Ferneyhough in Focus

Arditti Quartet

String Quartet No.1 (4th movement) [London premiere]
the soadie waste [London premiere] (with Noriko Kawai, piano)
String Quartet No.3

London Sinfonietta/Martyn Brabbins

Fifth Station [World premiere] (with Louise Hopkins, cello)
Incipits (with Paul Silverthorne, viola)Herrington
Symphonia [World premiere, RPS Composition Prizewinner]

London Sinfonietta/Martyn Brabbins

Dark Room [London premiere] (with Mark van de Wiel, clarinet)
Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing the Angel of History as Melancholia [UK premiere] (with Roderick Williams, narrator)
stirrings [London premiere]
Kehalusan Ukiran [World premiere, spnm selected composition]
Carceri d’Invenzione I


Reviewed by: John Fallas

Reviewed: 14 February, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The name of Brian Ferneyhough, who in the 1970s was England’s most prominent export to the heartland of modernist Europe and in the eighties consolidated a reputation as spiritual leader of the ’new complexity’, seems even today to be a byword for all that is best and worst about hard-line musical modernism.

In the year after his sixtieth birthday, Ferneyhough must be the most senior British composer of international standing still to be dismissed outright or not taken seriously by a sizeable proportion of the contemporary-music establishment at home. At the same time, he continues to be feted both in America – where he has held a series of prestigious teaching appointments – and in continental Europe, where he is a regular guest lecturer at festivals and summer schools.

It is some time since Ferneyhough received major exposure in London: last year’s birthday celebrations centred, as far as the country of his birth was concerned, on events in Durham and Huddersfield. He is probably best known for his cycle of works inspired by Piranesi etchings, Carceri d’Invenzione. (Indeed, Piranesi furnished the theme for the Purcell School young composers’ workshop that took place earlier on this afternoon.)

Among other vastly original aspects, Carceri – which comprises seven works for varying forces, ranging from a piccolo solo to a fully-fledged song-cycle and taking in three ensemble works along the way – seems to have cultivated a taste for multi-work ’projects’ among composers of a certain modernist bent. James Dillon, seven years Ferneyhough’s junior, has often tended to work in this manner, creating ambitious cycles of works for diverse forces, and the soadie waste, the piano quintet for which seasoned Dillon interpreter Noriko Kawai joined the Arditti Quartet in its afternoon concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (though at times the generic model seemed distant, and Kawai sounded more like an accompanist in the intense rhythmic jolting and writhing of the ensemble), is to feature in a new project – Anthropology, for narrator, dancers, mixed ensembles and electronics. Quizzed on this way of working before the Quintet’s UK premiere at last year’s Huddersfield Festival, Dillon suggested that it might be an attempt by composers to gain more control over the context in which their works are presented, an enticement away from traditional mixed concert programmes. But it is striking how often we are presented with not a concert-length staging of such a design, but a collection of individual works by Dillon, Ferneyhough, Barrett and company, works from larger cycles we rarely hear as such.

Of course, single-work presentation is written into the bargain, both artistically and commercially: the pieces are detachable after all, and a composer would rather hear his music than wait for an ideal staging. And if you are into big projects, as Stockhausen discovered with LICHT, you can keep up appearances in the twenty-odd or however many years it takes by incorporating precisely such detachable modules. Today’s batch of new pieces comprised regional premieres of several works belonging to larger projects as-yet-incomplete – whether just starting, as with Dillon’s, or nearing their end, as is Ferneyhough’s Shadowtime project, due for its integral premiere at the Munich Biennale this coming May when Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing the Angel of History as Melancholia, heard as a free-standing work in this Sinfonietta programme, will form its penultimate section.

Shadowtime is an opera on the death and (literal and ideational) afterlife of Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish literary critic and philosopher-essayist who killed himself on the Spanish border in 1940 while trying to flee Vichy France. It’s true that not many operas contain a detachable section for reciter and ensemble, never mind a guitar concerto or a piece for speaking pianist. But Ferneyhough’s conception is intensely theatrical. The latter work, Opus Contra Naturam, which has already been heard in recital several times over the last four years, stages Benjamin’s descent into the underworld to a series of questions and open-ended answers concerning representation, spoken and finally shouted by the white-clad, Liberace-like pianist at his black piano.

In the last ten years or so Ferneyhough has carved out an aesthetic niche with an admixture of Anglo-Saxon linguistic whimsy – a strong feeling for the sensuous quiddity of language – to more abstract European philosophical speculation, a combination which is both exciting and endearing and which also well encapsulates the virtues of his librettist Charles Bernstein’s texts of the piece played here. These ranged from lyric re-workings of Heine, incorporating Benjaminesque concerns with ’correspondences’ between apparently diverse phenomena of art, society and economics, to offbeat humour such as the memorable and supremely incontrovertible formulation “Fresh fruit is better than oily pyjamas.”

Ferneyhough is a very earthbound intellectual, his complexities grounded in a “conceptual synaesthesia” (as he called it in one of the filmed interview extracts which introduced his pieces) which ties every idea to a concrete image in a fashion rather like the Baroque ’emblems’ which so fascinated Benjamin. Among his gifts is the ability to create striking textures for the openings of pieces or sections, like the sudden glissando-crescendo ’zoom’ which inaugurates the densely gestural discourse of the Third Quartet or the strident piccolo-and-trombone mixture at the start of Carceri d’Invenzione I. Seven Tableaux Vivants conjured some extraordinary, ferocious sounds from a trio of deep bass clarinets, and its wind-dominated tuttis at times recalled the sound-world of Carceri d’Invenzione III. But, in a musical language which perhaps relies too much on very elaborated, complex gestures, the by-now inevitable falling-away from such openings is becoming something of a trying mannerism, as in Seven Tableaux Vivants yet another piece starts with a bang and ends with a whimper. Nonetheless, Incipits, heard in the middle of today’s three concerts, made a sometimes-striking piece out of the idea of continual successive openings, and contained some austerely beautiful textures.

A word on the delivery of the text for the new piece. Roderick Williams is a very good baritone with excellent theatrical sense. But his voice was both too close to the predominant low-hued instrumental timbres of Ferneyhough’s music and, perhaps, insufficiently at home with its idiosyncratic combination of registers. Ferneyhough, who gave the world premiere in Paris last month but was not present tonight, might have proved a better – more lively, and more audible – reciter.

Seven Tableaux Vivants, and the Carceri d’Invenzione piece played in the final concert, were heard alongside Richard Barrett’s texturally lucid stirrings, six minutes’ worth of his evening-length Dark Matter, and Morgan Hayes’s Dark Room for clarinet and ensemble. The Hayes and Barrett were new to London, brought from a Bath Festival concert last summer. These are two composers not played by the Sinfonietta on its home ground before, and it is good to see these regional premieres finding their way to the capital. (The Sinfonietta will UK-premiere music by Georg Friedrich Haas, one of the most interesting of the middle generation of German composers and practically unknown this side of the Channel, alongside a piece by Wolfgang Rihm on 17 March.)

Also in the evening concert, and also conceived as part of a larger cycle, came the premiere of a work specially selected for the event by the SPNM. Tazul Tajuddin’s Kehalusan Ukiran was all decoration, filigree, but well heard enough, and surely more interesting than another new piece by a young composer heard earlier in the day. Brian Herrington’s Symphonia, the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize commission, was worthy, well-made and almost wholly unmemorable.

Yet another initiative for young composers, the London Sinfonietta’s Blue Touch Paper project, had been the subject of a lunchtime round-table, meanwhile, and one of the resulting pieces, Dai Fujikura’s Fifth Station, also took its place in the concerts. Fujikura had the Sinfonietta’s players disposed around the hall for a series of exchanges with the onstage cello and (mainly muted) trumpet, and made sonic drama out of trill-laden harmonic stasis.

Puzzlingly, none of these pieces seemed to bear any strong connection to Ferneyhough. The underlying agenda seems to have been that they, and all the workshops and discussions, were there because this was two events in one: a Ferneyhough day, but also a reinvention, unacknowledged as such, of the “State of the Nation” weekend in which the Sinfonietta, SPNM, PRS and other bodies have participated in recent Februarys. It is curious that the Sinfonietta should be so shy about admitting to this – presumably because it is a day, down from a whole weekend; in any case, the programming juxtapositions to which it led were at times uncomfortable.

Of the young composers we did hear, Morgan Hayes might have been thought to fit best with the ’new complexity’ trio of Ferneyhough, Dillon and Barrett. In fact, although Hayes’s Dark Room bore a passing resemblance to aspects of Ferneyhough’s La Chute d’Icare (not heard tonight), it has more in common with the music of his teacher Michael Finnissy, its surface complexity open to diatonically-based pitch structures and to a strong concern with melody – whether in interlocking heterophonic textures or as decorative modal lines evoking the piece’s Moroccan inspiration. Likewise, Hayes’s rhythmic language is grounded in a dance-like conception of bodily movement, however complexly elaborated. Beginning with the oboe attempting to assert itself as soloist, Hayes’s mini-concerto ended with the clarinet soloist retreating again to join the oboe at the back of the stage. This interesting conceit belied a relatively schematic formal trajectory, though the sectional progression from the sharply-etched heterophonic opening through the more chordally accompanied dispersion of energies was certainly well-managed enough.

Set against such elegantly-achieved musical competence, Ferneyhough’s risks may have seemed too great at times, his compositional solutions failing to live up to his stimulating, endlessly questing diagnosis of the problems as a highly engaging public speaker, self-confident and articulate. If the music falls flat, nothing is gained. But music is nothing anyway if it is not more than the notes. Technical accomplishment, such as we heard on and off throughout this day of new music, is the necessary vehicle for a communicative impetus, which must establish common ground with other areas of human endeavour, artistic and intellectual. I was excited by my first encounter with Ferneyhough’s Opus Contra Naturam; less so, on this one hearing, by Seven Tableaux Vivants. I look forward to Shadowtime as a complete, musical and dramatic experience. I hope it comes off.

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