BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion: Brian Ferneyhough [26 February 2011]

Written by: Richard Whitehouse


String Quartet No.2

Sonatas for String Quartet

Quatuor Diotima [Naaman Sluchin & Yun-Peng Zhoa (violins), Franck Chevalier (viola) & Pierre Morlet (cello)]


Plötzlichkeit [UK premiere]

Carceri d’invenzione III

Missa brevis

La terre est un homme

BBC Singers

James Morgan [Missa brevis]

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Martyn Brabbins

Barbican Hall, London

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Brian Ferneyhough (b.1943). Photograph: Dylan Collard

Although he has been performed not infrequently in his home country, Englishman Brian Ferneyhough has yet to receive a major retrospective (his 70th-birthday in 2013 will provide such an opportunity), thus it was good to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra devoting a Total Immersion day to his music. Film, discussion and foyer events provided a context for two concerts comprising works for chamber forces to those for large orchestra, and which included a significant UK premiere.

Music for string quartet runs as a more or less continuous thread across Ferneyhough’s output (his Sixth Quartet was heard in London only a few weeks before this Barbican Centre exposure) and was a necessary inclusion here. For all its compression, the Second Quartet (1980) has a fearsome reputation for its technical demands, so it was impressive to hear Quatuor Diotima rendering it with such lucidity and poise: the 11 minutes taking in a charged accumulation of detail through to a climax of dizzying intricacy, then on to increasingly fragmented exchanges prior to a lengthy fade to nothingness. Whether or not a paradigm of what Ferneyhough’s music is, the power and eloquence of this performance was its own justification.

In a lively introduction from the stage, Ferneyhough spoke of a ‘First Quartet’ from 1963 which, though never performed, led him to avoid numbering his next work for the medium. Sonatas for String Quartet (1967) may have had to wait several years to be heard complete, but its formal rigour and expressive vision established the composer’s European reputation and it remains a milestone in the literature. The interpretative challenge lies in presenting its 24 continuous movements such that an ongoing, but not necessarily cumulative, momentum is evident across the 40-minute whole. Other ensembles may have pointed up its individual detail to a greater degree but few have endowed it with so seamless a perspective: the end, as it were, being present in the beginning of its composer’s attempt to transfer the elliptical thinking of late Webern onto a more expansive timescale; one in which time and familiarity has shown him to have succeeded.

The evening concert, itself no mean conspectus, was an ambitious three-part affair – the central portion featuring two contrasted yet representative pieces. A notable instance of tacking a classic text as the basis for a study in abstraction, Missa brevis (1969) finds the composer working through then-current vocal techniques to an altogether more personal approach. So while ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria’ abound in aspects familiar from such as Xenakis, Ligeti and Nono, the remaining movements (not least a syllabic ‘Hosanna’ of startling austerity) are more integrated in their vocal treatment. The BBC Singers sounded at ease with these demands, not least the airborne vocalise at the close of the ‘Agnus Dei’.

Martyn Brabbins. Photograph: Sasha Gusov

Prior to this came Carceri d’invenzione III (1986), the sixth instalment of the eponymous cycle inspired by Piranesi etchings which dominated Ferneyhough’s composing for the first half of the 1980s. Interspersed between solo items and an extended vocal cycle, the three Carceri pieces involve increasing forces – the third scored for brass and woodwind divided into antiphonally opposing groups with percussion ranged behind them. The result is one of the composer’s most immediate as well as involving scores – evolving as an increasingly fraught and confrontational interaction in which any semblance of a ‘victor’ is quashed by the implacable closing gestures, with the ‘dungeons’ of the title made manifest.

Impressive works both, but it was the orchestral works on either side that set the seal on a memorable evening. Although played last, it makes sense to discuss La terre est un homme (1979) first, as it was the reception meted out to this piece (at its Glasgow premiere, then in London, when Claudio Abbado scheduled it unannounced in an LSO concert including Brahms’s First Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony!) that likely dissuaded Ferneyhough from further orchestral works. Yet for all its manifest complexity and explosive impact, this is music of an utopian outlook that incites players and listeners alike to live ‘on the edge’ in what (though the composer might not appreciate the epithet) is a showpiece whose trajectory from extreme violence to virtual silence is as finely effected as it is directly conveyed. Unstinting though its demands may be, its panache is as evident as its pathos – both of them fully evident in this thrilling performance.

By comparison, Plötzlichkeit (2006) might seem the product of an older and altogether more pragmatic composer. Yet whatever the gains in overall control, the piece confirms Ferneyhough as being no less intent in shaping the orchestra ‘his way’. Along with three female vocalists embedded deep in the texture, the brass section is expanded by several instruments only encountered in the medium of the brass band – ensuring an extended instrumental compass that, along with deployment of micro-intervals resourceful even by this composer’s standards, facilitates the sense of a sound-body in constant process through its 111 sections that play for 20 minutes; and in which the manner of transition gives the piece its essential focus. Music, then, in which the short- and long-term, the immediate and the eventual, are as one in a soundworld whose character is no less apparent for its abstraction: ominous and laconic by turns, the piece intrigued and entertained in equal measure.

It helped that the performance was again so responsive to the music’s demands, the BBC Symphony Orchestra demonstrating the benefits of apparently five days of rehearsal in playing whose commitment was never at the expense of that lightness of touch as makes listening a pleasure in itself. Directing three out of the four works, Martyn Brabbins was his usual unflappable self – guiding the musicians with a calm authority that suggested intensive preparation as well as, most importantly, a belief in the potential of the music. In his breadth of sympathies, he has few peers among present-day conductors. Hopefully the performances of the orchestral works will find commercial release at some point: for now, however, their qualities resonate in the memory of what was perhaps the most significant and worthwhile Total Immersion day thus far.

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