Ferneyhough
Shadowtime [Libretto by Charles Bernstein]
Nicolas Hodges (piano/speaker)
Mats Scheidegger (guitar)
Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart
Nieuw Ensemble
Jurjen Hempel

Recorded on 9 July 2005 at The Coliseum, London
CD No: NMC D123 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 7 minutes
Reviewed: April 2006
That Brian Ferneyhough has written an opera has surprised people, an understandable standpoint – to a certain extent, for Ferneyhough the extraordinarily complex composer and thinker could surely not capture a story-line and make dramatic sense of it? Perhaps not in the conventional sense – but what he has done is to somehow capture the essence of what a great mind like the cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin might encompass.
For the past twenty years or so I have found Ferneyhough’s music to be fiery, dramatic and totally convincing in every respect. This is the best possible recording of “Shadowtime” that one could wish for and with a clarity of detail within all aspects of the performance that aids understanding more of the libretto than anticipated: not just the fantastic rhythmic narration of that extraordinary pianist Nicolas Hodges, but the complex vocal settings. With some of the chorus work this is harder to achieve, but when the text becomes apparent it is like the gleam on crystal – almost like the experience of reading a text by Benjamin, when the sense of what he is saying finally reveals itself: this is what “Shadowtime” is all about.
Later, when reading the libretto by Charles Bernstein I gained a further and possibly deeper understanding of the thought-processes or ‘story’ of the work. It is a shame that only a synopsis (excellent as it is by Bernstein himself) is included in the booklet. Perusing the score (published by Peters Edition), and given these CDs document a live performance, I was astonished at just how accurate this rendition is. Jurjen Hempel effectively conjures a balance between extreme detail and exact and direct rhythmic synchronicity. The two instrumental soloists – Hodges and Mats Scheidegger – are certainly as important as any prima donna in Verdi with Hodges commanding and convincing is his personality and diction. Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and Nieuw Ensemble are experts in extracting every possible aspect from Ferneyhough’s web of notational activity, his score a work of art in itself: this performance has captured the essence of its 432 pages of intricate canvas.
Ferneyhough’s music can be both dramatic and emotional and is distinct from, say, Harrison Birtwistle and Elliott Carter. Ferneyhough’s music is unique and challenging and has acquired a reputation for being very ‘difficult’ – more from second-hand comments! Without doubt only performers with very special gifts can play this music. But, as listeners, we need only open our ears. I am reminded of comments made by Daniel Barenboim in his wonderful BBC Reith Lectures – to open our ears and to be active listeners. Ferneyhough’s “Shadowtime” is the perfect opportunity to do both.

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