A Portrait of Brian Elias – 30 January

Echo for five music boxes
Fantasia for violin and piano
Birds Practice Songs in Dreams (clarinet)
Song (1986) for mezzo-soprano and hurdy-gurdy
Solo from The Judas Tree for steel pan
Three Songs for mezzo-soprano and harp
Geranos (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, viola andcello)
The Death of Cleopatra (mezzo-soprano and piano)
Richard Rodney Bennett
Sonata after Syrinx for flute, harp and viola

Brian Elias in conversation with Stephen Plaistow

Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)


Reviewed by: John Fallas

Reviewed: 30 January, 2004
Venue: Purcell Room, London

One could write a fascinating book about composers’ more unusual hobbies. Among the most surprising areas of non-musical expertise, John Cage’s interest in mushrooms is well known. Michael Tippett was a connoisseur of marmalade-making, and even reviewed books on the subject for the Times Literary Supplement. Dvorák, an avid trainspotter, is said to have begged the driver for a special seat in the engine-room when he travelled from London to Cambridge to receive an honorary doctorate; unaware of the reception being organised for him on the station platform on arrival, he emerged, covered in soot, to trumpet fanfares and several bemused dons.

Brian Elias turns out to be a candidate for inclusion in this honourable history. Malcolm Crowthers’s programme design for this Brian Elias portrait concert showed the composer silhouetted against some of his own needlepoint designs. Elias took up the craft, as he told Stephen Plaistow in the mid-concert interview, in order to keep his hands occupied while he thought through compositional problems; in the end, he found he was concentrating on the sewing instead. But he is still writing music, of course, and we heard some of his chamber and vocal works, six pieces by Elias (born 1948) alongside one each by Alison Bauld and Richard Rodney Bennett.

The programme cover also carried images of the music-boxes that the sculptor Anish Kapoor had designed for a collaboration with Elias; the resultant piece, Echo (1993), played as we entered the hall and, as the clockwork mechanisms slowly wound down, the music became a study in a kind of unpredictable counterpoint, with each box sounding in subtly different combinations with the others. A concern with the presentation of similar material in different tempos turned out to inform both subsequent Elias works in the first half: Fantasia (1986) for violin and piano, a solid nine-minute instrumental argument, and Birds Practise Songs in Dreams (2002), a premiere for the indefatigable Mark van de Wiel’s solo clarinet.

Such a procedure has implications concerning the relation of material to tempo: does one, for instance, write a slow section by simply slowing down fast music from elsewhere in the piece? These issues were addressed most persuasively and extensively in Geranos, the highlight of the evening, a Fires of London commission from 1985 that still sounds fresh twenty years later, with a gestural clarity in the instrumental writing and a real ear for surprising new colours in a succession of sharply characterised sounds. There was low but never muddy or obscure piano writing, and a wonderfully juicy bass clarinet. A piccolo danced across its regular metrical accompaniment, then gave way to a howling E flat clarinet solo. A refreshing choice of percussion instruments allowed Elias to access areas of stylistic memory quite unexpected in this sort of context. The central section slowed the earlier dance-like material into a lament, climaxing in an expressive viola cadenza before growing back into an equally persuasive fast finale.

Meanwhile, Simon Limbrick had given the extended steel-pan solo Elias extracted in 1993 from The Judas Tree, a ballet score for Kenneth MacMillan which has proved an enduring success for the composer, and mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers rounded off an evening of unusual instrumental timbres in a Song of Songs setting with hurdy-gurdy drone accompaniment (1986) and a further premiere, Three Songs (2003) with harp to texts by Christina Rossetti, of which the second was particularly impressive.

Congratulations are due to Endymion for drawing attention to some rewarding music; and as they say, if you liked this you’ll love their Anthony Gilbert 70th-birthday concert on 12 July.

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