Sea and Sky

Piano Concerto
Sudden Light [BBC commission: world premiere]
Sea and Sky

Rolf Hind (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jac van Steen

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 1 April, 2005
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London

The Maida Vale Studio has a particular function and atmosphere. The concert, recorded, included extra takes where necessary. We also heard pre-performance interviews where three of the composers – Messrs Skempton, Bowden and Finnissy.

Claire Rogers’s programme notes were exemplary – brief, clear and vividly to the point.

Chorales is Howard Skempton’s first orchestral work, written when he was 33. Engagingly, he described the title as deliberately perverse. We encountered three pillars, the ‘chorales’, with three shorter pieces either side of the central pillar. These short movements, he said, were similar in style and length to his brief piano pieces – the background he drew upon for his venture into something larger. The writing is careful, epigrammatic and controlled. Overall, the piece is rather tight. It had bursts of energy – and, more importantly, a keen sense of texture, with the strength of someone essentially quiet and non-contentious. He experimented with orchestral colour cautiously, but also successfully. There is a lasting quality to these near-fragments.

Roger Smalley’s Piano Concerto, a BBC commission for European Music Year in 1985, consists of short sound-bursts in all manner of styles and orchestral colouring and opens with the piano declaring percussive whiplashes. The brass interjects with brief, abrasive virtuoso flurries. A little later, an exultant, thumping barrage from the timpani follows and slices of orchestral sound emerge in varied styles – some ‘modern’, some ‘traditional’; something for everyone: early in the slow movement is a musing on Chopin’s E minor Prelude. The vibraphone, in consort with strings or brass, gave sustained, beguiling and mysterious sonorities. Woodwind, celeste and harp intervened with many moments of delicacy. At the end of the first movement we even had, engagingly, a recapitulation of the whiplashes and the punctuating responses thereto. This came as a surprise since the sonic world Smalley presents resembles something more kaleidoscopic than a formal structure. Not music to second-guess; a concerto for brass or one for timpani, but the piano led the helter-skelter to the finishing post. Rolf Hind was the abrasively committed soloist.

By comparison, Mark Bowden’s Sudden Light was nondescript – workaday ‘modern’. Its cerebral credentials were impressive: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem and Marcus de Sautoy’s book “The Music of the Primes” on prime numbers and their relation to the dissonance produced by the overtones of common harmonics. Such experimentation may have been a fascinating exercise. The outcome lacked individuality or a distinctive voice. The climax – in which virtually all the instruments created volume at the same time – was turgid.

Michael Finnissy’s Sea and Sky was welcome relief. Thecomposition, paradoxically, was an essay in vagueness that on its own terms was every bit as precise as the glittering, differentiated sonorities of Roger Smalley. Modestly and winningly, Michael Finnissy declared that he had no intention of trying to represent Turner’s images in music: Turner had already done so, with genius. Instead Finnissy focussed on just two blobs of different shades of blue.

The opening was opaque, briefly reminding of Bowden’s work. I groaned. Then I realised the music probably depicts a colourless, clouded sky. What happened thereafter was fascinating and quite extraordinary. It was as though Turneresque seas and skies had been filmed and presented in a montage of changing moods and characters – turbulent and calm seas, swirling and clear skies, culminating in an amazing climax whose force unmistakably implied that the natural, elemental forces of water and air had joined in a brief, shocking cumulative outburst. After which, quietude (temporarily). I found Sea and Sky enthralling and Finnissy’s mastery over his means quite breathtaking.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra was magnificent, and enthusiastic, under the lucid, unobtrusive and insightful Jac van Steen.

  • Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in “Hear and Now”

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