Tuesday, 28 February 2012

5:4 - a new home

Having spent the last four-&-a-bit years on Blogger, 5:4 finally has a home of its own! • All future articles will be posted here (drum roll):


so please update your links, bookmarks, RSS feeders, subscriptions, etc. (the link for the RSS feed is: http://5against4.com/feed/)

See you on the other side!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

James MacMillan - Domine non secundum peccata nostra (World Première)

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, & throughout the next seven weeks, among other things, i'll be featuring a selection of pieces suitable to the season • To begin, a recording of the world première of James MacMillan's anthem Domine non secundum peccata nostra, given by the choir of St John's College, Cambridge • Directed by Andrew Nethsingha, the performance took place on Ash Wednesday last year, & also includes a solo violin, played here by Margaret Faultless • The piece is structured as a simple rondo, in which the refrain—heard three times—focusses on the essence of the text, words adapted from verse 10 of Psalm 103:

Domine, non secundum peccata nostra quae fecimus nos, neque secundum iniquitates nostras retribuas nobis.
("Lord, do not repay us according to our sins or our iniquities.")

MacMillan keeps the refrain relatively subdued, the words emerging from extended melismas over simple harmonies (the use of harmony throughout is simple) • The violin nags away at the periphery, picking at notes, arpeggiating them, finally becoming a complementary melodic entity in its own right • There are two episodes, & both contrast strongly with the refrain, projected with much greater force • The first is highly assertive, the choir's plea (drawing now on verses 8 & 9 from Psalm 79) taking a turn for the desperate:

Domine, ne memineris iniquitatum nostrarum antiquarum: cito anticipent nos misericordiae tuae. Quia pauperes facti sumus nimis.
("Lord, do not hold our old sins against us; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need.")

The second episode focuses on the men, initially in unison, who almost violently hurl out the imploring final phrase of the text:

Adjuva nos, Deus salutaris noster: et propter gloria nominis tui, Domine, libera nos. Et propitius esto peccatis nostris, propter nomen tuum.
("Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; Lord, deliver us and forgive our sins for your name's sake.")

The violin falls silent through this, returning for a lengthy solo only once they've finished; it's a strange moment, & i still can't quite decide whether it's the work's weakest or strongest point • Certainly, the connection of its largely gestural material to the surrounding music is hard to sense, but on the other hand, the intrusion of a purely instrumental passage makes a marked impression • Overall, it's a measured, thoughtful piece, one that sits well at the outset of the church's most sombre season •

James MacMillan - Domine non secundum peccata nostra (World Première) [9:12]
FLAC [37Mb]

Friday, 17 February 2012

Thomas Adès - Polaris (UK Première)

At the Barbican this evening, Thomas Adès' latest orchestral work, Polaris, was given its UK première by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert • It's fortunate indeed that Adès has left behind the ludicrously lavish plaudits that were rained down on him in a ceaseless golden shower throughout the mid- to late-1990s • For a time, Adès could seemingly do no wrong, irrespective of what some might describe as a fair amount of evidence to the contrary • However, both then & since i've almost invariably found myself impressed by the endeavour even if the achievement isn't quite so convincing (i'm excluding Brahms; no-one should have composed that particular bit of doggerel) • The recurring spanner in the works, it seems to me, is Adès' penchant for playing intricate compositional games with himself; hardly problematic in itself, far from it, but one can't help feeling the music often ends up being convoluted in an unhelpful way, obfuscating the clarity with which Adès clearly wants to communicate his ideas; put another way, his compositions often seem to be emotive or beautiful despite themselves •

Which brings us back to tonight, & to Polaris • Perhaps it's just me, but from the opening minutes of the piece it all felt rather disconcerting; in a primarily American commission, Adès has, it seems, felt the need to draw on the kind of compositional mannerisms intimately associated with that country • From the overtly minimalistic material that both begins & permeates the work, to the quasi-tonal textural configurations that form a backdrop to much of the development, Polaris seems to project a 'foreign' tone of voice (both geographically & personally), not entirely at odds with Adès' other work, but not necessarily in keeping with it either • For Adès, it's the result of a combination of experimentation & liberation; in a 2010 interview with the San Francisco Classical Voice, he described the effect of being in America:
To a European arriving here, you get this immediate sense of freedom from certain habits of thinking, when making decisions writing music. You make the decisions with the perspective of a certain kind of personal freedom. In England, you can feel one’s various tutors looking over your shoulder all the time. In L.A. that closeness of older models is no longer in the way, and you can perhaps see a further horizon than you could in England.

The trouble is, in the context of Polaris it doesn't prove terribly convincing at all, actually coming across as a rather bland & arbitrary bit of stylistic borrowing—far less original or striking than in the 'Ecstasio' of Asyla—combined with a rather unseemly attempt to please its original US audience • That probably makes it sound more egregious than it is, but there's a distinct sense throughout Polaris of a composer going through the motions in a compositional space that's neither challenging nor particularly engaging, & not even terribly authentic • To compound things, in the aforementioned interview, Adès goes on thus:

I get more and more interested in clarity while I’m here. I find I think more clearly here. So if you compare the music I wrote in 1993 to what I’ve written since I’ve been here, there was much more blurring, in a way — frantically throwing things at the page to get to the piece. Out here, I try to build things more clearly.

i mentioned obfuscation before, & indeed clarity is unfortunately the one thing most obviously absent from this piece • Melody is clearly an important aspect of Polaris, yet the piece seems confused as to whether it's that or texture that it most wants to project • Sometimes, the texture takes over completely, the orchestra forming a whole so homogeneous that the ear has absolutely nothing to grasp onto; even with Adès' ever-keen orchestrational dexterity, the result is a surprisingly dull mush of sound, everything pushed into the middleground & seeming to tread water • Elsewhere, the sense of melody comes through stronger, but at no point does it become sufficiently interesting or even coherent to sustain itself • There are, i have to say, some really wonderful moments when the melody makes a deep impact on the entire orchestra—a couple of minutes in, taken up by the strings within a choppy accompaniment; & shortly after, embedded in an exciting interplay between trumpets, contraforte & metallic percussion—but they're rare glimpses of focus in otherwise fogged material • Moments as captivating as those do make you want to forgive & forget the issues with clarity & stylistic integrity; that's all too easy in a piece like Adès' bejewelled folly These Premises Are Alarmed, but impossible in Polaris, the scope of which exacerbates its problems • Polaris makes a pleasant enough noise, & presumably that's sufficient for some composers & audiences, but goodness knows Thomas Adès is capable of a very great deal more than that •

Thomas Adès - Polaris (UK Première) [19:55]
FLAC [87Mb]

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Rebecca Saunders - still (UK Première)

Tonight saw the UK première of the latest work by Rebecca Saunders, her violin concerto still • Saunders' music has been a growing musical passion of mine for a while; as such, i've already begun a longer article surveying her work, but i'll leave that for another day, & for now focus on the concerto • It was composed for soloist Carolin Widmann, & the performance, which took place at the Barbican, was given by her with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, directed by Lionel Bringuier • These same forces (directed by Sylvain Cambreling) gave the première of the work last September at the Beethovenfest in Bonn •

The piece is in two movements, together lasting around 20 minutes • In the preamble, Widmann interestingly notes how the piece bore the provisional title rage, a title that seems in keeping for a composer who's twice written pieces called fury • However, both of those pieces (for double bass solo & double bass plus ensemble respectively) avoid hackneyed tropes of aggression, their protagonists engaged instead in a music that is surprisingly restrained, but pent-up & seething • The first movement of the concerto occupies territory that's not dissimilar to this, the soloist establishing itself via a sequence of thin, wavering, spasmodic overtures • It's built upon a gesture that seems to be seeking direction, which, once found, enables the violin to hint at a melodic sense, enlivening the orchestra (the brass become particularly demonstrative) • Saunders allows things to build to a harsh tutti of sorts, but one that sounds less like a homogenous block than a dense agglomeration of individual strands • As with a lot of her music, there's a portentousness to this kind of juxtaposition of sounds, but it's not until everything then halts & softens that one detects more clear traces of rage, the soloist occupied with ferocious amounts of filigree • Despite such manic material, the violin's line is broken by dry thuds, & the music stops again, this time revealing a static shimmering chord • The violin seems compelled to force itself on despite these interruptions (which remain ambiguous as to whether they're in opposition or sympathy with the soloist), withstanding an ever increasing clatter from loud metallic percussion, until it comes to another abrupt stop, now exposing a very deep grinding bass drone (a regular feature in Saunders' music), heard earlier in the movement •

In changing the title from rage to still, Saunders is placing emphasis on the work's quietude, a quietude that finds its origins in the short story Still by Samuel Beckett, which ends thus:
“As if even in the dark eyes closed not enough and perhaps even more than ever necessary against that no such thing the further shelter of the hand. Leave it so all quite still or try listening to the sounds all quite still head in hand listening for a sound.”

The quietness of Saunders' music—or, rather, the unique way silence is for her a distinct, fundamental compositional element—has become something of a cliché in discussion of her work • Yet even in this quiet second movement, the nature of its palette as well as the way it unfolds sets it apart from many if not most of Saunders' earlier works • That said, the movement does inhabit a familiarly ascetic sonic space, emerging out of nebulous rumblings • Without—as far as i can tell—recourse to an actual mute, Saunders successfully muffles both soloist & orchestra throughout the movement, in addition to loosening its structural integrity; despite the lack of clear-cut silences, the result is a kind of 'open weave' that bears some resemblance to her previous work, but in which silence plays a less overt role • The substance of the music is heard in little more than glimpses; snatches of rich aspiration from the violin (usually in a very high register) are met by a slow fizzling in the instruments around, leaving more deep traces of bass • As a momentary outcry from the orchestra subsides, the soloist busies itself but for a while is no longer heard in relief, until it returns to the foreground with a series of glissandi, some soft but frantic final flurries, & a long sustained note that appears to slide into the heavens only to falter slightly at its zenith •

Rebecca Saunders - still (UK Première)
FLAC [102Mb]

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Unsuk Chin - Violin Concerto

Last year, in my article about the Total Immersion day devoted to the music of Unsuk Chin, i didn't say much about the Violin Concerto, which was omitted from the BBC's broadcast • However, in November they finally got round to broadcasting it, so here it is • The performance, at the Barbican in London, was given by Jennifer Koh with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov • In the concert hall, Koh's violin often struggled to be heard above the considerable orchestral forces pitted against it, so it's good to hear the balance so nicely restored in the broadcast •

Despite being composed in a familiar, four-movement plan, it's a piece rather difficult to unpick • In some ways, the textures are simpler & more defined than usual, but this is countered by material that is highly organic • It opens in a dense place, lower notes moving vaguely while the soloist draws a high line filled with open strings & natural harmonics • The brass are the first to become apparent, chords shifting in the background, their movement causing everything momentarily to swell, & then halt • The soloist's first cadenza is wiry & (in the best sense) aimless, its twists & swoops more a result of fun than purpose • But Chin is just as concerned with momentum as with reverie, & she soon pushes the violin back into a pace that becomes ever more swift, culminating in a moto perpetuo that's urged on by orchestral stomps • Another cadenza ensues, more rapid than before, & a sustained brass chord ushers in the movement's climax, which sends the frantic soloist plummeting • The slow second movement places heavy emphasis on Chin's trademark use of percussion • The soft opening is exquisite, a harp gently accompanying the violin, while the strings occasionally coalesce around them both • The warm consonance heard here, together with its brightly glittering surface (expanded downwards by gongs) bring to mind the soundworld of Takemitsu, although only in a superficial sense &, indeed, only briefly, as Chin soon moves everyone on in an altogether more tense direction • The violins shiver & buzz around the soloist, & there's an abrupt shift to lower trills, whereupon a series of harsh but undeniably radiant eruptions begins in the woodwind • As before, slow brass chords cause things to change, this time having a calming effect, reducing both orchestra & soloist to silence •

The Violin Concerto was awarded the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 2004, & while Chin is undoubtedly worthy of the award, this, of all her pieces, is arguably not the one that should have been singled out for such praise, as it's let down by the last two movements • While it would be pushing it to describe the previous movements as romantic, there's nonetheless a rather breathless, heady lushness to the music which serves to support the diverse assortment of melodic strands that continually occupy the soloist • But the third & fourth movements more or less dispense entirely with lyricism, opting instead for emphatically gestural material; this, together with their relative brevity (barely half the duration of the first two movements) makes for an unexpectedly disappointing denouement that somewhat undermines the work as a whole •

The blink-&-you'll-miss-it third movement emerges as hopping fragments from some initial heavy thuds • The violin affects a stab at a melodic line, but—surrounded by wild bangs & crashes on all sides—it's easily overwhelmed, opting instead simply to ascend to stratospheric heights while the orchestra, rather bizarrely, sounds like it wants to tune up • The final movement is no less troubled, lurching along through its opening minutes, preoccupied with high registers • Chin does then spend some time rekindling the warmth heard earlier, but it's swiftly dissipated as the orchestra grows restless & starts chattering over the soloist, breaking its line • The conclusion, though, is excellent; another sustained brass chord causes a similar effect to that in the first movement, agitating the soloist to a fever pitch while the woodwinds chirrup & flourish like crazy—this time, in sympathy with the violin rather than in spite of it • After the final climax all fades to a shimmer, & the violin briefly touches on its open string idea from the start •

Unsuk Chin - Violin Concerto [29:05]
FLAC [128Mb]