a tiny proportion of all of those active in the world. That is heartening indeed. It is, of course, for audiences to provide the sifting that will ultimately decide the fate of all of these composers. That they have this year welcomed a twentieth century figure – Britten – above such old warhorses as Brahms and Schubert is a great encouragement to those of us stalking around the periphery (wrongly) believing that no one needs New Music.
Christmas, for me, has been a time for reflection, for planning ahead and hatching plans for the year to come: compose more, travel more, get on with a planned writing project. New Year is the time, apparently, to turn these thoughts into resolutions. I don’t think composers need New Year resolutions, however: they need lifelong resolution. To continue to do what we do in the face of public indifference and, frequently, lack of financial security takes courage and resolve. Sometimes the most talented of our number lack these characteristics and get sucked into other professions, where one can make a living at the cost of abandoning one’s dreams. We should all, however, make space for dreaming and cold-aired, clear-thinking January is the time to put these dreams into action, with planning and application.
If you’re lacking inspiration, perhaps have a look round CT’s composition and opportunities pages and resolve to enter a competition or two. Why not read some interviews with composers or listen to some showcase works by CT members? Finally, why not plan a visit to a concert or festival, either by visiting the concerts page or even, for the really forward thinking, by taking a look at this, CT’s preview of the big events to look forward to in 2014?
Whatever your plans for 2014, may yours be a successful and, verily, a Happy New Year!
Full summary available here.
2nd World première of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No. 10. Barbican, London.
7th Studio Concert: Knussen conducts Henze. BBC Maida Vale Stuidios, London.
7th-10th Peninsular Arts Contemporary Music Festival. Including computer and chamber music and the installation Light Entropy by David Strang. Held at Plymouth University.
15th Total Immersion Day with Scottish composer Thea Musgrave. Barbican, London.
22nd George Lewis world première of Memex, with works by Frith, Lewis and Mitchell. BBCSSO, Candleriggs, Glasgow.
23rd-3rd/4 A new production of Hans Werner Henze’s opera Boulevard Solitude. WNO, various venues.
23rd Event exploring Param Vir’s Sarod Concerto. BCMG, CBSO Centre, Birmingham.
2nd Premières of Run, Turn II, Song, Play,
Sound I, Sound II and Company by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. London Sinfonietta, Purcell Room, London.
4th-8th Hèctor Parra’s opera world première Te craindre en ton absence. Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris.
8th Total Immersion: Villa-Lobos. A celebration of the music of Villa-Lobos, an iconoclast whose raw, zestful music gave expression to a vibrant new polyglot culture. BBCSO and friends. Barbican, London.
12th London première of Simon Steen-Anderson’s Black Box Music plus works by Rune Glerup, Christian Winter Christensen and Nicolai Worssae. London Sinfonietta, Queen Elizabeth Hall.
25th Composition: Wales. A day of workshops followed by premières of composers working in Wales. BBCNOW. BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay.
2nd-19th/4 Thomas Adès’s opera Powder Her Face. London Coliseum.
5th John McCabe’s Fire at Durilgai, Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Endless Parade with BBC Philharmonic. Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.
5th-13th Lucerne Festival at Easter. Lucerne, Switzerland.
8th and 11th Oliver Knussen BCMG in Washington concerts. Includes world première of Mark Neikrug’s Piano Trio. BCMG, US Library of Congress, Washington.
23rd Michael Nyman Band performing various works by the composer. Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh.
24th Eclectica at the Barbican. Music by Arvo Pärt and a UK première from Dhafer Youssef. LSO conducted by Kristjan Järvi.
26th James McCarthy world première of Codebreaker, based on the story of Alan Turing. Barbican, London.
3rd-3rd/6 World première run of Julian Anderson’s opera Thebans. ENO, London Coliseum.
8th-17th Vale of Glamorgan Festival. In 2014 the festival remembers John Tavener, hosts a choral drama from Tarik O’Regan, and welcome back Ensemble MidtVest. Various venues in South Wales.
12th-3/6 Prague Spring International Music Festival.
16th, 20th ,25th 29th and 30th Birtwistle’s 80th birthday celebrations including: Gawain, Earth Dances, a study afternoon, a BCMG concert, Yan Tan Tethera and The Fields of Sorrow. Barbican, London.
24th-26th/7 A new production of Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron. WNO, various venues.
13th-29rd Aldeburgh Festival. Britten’s pacifist opera Owen Wingrave in a new production directed by Neil Bartlett. Recitals from Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès, Richard Goode, Mark Padmore. Featured composer Tristan Murail.
Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh.
20th-26th St Magnus International Festival. Orkney Islands, Scotland. 2014 programme available in April.
27th- 31st/7 Munich Opera Festival. Nationaltheater and other venues in Munich.
4th-17th Soundscape. Festival of new music with composer in residence Rand Steiger. Maccagno, Italian Alps.
11th-27st Buxton Festival. A marriage of opera, books and music, including some by contemporary composers.
5th-31st/8 Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival. As yet not much information available on the website. Various venues, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.
18th-13th/9 BBC Proms. Programme not currently available, but there will be guaranteed premières aplenty. Booking opens on 17th May 2014. Royal Albert Hall, London.
28th-9th/8 High Score Festival. Contemporary music festival and classes. Pavia, Italy.
Also in July (dates not yet available):
‘Aix en Provence Festival. Some information available here. As yet, no contemporary music has been announced, but this might change.
Tête à Tête Opera Festival. Rightly described as ‘our most imaginative opera laboratory’, the festival focuses entirely on new music.
3rd-9th Sound and Music Summer School. The Sound and Music Summer School is the only UK residential course of its kind for young composers (aged 14-18). Purcell School of Music.
8th-31st Edinburgh International Festival. Programme not yet available, but there is usually a goodly selection of new music.
21st-26th Presteigne Festival. Artistic innovation, musical discovery and, of course, new works in the Welsh Marches. Presteigne, Powys.
10th-20th Olso Contemporary Music Festival. 2014 is the 200th anniversary of the Norwegien Constitution, and under the theme “Nation”, the festival will focus on how a local musical identity is expressed in the context of an international, digital world.
6th-3rd/10 Beethovenfest. Some concerts available to view with the full programme available in the spring.
Also in September (date not yet available):
Warsaw International Festival of Contemporary Music. Still showing 2012 programme. Warsaw, Poland.
All dates not yet available:
Festival Internacional de Música Contemporánea de Tres Cantos. Contemporary music festival in Madrid, Spain.
Sound. North East Scotland’s Festival of New Music. Various venues.
Wien Modern. Festival that focuses on contemporary music. Still showing 2013 programme. Vienna, Austria.
16th-24th Lucerne Festival at the Piano. Some details already available, though, as yet, not much focus on contemporary piano repertoire. Lucerne, Switzerland.
It’s already time to start looking ahead to see what the New Year holds in store for contemporary music. I will do a full preview of 2014 nearer the time, but in the meantime here are some of the best concerts and events to take place in January.
UK highlights include the first performance of Larry Groves' The Rules by the National Youth Orchestra on January 5th at the Barbican; Juan Maria Solare’s Fénix with the CBSO in Birmingham on 10th; Kevin Volans’ Symphony Daar Kom die Alibama and James Macmillan’s Tuireadh with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on 23rd; and works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Christopher Trapani, Brian Ferneyhough, Julian Anderson and Horatio Radulescu performed by the Jack Quartet at Wigmore Hall also on 23rd. There are also a number of themed events: a Hear and Now James Macmillan Concert at City Halls, Glasgow on 11th; a five year anniversary concert at Hoddinott Hall, where there is the rare chance to hear several pieces by the venue’s namesake Alun Hoddinott; an ‘Eastern Vigil’ concert on 22nd given by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who will sing works by Arvo Pärt, Cyrillus Kreek, Vasyl Barvinski and Nikolai Kedrov; and a concert of contemporary Danish music at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff with BBCNOW on 28th. Also of interest is a welcome revival of David Alden’s 2009 production of Britten’s Peter Grimes, which begins its new run on 31st January at the London Coliseum.
There are several workshop-based events that will provide practical advice and inspiration to composers. The first is the LSO Soundhub Showcase on 11th January at Jerwood Hall, London. The event will provide the opportunity to meet five of the composers in the second year of Soundhub membership as they introduce a series of new chamber works written for members of the LSO. In a similar vein, on 21st at Studio 7 at the RNCM, there will be the chance to see behind the scenes as the works of ten contemporary composers – studying at the RNCM, Chetham’s Schools of Music and Salford University – are rehearsed, discussed and developed in a workshop with Camerata musicians overseen by Tansy Davies. On 28th at St. Paul’s Knightsbridge the BBC Singers in collaboration with Choir and Organ magazine will hold a Writing for Choirs workshop. Conductor Matthew Hamilton and composer Gabriel Jackson will give tips and techniques on notation, score-layout, vocal ranges, text-setting and choral techniques, whilst the BBC Singers will contribute their practical experience and expertise.
In the Salle Pleyel, France on 8th January Anne-Sophie Le Rol, Glen Rouxel and Suzana Bartal will play Sonata pour deux violons and Toccata pour piano solo by Eric Tanguy; also at the Salle Pleyel on 19th there will be a world première of a new work by Alberto Colla given by Orchestre National d’Île-de-France; the Boston Modern Orchestra will give premières by Rakowski, Ueno and Ruehr at Jordon Hall on 17th; whilst in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on 25th harpist Gwyneth Wentink will play works by Mensingh, Pärt, Snoel, Schlomowitz, Cymatical and Simeon ten Holt. Always interested in politics, an opera production that caught my attention was Sebastian Rivas’s Aliados, which Nixon in China-like examines the interaction of two world leaders, in this case Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet. Events are during the time that Pinochet was arrested in the UK and Thatcher lent him her unreserved support. The production takes place in the Théâtre de St-Quentin-en-Yvelines in Paris starting on 31st.
There are three projects on NMC to discover this month. The first is a continuation of their Sinfonietta Shorts venture, which debuted in 2008 as a celebration of the ensemble’s 40th birthday. The project has returned with five new bite-sized recordings of contemporary music: Axeman by Anna Meredith, es by Dai Fujikura, Little Duo by Jonathan Harvey, Duet 3 by Harrison Birtwistle and Parable by Mark Bowden. There is also a series of videos with players performers and, in the case of Jonathan Harvey, whose work was one of his last, an interview with Andrew Burke, the chief executive of the London Sinfonietta.
The Digital Discoveries project draws on the vast library of twentieth century and contemporary music held at the British Music Collection. The aim is to make hard to find music more widely available, both unfamiliar works by big name composers and those by less well-known figures that deserve to be rediscovered. Those represented include (out of 28 in total): Richard Ayres, Joe Cutler, Sam Hayden, Graham Fitkin, Tansy Davies, Luke Stoneham, Laurence Crane, Joseph Phibbs, Paul Whitty, Michael Zev Gordon, Geoff Hannan, Richard Baker, Katharine Norman, Andrew Toovey and Gabriel Jackson. The complete set is available for £35 or individual volumes may be purchased for £5.99 (mp3) and £6.99 (FLAC).
Finally, NMC mark the end of Britten’s centenary year in terrific fashion: with a double-disc set of unrecorded and largely forgotten music by the composer. The focus is on works written by Britten in America and on his association with Auden and Isherwood. Whilst this is largely the music of a jobbing composer rather than the towering figure that Britten later became, there is no doubting its effervescent quality. There is knowing pastiche everywhere – blues, cabaret songs, Hollywood schmaltz, Bach chorales – a reminder of the many influences that Britten absorbed in forging his mature style. Some of the works also serve as moving mementos of troubled times, especially, for example, An American in England, six programmes about wartime conditions in England. Britten probably viewed some of the music on these disks as, in some respects, disposable. However, even such obvious pastiches as the songs Roman Wall Blues and Where Do We Go from Here? stay with you long after listening. We should be grateful indeed to NMC for unearthing them after all these years.
Into the Ravine on Signum Records contains works written for the Carducci Quartet and premièred at the Presteigne Festival: Michael Berkeley’s Oboe Quintet, Into the Ravine; John McCabe’s String Quartet No. 7, Summer Eves and Adrian Williams’ String Quartet No. 4. Naxos marks the death of John Tavener with a new recording of Pratirūpa in its version for piano and string orchestra, performed by Ralph van Raat with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic. There are also new recordings of Seven Beauties Ballet Suite and The Path of Thunder by Shostakovich’s pupil Kara Karayev; Symphony Elixir and Songs of Love and Solitude by Keith Burstein; Sinfonia en Negro, Double Concerto and Columbus by Leonardo Balada and Piano Quintet Mei, Lan, Zhu, Ju and other works by Gao Ping.
There are a few contemporary music treats to enjoy before the classical music world dissolves into a frenzy of yuletide bonhomie.
On Friday 6th December there is the London première of Georg Frederick Haas’s In Vain, described by Simon Rattle, no less, as ‘An astonishing work of art that has become a cult wherever it is played. One of the first great masterpieces of the C21st.’ Falling on at the end of the Southbank’s year-long The Rest is Noise celebration, the London Sinfonietta will hold a ‘Festival in a Day’ on 8th. There will be twelve premières, including works by Edmund Finnis, Francisco Coll, Rebecca Saunders and Simon Steen-Anderson. On 12th December in City Halls, Glasgow, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will perform John Adams’s City Noir, a symphony of Los Angeles inspired by classic movies and scored for large orchestra.
Perhaps inspired by the time of year, there are several concerts of more accessible contemporary music. There is iconic film music on 1st December in a 60th birthday tribute concert to Patrick Doyle, whose scores include Hamlet, Henry V, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Eragon. There will also be the world première of his score for Jack Ryan. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s concert Americana on 2nd December includes works by Copland and Bernstein. The latter’s West Side Story – Symphonic Dances also concludes a programme of Barber and Gershwin given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at BBC Maida Vale on 6th December.
At the Musikverein, Vienna on 2nd December Ensemble Kontrapunkte present a programme that consists of music by Norbert Sterk, Judith Unterpertinger, Manuela Kere, Shih, Gernot Wolfgang and, the composer whose disc I reviewed in my previous post, Gerhard Schedl. On 8th December, Merkin Concert Hall in New York City will host pianist Aleck Karis presenting a concert dedicated to late works of the iconoclastic composer Morton Feldman. These are coupled with two pieces by Stefan Wolpe and Anton Webern’s Piano Variations. On 9th December, finally, at IRCAM, Paris, Tedi Papavrami (violin), François-Frédéric Guy (piano) and Xavier Phillips (cello) will play two works by Marc Monnet – Trio No. 3 and Imaginary Travel – framed by performances of Liszt’s Pensées des Morts and Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin.
The Boston-based Walden Chamber Players have just released a tribute to Austrian composer Gerhard Schedl. It’s title, A Voice Gone Too Soon, is a reference to his tragic death aged 43: he shot himself in woods near his house in Eppstein after suffering a long period of depression.
The knowledge of Schedl’s end makes experiencing his haunting music all the more poignant. It often moves at slow tempi, with passages of expressive gentleness being juxtaposed with sudden outbursts that feel bitter or sardonic. His music also sings; there is a strong emphasis on achingly melancholic melody. These traits may or may not be related to Schedl’s difficulties in life, it is impossible to say. What is much more certain is that each of the four chamber works on offer here—a duet, two trios and a piano quintet—show exquisite craftsmanship. Schedl’s expert instrumental writing, his judgement of balance and effect, do not falter throughout the programme.
Happily, the searching qualities of the music are married to structural discipline, perhaps reflecting the composer’s Austro-German lineage; he admitted, for example, to be strongly influenced by Bach. Whilst tonality is not, per se, an organising force, there is the use of pivot notes to ground the texture and even to reference, at a level of remove, tonality. This is most apparent at the end of the String Trio where a pitch centre set up at the opening of the work and a surface motive unite in what feels like an echo of a traditional cadence. A Due makes use of similar devices as well as cyclic recurrence of musical material (the opening of the last movement, for example, references the beginning of the work). A Tre is based on a single motive, used throughout. In five movements the shape is less traditional than those used in the other works, though, in some respects, the two Adagio movements, separated by one marked Moderato, feel as if they might have been conceived as one and later separated. In any case the resulting structure is satisfyingly balanced.
Most poignant of all is the final work of the programme A Cinque. It ends with an Adagio of harrowing beauty, a simple descending idea on the piano set alongside ethereal interjections from the clarinet, violin, viola and cello. Eventually the piano figure seems to win over the other instruments and the music draws to an agonising but serene close. It is draining to listen to this and at once to think of the tragedy of Schedl’s end.
The Walden Chamber Players have done us a great service in recording this marvellous music, more so because they are both alive to its every nuance and completely in command of its exacting technical requirements. The recording is clean, immediate and well-balanced. Recommended.
The rest of this month’s releases
Naxos have released a new recording of early Benjamin Britten Chamber music with Matthew Jones on Viola and Violin and Annabel Thwaite on Piano. With the exception of his Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland, all were written in the period between 1925 and 1937, three—Two Pieces for Violin and Piano; Etude, for Solo Viola; and Valse in B major (written at the age of just twelve)—being world première recordings. The Maxwell Davies series continues with the composer conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in performances of his Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 7 (for double bass) and 8 (for bassoon) and A Spell for Green Corn, written to celebrate both the composer’s 60th and the SCO’s 21st birthdays. There is a recording of Philip Glass’s Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists in a transcription for wind ensemble, paired with the world première recording of Mohammed Fairouz’s Symphony No. 4 In the Shadow of No Towers. The University of Kansas Wind Ensemble under Paul W. Popiel perform both works. Finally on Naxos, and in time for Christmas, is a disc of carols by the ever-popular Bob Chilcott, performed by Commotio under Matthew Berry.
Around the turn of the month, NMC will launch 8 volumes of music garnered from the 2004-2008 Contemporary Voices scheme. You can read about this forthcoming project on their website. More details in a future post. They will also soon release both an audio CD and DVD of Elliott Carter’s 103rd Birthday Concert held in December 2011 in New York City. Preview extracts can be heard here.
John Tavener, who died yesterday aged 69, was one of contemporary music’s most remarkable figures: his ability, especially, to write works that connected with ordinary people was unsurpassed in the contemporary music world. Whilst to many this was a source of suspicion – the term ‘holy minimalist’, often applied to him by critics, was not one of endearment – there is little doubting that his was a distinct musical voice.
Born in 1944, Tavener began composing at Highgate School. Even at this time religion was a vital inspiration–one of his earliest compositions, written at the age of 15, was a setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets Spit in my face you Jewes. After studying with Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy, he rose to prominence with his cantata The Whale, premiered in 1969 by the London Sinfonietta in their inaugural concert. On attending the first performance, the Guardian critic Meirion Bowen remarked of the 24-year old composer: ‘to my mind, John Tavener is the discovery of the year. An extraordinarily gifted and imaginative composer.’ The work, especially because of its association with the Beatles (who were persuaded to release it on their Apple record label), led to Tavener becoming something of a cult figure in swinging sixties London.
Bowen had also wryly observed that Tavener was ‘one of the most colourful sights on the concert platform.’ Tavener’s distinctive looks – the tall wiry frame that lent him an aspect of ethereal delicacy – proved to be an outward sign of internal problems; he was a lifelong sufferer of a cardio-vascular condition known as Marfan Syndrome. His awareness of this in the 70s perhaps gave greater urgency to his spiritual searching. This was initially manifested in an interest in Catholic mysticism. His Ultimos Ritos (1972), for example, sets quotations from the Crucifixus of Bach’s B Minor Mass against poetry of St. John of the Cross, even the disposition of the forces – the choir is arranged in the form of a cross – reinforcing the religious message. There was also a large-scale opera, Thérèse, which examined the life of the French Saint, who died at the age of 24 in excruciating pain following a loss of faith. By the time of the work’s first performance in 1979, however, Tavener had already converted to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The mid to late 70s had proved to be a difficult period for the composer. The early success of The Whale had initially led to an ongoing relationship with Apple with the release of his Celtic Requiem and Nomine Jesu. However, during much of the latter period his music had lain unrecorded. His personal life too had been unhappy; he was badly affected by the failure of his brief marriage in 1974 to the Greek dancer Victoria Maragopoulou. Neither did the 1980s start auspiciously. In 1980, at the age of 36, he suffered a stroke that was to mark an intensification of his health problems. Creatively, however, this period saw the emergence of his mature compositional voice, resulting in a number of works remarkable for both their intense spirituality and their penetration into popular culture.
His 1982 setting of the Blake poem The Lamb, which contrasted mirrored intervals and simple harmonisations, won wide popularity and is probably his most frequently performed work. Subsequent compositions – Ikon of Light (1983), Orthodox Vigil Service (1984) and Panikhida (1986) – continued this trend, but it was The Protecting Veil (1988) that marked his re-emergence in mainstream popular culture. The recording of the work, a large-scale Maryan devotion for cello and string orchestra, quickly became a best-seller. Around this time the media increasingly portrayed him as a kind of spiritual guru, often photographed in quasi-religious dress and with Orthodox religious paraphernalia. It was an image that did little to win over his critics, and was something he later regretted, remarking: ‘They used to come with props and dress me up and I let it go. But I find it a bit offensive now, because those pictures suggest a cheap easy spirituality when it was actually hard. I feel I should have shut up about Orthodoxy and just got on with it.’
Tavener’s international popularity intensified in 1997 with the performance of his Song for Athene (1993) at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. There were also, however, more substantial projects in preparation. The Veil of the Temple (2002), for example, is a work of both cosmic length and sustained simplicity, the performance lasting seven hours. His Requiem (2007), at a more terse 30 minutes, is a moving multi-faith exploration of the theme of death. The work also, sadly, marked a sudden decline in the composer’s health. He suffered two heart attacks in 2007-8 and was unable to compose for several years.
One senses that the road to recovery was more than physical for the composer – that it had also led to a reappraisal in other areas. Partly this was expressed in regrets as to how his religiosity had been marketed to the detriment of his music. It is also significant that his illness had led him back to classical works that he had long eschewed. Of this potential new direction he said: ‘what I am writing is scaling down. It’s more intimate, more personal, much of it addressed to my family. Religion has become a more interior process.’ In one of his last interviews, cruelly billed as a 70th birthday tribute, he was full of plans for the future. Sadly, these will never be fulfilled. We are left, however, with a remarkable creative life to ponder and, not least, a canon of works that prove that contemporary music can connect with ordinary people in the most vital way.
Time to enjoy 2013’s last gasp of contemporary concerting before the festive season kicks in…
November sees the climax of the Britten centenary celebrations, with his birthday falling on 22nd of the month. There is much to enjoy.
Glyndebourne is touring his most ascetic of operas, The Rape of Lucretia, with performances in Woking (31st October) Norwich (8th November), Canterbury (15th), Milton Keynes (22nd) and Plymouth (6th). There will also be a semi-staged performance of Albert Herring on 23rd at the Barbican. Other substantial works include his Sinfonia da Requiem in Cardiff on 1st and in Nottingham on 20th; two performance of his War Requiem, one in the Albert Hall, London to mark Remembrance Day on 10th, the other in Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 15th; and his charming children’s opera Noye’s Fludde in Glasgow on 17th. As well as the aforementioned Albert Herring, his birthday weekend will be marked with several events: a Britten centenary concert of vocal works at Symphony Hall, Birmingham (22nd); a come-and-sing performance of Friday Afternoons at Jerwood Hall, London; and a centenary family concert at Snape Maltings on 23rd.
Amidst the Britten celebrations, there are also a number of concerts featuring the works of living composers. There is a day devoted to the music of Julian Anderson at Wigmore Hall, London and a concert of music for organ and electronics in Colchester on 2nd; the world première of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Ebb in Edinburgh with the the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Edinburgh on 9th; two concerts of premières or recently-written music music in London on14th, one at The Forge, the other at BBC Maida Vale; Georg Freidrich Haas’s in vain at Huddersfield Town Hall on 16th; a concert devoted to American music at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff on 19th; and Andrew Smith’s Norwegian Requiem at LSO St. Luke’s, London on 26th.
Outside the Europe there is the opportunity to hear Louis Andriessen’s Mysteriën on 3rd in Amsterdam; music by Johannes Maria Staud, Bernd Richard Deutsch and Peter Eötvös on 15th in Vienna; and a Wolfgand Rihm world première also in the city. Both of these last two feature as part of the Wien Modern festival which began last month but runs until 15th of November. Further details of the remaining concerts can be found here.
EDIT: Fool that I am, I missed one of the most important contemporary music events in this roundup. Happily, there's still time to organise your visit to the Huddersfiled Contemporary Music Festival, which runs from Friday 15th to Sunday 24th November. Full details are available here.
NMC’s new disk dedicated to the music of Philip Cashian spans some ten years of his output. It includes his Tableaux for small orchestra, Cello Concerto, Dark Flight for six cellos, The House of the Night for oboe and twelve solo strings and his Piano Concerto. I’ve only spent the morning dipping into it, so will limit myself to saying that this is exciting and brilliantly inventive music, well worth checking out. Extracts are available on the NMC website together with an interview with the composer. The complete disc is available on Spotify.
EMI have just released a new recording of Britten’s War Requiem, with Antonio Pappano conducting the Orchestra, Coro e Voci Bianche dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia with soloists Anna Netrebko, Ian Bostridge and Thomas Hampson. It’s a worthy and powerful addition to the catalogue, though I found the unfamiliar timbre of the Italian choir jarring in this most English of repertoire. It also faces stiff opposition, not least from Britten’s own recording and – my personal favourite – Richard Hickox with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
On Naxos there is a programme of flute music by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks. It contains his Flute Concerto, Sonata for Flute and Alto Flute, Aria e Danza and Ainava ar putniem (Landscape with Birds) performed by Michael Faust, Patrick Gallois (flutes), Sheila Arnold (piano) and Sinfonia Finlandia. Also on Naxos, Jeremy Filsell’s Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day, Epitaph, If God Build Not the House and Windsor Service; and David Briggs’s Pange Lingua and Messe pour Saint-Sulpice receive world première recordings by the Vasari Singers conducted by Jeremy Backhouse. The composers accompany on the organ. Finally on Naxos, there is a new album containing John Cage’s A Book of Music for two prepared pianos, Suite for Toy Piano and Music for Amplified Toy Pianos performed by Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer.
Chandos, meanwhile, have released a new album of music by John Adams with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. It contains his Doctor Atomic Symphony, Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Harmonielehre. It’s also worth checking out Chandos's end of stock, better than half price, page; there are a number recordings of music by living composers to be found there, including by Michael Berkely, Jonathan Dove, James MacMillan and David Matthews. Also of interest to many will be a new release on DG of Boulez conducting the complete Mahler Symphonies. I am intimately familiar with his recording of Number 6 (‘the only sixth, despite the Pastoral’ as Berg said), included in this set. Boulez often divides opinion, of course, but I found it extremely exciting – not remotely ‘cold’ as he is so often characterised. The rest of the set should, therefore, be worthy of exploration.
‘The trumpet does no more stun you by its loudness, than a whisper teases you by its provoking inaudibility.’
So it proved this weekend at Arcomis’s extraordinary International Brass Event in Cardiff. This is, by no means, a complete review – I wasn’t able to attend the whole event – but I did manage to spend most of Saturday and the first half of Sunday at the festival, gobbling and binging on its many world-class concerts.
As a brass player I suppose I was inevitably going to be delighted at the prospect of hearing players of the likes of Tine Thing Helseth, Allen Vizzutti and David Childs all in one place. Nor did any of them disappoint. For me, however, it was Vizzutti who stood out. Not only does his playing exhibit astonishing mastery, he is also, it turns out, no mean composer either. Of the many pieces of his we heard, I was particularly struck by his Andante and Capriccio, a work that was refreshing in its lack of pretension: well-made music with beautiful melodies and luxurious textures and harmonies.
And amidst all the brass fireworks there was plenty of other new music to enjoy. A crack brass quintet from the London Sinfonietta tackled a technically exhausting programme of Berio, Birtwistle, Lutoslawski, Macmillan and Jackson. Byron Flucher stood out with a whimsical and well thought-out performance of Berio’s Sequenza V for solo trombone. I also enjoyed the three works for quintet: Lutoslawski’s Mini Overture, MacMillan’s Adam’s Rib and Jackson’s Two Haiku. Despite admiring the incredible control of the two trumpeters in Birtwistle’s The Silk House Tattoo, however, I remain puzzled by the work. Perhaps this is because it is Birtwistle at his most pared down, even the theatrical element reduced to a ritualistic marching of the trumpets round an imaginary circle. It all left me feeling a bit cold, wishing I could listen to one of his more luscious orchestral scores. The Sinfonietta concert was followed by a workshop given by players Alistair Mackie and Byron Flucher, entiled A Way into Berio. Aimed primarily at players it also provided penetrating analysis of Sequenzas V and X. Flucher’s demonstration was particularly revealing. Uninformed players come to this repertoire at their peril.
David Childs’ brilliant advocacy of the euphonium on Sunday morning was only let down by a programme that was, perhaps, a reminder to composers that this is an instrument that needs and deserves more repertoire. The world première of Mervyn Burtch’s Nocturne and Dance stood out, a tautly written work in his characteristically astringent style. Also on offer was Karl Jenkins’ Euphonium Concerto, written specifically for Childs. Often infectious and attractive it was, however, sometimes spoilt by taking itself too seriously, most notably in a badly misjudged section of multiphonics – an unnecessary nod to modernist extended techniques from a composer who prides himself in being above such things.
Throughout the concerts were interpolated a series of newly commissioned fanfares. I declare my interest here and say that one of these was written by me. Written in homage to anniversary composers Britten, Lutoslawski, Hindemith, Poulenc and Berio, they also provided musical clarion calls before and after concerts at St. David’s Hall (and, in one case, at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama). In addition to this there was a concert of new works for brass that resulted from an Arcomis call. For me this was the beating heart of the Brass Event. As we sat listening in a nightclub-like atmosphere, glass of wine in hand, to the varied and interesting newly written works, the whole purpose of the weekend became clear. In a sense all the high-profile concerts and workshops were a foil, a brilliantly subversive feint that enabled Arcomis to get across its core message: that new music matters and that, whatever your stylistic preference, there is a living composer who can provide you with music you can love. One can only hope that Arcomis is successful in its mission to connect people to the arts. And that we can have another festival soon. Please.
For more information about Arcomis see CT’s interview with its director Adrian Hull.
Following their success with the 2011 International Flute Event, Arcomis (Arts Commissioning) have followed-up with a festival dedicated to brass music. The Arcomis International Brass Event takes place from 10th–13th October in Cardiff. It offers an extraordinary range of big name performers including: David Pyatt (french horn); Tine Thing Helseth, Allen Vizzutti and Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet); Oren Marshal (tuba); David Childs (euphonium); the London Sinfonietta; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; and Mnozil Brass. Composers represented include Oliver Knussen, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Edvard Hagerup Bull, James Macmillan, Luciano Berio, Mervyn Burtch and Tobias Broström. There will also be a series of newly commissioned fanfares interpolated throughout the concert series as well as a large number of behind-the-scenes workshops.
Sound, Scotland’s festival of new music, takes place from 23rd October–23rd November in and around Aberdeen. It opens with a new work Framed Against the Sky by Brian Irvine. From 24th–27th October there will be an exploration of the world of microtonal music in collaboration with University of Aberdeen, including new works by Christopher Fox and Geoff Palme. The festival will also take a look at how sound and images interact in performances of Stephen Deazley’s ManHigh, Joby Burgess’s Powerplant and a sound tapestry by Leafcutter John.
In Italy the Venice Biennale 57th International Festival of Contemporary Music runs from 4th–13th October. There are premières of works by Sofia Gubaidulina, Evis Sammoutis, Rebecca Saunders, Andrea Portera, Claudio Ambrosini, Claudio Ambrosini, Kaija Saariaho, Giampaolo Coral, Raffaele Grimaldi, Raphaèle Biston, Ryo Dainobu, Pasquale Corrado, Eric Maestri, Zad Moultaka and many others. There is also a very wide range of more established contemporary music on offer. The full programme is available here.
In Madrid, finally, the 13th Festival Internacional de Música Contemporánea is already underway, but there remains much to hear before its conclusion on 27th October. There are world premières from David del Puerto, Leonardo Balada, Pascal Gaigne, Jesús Torres, Mario Carro, Juan Manuel Ritz, Eduardo Soutullo and Cruz López de Rego as well as music from composers such as Cage, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Gorecki, Bryars and Britten. For the first time, each concert will also be prefaced or finished with seminar discussions with composers and/or musicians.
Do you have a piece of music languishing in a bottom drawer? You are rightly convinced of its merits, but do not have the financial means to get it performed?
When Harry Whalley, an Edinburgh based composer, found himself in this all too familiar predicament, instead of succumbing to bottom drawer desperation he launched his piece Entangled Music on Kickstarter, the website that aims to crowd-fund worthy projects. Digging around on the website I have discovered a whole host of other similar projects being funded in this manner: there is Meditation on ‘Haec Dies’ by Joseph Fear, a CD recording project of new music for solo piano on the theme ‘American Vernacular’, a series of vocal pieces by Daniel Knaggs, and many others. In fact, of all the creative categories on Kickstarter in 2012, music was the most successful, with a total of 5,067 receiving full funding.
The successful projects all seem to have something in common. They make reasonable financial demands and pledges can be as small as £1 (or $1 in the States). Harry, for example is asking for just £2,048. At the time of writing, with 13 days to go, he is already at £1,722. It is much the same with the other projects I have listed.
I find all this incredibly heartening. Who said that new music can’t survive in the marketplace? As such, perhaps it is time for all of us to pay Kickstarter a visit and start pledging towards whatever catches our eye. And also time for us all to show some self-belief, extract those masterpieces from their dusty dwelling-places and make appeals on behalf of our own music.
I often write about Naxos and, more obviously (it’s dedicated to contemporary music, after all), NMC in these roundups. Métier, now absorbed by Divine Art Recordings Group, is another label that is a treasure trove for new music lovers. Their most recent contemporary music releases are: Michael Finnissy’s Unknown Ground, James Weeks’ TIDE and Carson Cooman’s Rising at Dawn. I have listened to the first two of these.
I met Michael Finnissy at an event dedicated to his music at Cardiff University several years ago. He gave a talk to us that was quite unlike those that other visitors had given: it was often personal, sometimes bitter, but above all fascinating, revealing and inspiring. The concert that evening was unforgettable, especially for the chance to hear live his innocuous sounding English Country Tunes for solo piano, at the end of which the pianist is almost crucified on the keyboard with each hand playing virtuosically at extreme ranges. What was interesting from the other works in the concert, however, was that Finnissy’s music moves within a range: not everything is hard and angry. That is very much true of Metier’s new disc in their series dedicated to the composer.
It contains three première recordings: Kritik der Urteilskraft, Unknown Ground and A propos de Nice. Kritik de Urteilskraft is all restraint and fabulously beautiful long textures before opening out into more Webernesque pointillism. This never, however, entirely gives way to Finsissy’s preference for expressive melody. Unknown Ground is a moving setting of the words of various Aids sufferers. It is simply set, the emphasis always on the text, an approach that reinforces its emotionally charged content. A propos de Nice provides an often-jaunty contrast to the other two pieces, though it is interspersed with more contemplative passages that recall Kritik de Urteilskraft. The language everywhere is uncompromising, in spite of the occasional glimpses of English pastoralism. It is not easy music to get to know, but it is worth the effort. For those unfamiliar with his language, the disc is a good place to start.
James Weeks’s TIDE, is actually a melding together of three works, a ‘composite’ composition. These are Burnham Air for solo oboe d’amore, Tide (lower case) for solo cello and Sky for solo clarinet. These are presented apart on the second disc in the collection, together – not exactly at the same time since they are all different lengths – on the first.
Heard alone, Sky is a work of transcendental calm, the clarinet playing in lugubrious long counterpoints with a six-track recording of itself. The slightest event takes on enormous significance, the sound of the player’s breath, the beating sounds created by detuning. Burnham Air, by contrast, is a plaintive work of curling scales and arpeggios, key-rattles and wailing detuning. It works its way into a strangely passive but extremely unsettling frenzy. Tide sits in between the feverish machinations of Burnham Air and the cosmic breadth of Sky. It is, perhaps, the least interesting of the three when played alone; the ceaseless glissandi and droning feel a little unvaried.
The gradual unfolding of these three planes in the composite work TIDE feels almost mystical in its inevitability, the whole becoming greater than the already substantial sum of its parts. Especially striking, when the planes start to interact, are the spectral effects created by the shifts in tuning. It feels like Weeks is playing with the waveform essence of music, manipulating things at their very root. The result is music that feels original but in some way also primeval. There is a lot going on, and I can’t pretend to understand it all, let alone describe it in words. I recommend taking half an hour to make up your own mind, especially if you have Spotify, where Métier release all their recordings.
Naxos has four new albums of contemporary music on offer. The first contains John Rutter’s Suite Antique, Philip Glass’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra and Jean Françaix’s Concerto pour Clavecin et Ensemble Instrumental. In the American Classics series there is a recording of John Knowles Paine’s As You Like It Overture, The Tempest and Symphony No. 1. The Maxwell Davies series also continues with Strathclyde Concertos Nos 5 (for violin and viola) and 6 (for flute). The last consists of world première recordings of John Corigliano’s Conjurer, a concerto for percussion and strings, and Vocalise for soprano and electronics.
Whilst chatting to a friend recently he confessed to ‘centenary fatigue’. It wasn’t, he said, that he was bored with hearing music by Benjamin Britten. He did feel, however, that spending an entire year playing music by a composer whose work is often played anyway was a wasted opportunity. He extended that argument, though less pointedly, to Lutosławski (who, in the UK at least, has received less attention). Why don’t we, he suggested, explore music by centenarians whose music is less often played?
Inevitably this set me wondering whom these other centenarians might be, so I decided to have a bit of a dig around. Whilst I found many, only a handful had a discography big enough for me to construct what I was after: an alternative centenary celebration that didn’t feature the big two. So here’s my top seven, in no particular order. If you click on the name of the composer you can learn a bit more about them, the links on pieces will take you to relevant recordings on Spotify. If you have an account you can participate in this alternative celebration right away. If not, you will see some album information, which will help you track down recordings. Enjoy!
Jerome Moross (1913–1983)
Born in New York, Moross who was a lifelong friend of Bernard Herrmann, with whom he shared an interest in writing for film and television. His best known film scores include The Big Country (1958), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960) and The Cardinal (1963). He also wrote concert works – including a symphony, a sonata for piano and a string quartet – and orchestrated for other composers, including Aaron Copland and Hugo Friedhofer.
Henry Brant (1913–2008)
A Canadian-born American composer who developed the idea of spatial music, in which the location of instruments and singers is a compositional element. Whilst his larger works, such as Meteor Farm (1982), often include unusual instrumental combinations, he also experimented with homogenous instrumental timbres, as in Orbits for 80 trombones, organ and voice; Ghosts and Gargoyles for 9 flutes; and Angels and Devils for 11 flutes.
Alvin Etler (1913–1973)
Another American composer. His compositional style was inspired by Bartók and Copland as well as by some aspects of jazz. His best-known works are for wind (Etler, himself, was an oboe player), including his Quintet for Brass Instruments and Fragments for woodwind quartet.
George Lloyd (1913–1998)
A British composer relatively well-known on these shores, but less so elsewhere. His style was staunchly conservative, which tended to divide opinion, even if few doubted his orchestral mastery. He is best known for his twelve symphonies and a number of concertos. His final work was his Requiem, completed three weeks before he died at the age of 85.
Maurice Ohana (1913 –1992)
An Anglo-French composer with a penchant for microtonality. This trait may have been influenced by his interest in Mediterranean folk music, especially Andalusican cante jondo. It is evident in such works as Si le jour paraît for ten-string guitar and Tombeau de Claude Debussy. A good starting place for getting to know his dense style is on Erato’s Ohana: The Collected Works.
Constantin Silvestri (1913–1969)
A Romanian musician whose work as a conductor tends to obscure his significant output as a composer: he wote over forty orchestral, chamber and vocal pieces. One of his best known is his early Three Pieces for Strings. To learn more about him, it is worth reading the interview with Anda Anastasescu on CT, a Romanian pianist who has done much to champion his work.
Norman Dello Joio (1913–2008)
An American composer with a conservative outlook. He studied with Bernard Wagenaar at the Julliard School and later with Paul Hindemith. Within the wind band world he is quite well known, especially for his frequently performed Fantasies on a Theme by Haydn. Other important works include Meditations on Ecclesiastes, for which he won a Pullitzer Prize for Music, and his Variations, Chaconne and Finale.
I start with a reminder that, as well as reading this monthly summary of upcoming contemporary music events, readers should also check CT’s concert diary, to which all members are free to contribute. As usual, I’ve added a number of concerts that I have found hither and thither to this list.
A few especially caught my eye. The first, Total Immersion: The Rite of Spring 1913 is a day-long event to mark 100 years since the first performance of Le Sacre. It includes a showing of the films Ballet Russes and Riot at the Rite, a talk about the work and a family introduction to the evening concert that, of course, includes a performance of Stravinsky’s masterpiece. In Paris on 27th September IRCAM are marking the untimely death of Jonathan Harvey with a tribute concert that contains his Two Interludes and a scene from Wagner Dream as well as music by Webern, Bernd Zimmerman and Matthias Pintscher. The Barbican, finally are hosting the UK première of Kimmo Pohjonen and Samuli Kosminen’s Uniko. With its ‘lighting effects, surround sound and projections’ this is likely to be an unforgettable experience.
There are several important festivals in September. Ultima, the Oslo Contemporary Music Festival runs from 5th–14th. Scandanavia’s largest contemporary music festival, the theme this year is ‘Off-Road’, highlighting those who find alternative ways to create musical expression. Composers represented include Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Alvin Lucier and Frank Zappa. Alongside the festival runs Ultima Academy, an international symposium that includes lectures, workshops and debates about contemporary music.
The Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music runs from 20th–28th September. This year the focus is very much on new works, with the majority being either very recently or newly composed. Having said this, it also will focus on three important Polish anniversary composers: Witold Lutosławski (100th) and Henryk Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki (80th). Performances will include Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto and Symphony No. 3, all three of Gorecki’s String Quartets and Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion.
In the UK, finally, the North Wales International Music Festival (20th – 28th September) will include performances of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, vocal music by Paul Mealor and a rare chance, on the final day, to hear William Mathias’s Violin Concerto.
August sees another round of centenary releases, many of which revisit older recordings, either in the form of new collections or remasters.
Decca’s seminal 1963 recording of Britten’s War Requiem has been rereleased in a new version that uses the original tapes and early LP pressings. They have somehow managed to squeeze the entire War Requiem onto one CD or, if you have the equipment, a 24bit Blue-Ray disc. The second disc contains recordings of the composer in rehearsal, a historical document that will interest many. EMI have released a six CD collection of vocal works by Britten that includes performances, some of which date back to the 70s, of all of his orchestral song cycles: Les Illuminations, Our Hunting Fathers, Serenade, Nocturne, Phaedra and the astonishingly precocious Quatre Chansons Français, written when the composer was just fourteen. It also includes a number of folksongs, sonnets and canticles. On Signum Classics, meanwhile, there is a live recording of the Aldeburgh centenary production of Peter Grimes, featuring Alan Oke as Grimes, Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford, the Chorus of Opera North and Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Britten-Pears Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford.
Lutosławski has, somewhat unjustly, received rather less attention than Britten this year. Naxos, however, have been steadily putting this right with a series of recordings, some of which I have commented upon in earlier roundups. They have now bundled these into a 10 CD box set. It includes many of his major works: the four symphonies, Jeux Venitiens, Chain I, II and III and the Piano and Cello Concertos. Whilst the majority of these are performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under Antoni Witt, the tenth ‘bonus’ disc reveals an important historical document worth the purchase price of the collection by itself: the final recording of Lutosławski in concert, here directing his Partita, Interlude, Chains I and II I and Chantefleurs et Chantefables.
Not a centenary composer, but one whose death last year makes him worthy of tribute, Hans Werne Henze is the subject of a new 16 CD boxed set featuring the complete recordings made by Deutsche Grammophon. As such, it is not a definitive collection; out of the ten symphonies by the composer, for example, it contains only numbers 1–6. There are, however, a number of other important works, notably his opera The Young Lord and his requiem for Che Guevara The Raft of Medusa.
If you would like a sanitised view of 20th century music, look no further than Decca’s new 3CD The Essential 20th Century. It contains some curious choices. Whilst I wouldn’t quibble with such works as Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Stravinsky’s Sacre or Ives’ 3 Places in New England I do wonder why they would include Eric Coates Dam Busters or John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List. I like both works but would call neither ‘20th Century Classics’. There is the occasional nod towards the more challenging, but even this can feel like tokenism. Schoenberg, for example, is represented by his 1897 String Quartet in D major, not even written in the twentieth century and not remotely characteristic of his oeuvre. Having said this, however, there’s enough meat amongst the lollipops to perhaps make this a useful introduction to those whose listening habits struggle to pass 1900. A present for sceptical friends and relatives, perhaps?
NMC this month will release a new disc of chamber music by Alexander Goehr. It features his Since Brass, Nor Stone for percussion and string quartet, …around Stravinsky (based upon the early Pastorale), Quintet for clarinet and strings, manere (based upon a medieval plainchant) and Large Siciliano. As sometimes happens on NMC, the disc has appeared on the website but the audio clips are not yet playable. This will change shortly. Hyperion, finally, has a new disc featuring the choral music of Judith Bingham, performed by Wells Cathedral Choir, Jonathan Vaughn on the organ and conducted by Matthew Owens. Highlights from the disc are available on the website and you are can download one track, Ave verum corpus, for free.
Concert centres hosting summer festivals are alive with activity this month. Others, such as Wigmore Hall (here’s their August itinerary, which you can compare with a normal month, here), are taking a holiday break.
I mentioned ten festivals at the beginning of July, five of which – the BBC Proms, Schlesswig Holstein, Bregenz, Salzburg and La Roque D’Anthéron – continue into August and in some cases beyond. They are all, therefore, worth looking into again. There are also several other festivals that begin in August:
Tête à Tête, the only opera festival in the world that consists entirely of new works, gets going tomorrow. Each evening at the Festival typically features three longer pieces and a couple of shorter works. There is also the chance to go to free ‘Lite Bite’ unticketed concerts where works of up-and-coming composers are featured. This year these are: Matt Rogers’ Recurrent, Will Handysides’ Of My Daughter’s Prayer, John Webb’s Cat-Astrophe and – a much-respected Cardiff colleague of mine – Fleur de Bray’s Long Lankin.
The Edinburgh Festival (9th August–1st August) offers a wide range of cultural events, as well as some concerts that feature new music. On 10th August, for example, there is the chance to hear the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra perform Varèse’s Intégrales Amériques and Berio’s Sinfonia. Philip Glass will also be present at the Festival, performing in a tribute to the work of the great Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg on 13th. A summary of all the concerts in the festival is available here.
Taking inspiration from the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Primptemps, the Lucerne Summer Festival's (16th August–15th September) theme is ‘Revolution’. The focus will be on composers, new and old, who initiated radical innovation and whose music responded to political, social and cultural revolutions. Composers include Schoenberg, Shotakovich, Nono, Lachermann, Stravinsky and Israeli composer-in-residence Chaya Czernowin.
Whilst the beautiful venue at Grafenegg, Austria, offers concerts throughout the summer, it also has its own festival, which this year runs from 16th August–8th September. Of chief interest to readers here is a number of performances of music by Australian composer Brett Dean, who will also be in-residence. Works of his on offer include: Testament, Amphitheatre and Komorav’s Fall for orchestra and his Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. On 18th August there will also be the chance to see Dean interact with young composers in the final part of a workshop project. The festival programme can be found here.
The Presteigne Festival runs from 21st – 27th August on the Powys/Herefordshire border. There will be the chance to hear Britten’s Curlew River played in a double-bill with a new three-act chamber opera by Sally Beamish based upon the biblical story of Hagar and Abraham. Gabriel Jackson is composer-in-residence and will be represented by a number of chamber and choral works, a new piece for string quartet and another chance to hear his Piano Concerto, commissioned by the Festival a few years ago. There will also be premières from Thomas Hyde, David Matthews and Robert Peate.
Today, I have been trying to think of pieces of music that might be appropriate for the celebration of a royal baby. The Cunning Little Vixen, perhaps, with its story of birth and renewal. The only other opera with a baby that comes to mind – also by Janáček – is Jenůfa, but not even an ardent republican would find a story about infanticide very appropriate. There must be others. Perhaps Wills and Kate should commission a new work from a living composer. That would be a challenging brief.
July CD Roundup
Chandos continues to celebrate the Britten centenary with a new disc featuring Howard Shelly performing his Concerto for Piano and Tasmin Little the Concerto for Violin accompanied by the BBC Philharmonic under Edward Gardner. The Piano Concerto is of particular interest since it also includes a recording of the original third movement of the work before it was revised in 1945. A search for Peter Maxwell Davies at Naxos now reveals three pages of albums that are dedicated to or contain his music, many conducted by the composer himself. This important work continues this month with a new recording of his Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 with Robert Cook (French horn), Peter Franks (trumpet), Lewis Morrison (clarinet) accompanied by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under the baton of the composer. Also on Naxos is a recording of Salvador Brotons Symphony No. 5, Oboe Concerto and 4 Pieces with the Orquesta Simfònica de Balears conducted by the composer. There are, finally, two more complete editions this month. The first, released by DG, features the music of Messiaen and comes in on 32 CDs for the modest price of £82.83 (Amazon). The second, not strictly relevant here but catching my eye nevertheless, is the release of the already extant Teldec Complete Bach Edition in a new format: a 32GB USB stick. You can pick this up for a paltry £136.20 at Amazon. Take my money…
Sound and Music are currently running calls for three Embedded projects. The deadline – 30th July – is fast approaching. The first is from The Opera Group, who are offering the opportunity for two composers to spend 18 months in residence with them. You don’t have to have had any experience of writing opera to apply. The second is from the Somerset House Trust. The successful applicant will be given the chance create works in response to the ‘unique spaces’ in the building. Finally, the University of Huddersfield is offering the opportunity for a composer to create one or more new works that engage with objects in the British Music Collection. More details are available on the Sound and Music website.
The BBC Proms – Looking Ahead
A heads up for interesting concerts at the BBC Proms over the last few days of July. Thursday 25th sees the world première of John McCabe’s Joybox in a concert of works inspired by or written for dance. McCabe’s music can be colourful and very direct when he’s in the mood (as, for example, in his Les martinet noirs), so I’ve feeling we’ll be in for a treat. Monday 29th sees the UK première of Colin Matthews’ mercurial Turning Point, a work actually written some seven years ago – it is curious that it has taken so long to make its way to our shores. For something different on the same day, check out Naturally 7’s late night Prom. I freely admit they are not my cup of tea, but their R&B a capella beatboxing is, nevertheless, highly engaging. The late night Prom on 31st also looks interesting, with performances of Frank Zappa’s drolly counter-cultural The Adventures of Greggery Peccary, a performance of Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No. 7 and the UK première of Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 10.
It’s fashionable to knock Karl Jenkins. Some might say that it is even inappropriate for me to blog here about him. The truth is, however, that his music provokes valid questions about the place of contemporary music in our society. He is one of the few living composers who make a living out of writing concert music away from the support structures of arts bodies. For that alone he should demand respect.
In the world of record labels successful music equals commercial music. Measuring the worth of a piece of music is not, however, as simple as this, as we all know. A piece of music may only be readily understood and enjoyed by a few people, but that does not mean it is not good music. But, in my opinion, neither should pleasing a vocal claque by being esoteric be seen as a sign of success either. I’m not going to open up the distinctly tricky subject of ‘high’ versus ‘low’ art here. That’s a subject for university lecture theatres and learned tomes on musical philosophy (try Roger Scruton’s excellent Understanding Music for example). Jenkins himself is rather pleasingly open-minded on the issue of style: ‘"I firmly believe that the future of music lies in a plurality of styles, each composer and each listener true to themselves and to the music that moves them; that expresses our emotions and the world we live in today.” That presupposes a rejection of schools of composition, prescribed and proscribed methods of writing. Whilst such schools have undoubtedly created great art they also have had the unfortunate side effect of side-lining composers who didn’t fit in with their manifestos. Think of Boulez’s rejection of almost anyone who didn’t agree with him. Ultimately we are left with the music, which must be judged in its own right.
I like some of Jenkins’ music. It’s not at all ironic that this most commercial of composers spent much of his early life composing commercials. This gives him an enormous facility for connecting with listeners quickly and directly. I would go so far as to say that if you are unmoved by listening to his extraordinarily catchy Adiemus then probably music is not for you. It gets under your skin. It is music that sets out to provoke an immediate and physical response. It succeeds. In this way it’s not much different from, say, the opening Responsorium from Monteverdi’s Vespers. You won’t find many commentators on high art knock that particular work. The problems, for me, set in when he attempts to write works of greater emotional depth.
The simplicity of the opening of the Monteverdi is, of course, the prelude to a work of extraordinary depth and compositional mastery. When Jenkins tries to tackle something similar, things tend to descend into pastiche and cloying sentimentality. His The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace is a classic example of this. Given his subject matter, his opening treatment of the old tune L’homme armé is embarrassingly anodyne and compositionally not very imaginative. There is a successful pastiche of Palestrina in the Kyrie, but it feels stylistically wrong alongside everything else, not least the inexplicable Muslim call to prayer that precedes it (David Fanshawe was much better at incorporating this sort of thing). It goes on like this. Not strictly part of the work, the album of the Mass ends with a setting of Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen, a frighteningly saccharine work full of snippets of the Last Post and a voice over of the second stanza of the poem.
Given all this I was quite glad this month to see Jenkins return to his Adiemus project with the disc Adiemus Colores. As Jenkins himself has described it, it is kind of Adiemus meets Latin America. Jenkins’ fascination with the area comes through Afro-Cuban jazz, the music of Antônio Carlos Jobin and Àstor Piazzolla and his involvement with jazz-fusion band Nucleus. As a Welshman he is also drawn to this part of the world by the historical curiosity of there being a Welsh-speaking settlement in Patagonia, Argentina. Each section of the thirteen-movement work is named after a colour, the music abstractly reflecting that colour. The music itself is full of Latin American pastiche: curling and moody trumpet solos, smoochy strings, throaty vocals and, of course, Latin rhythms. This is no bad thing; the style helps to draw the whole thing together. Jenkins also injects it with plenty of toe-tapping energy. There’s nothing that quite approaches the goose bump-inducing original Adiemus track, but what we’re left with is perfectly attractive well-made music. It doesn’t challenge but it certainly entertains.
Jenkins makes much of being true to oneself as a composer. Compared to the mishmash that was The Armed Man he achieves this here. He should, perhaps, remember this next time he embarks on one of his more profound utterances.
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Concert Listings Today & Tomorrow: