The Continuum Ensemble – ’Natural Stories’

Luke Bedford
Douglas Finch
Lamentations [World premiere]
Judith Weir
Natural History [World premiere of piano version]*
Isabelle Panneton
Sur ces décombres et floraisons nouvelles [UK premiere]
Alastair Stout
The Darkling Heave [World premiere]
Kenneth Hesketh

Marie Vassiliou (soprano)
The Continuum Ensemble conducted by Philip Headlam (*piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 November, 2001
Venue: The Warehouse, London

For this ’Natural Stories’ concert, The Continuum Ensemble and Philip Headlam put together a diverse and effective programme, with the single proviso that the predominantly slow-moving music of the first half did begin to feel a shade unrelieved.

Luke Bedford’s Requiescat (1998), inspired by an Oscar Wilde poem, developed from the intertwining of chordal and melodic elements; beginning and ending in amorphous textures, it worked up to a sonorous melodic climax. Equally elegiac, Douglas Finch’s Lamentations (2001) had a more sustained momentum, working through to an expressive outburst in which the B-A-C-H motto could be detected in reverse.

Natural History is a song-cycle with its source, like numerous of Judith Weir’s works, in ancient Chinese poetry – here the Taoist anthology, Chuang-tzu. The deftness and economy of the piano writing, distilled from the original scoring for large orchestra, reinforced the feeling that Weir is at her best when working on a small scale, though the texts – parables about living seen through the eyes of both humans and animals – call for a wide range of vocal expression. Marie Vassiliou’s opulent singing, thoughtfully accompanied by Philip Headlam, brooked no compromise.

The ’repeated note’ was the subtle common denominator in the three parts of Isabelle Panneton’s Sur ces décombres et floraisons nouvelles (1995); the slow-fast-slow format calling for restrained but incisive expression, to which violinist Kirsty Staines and pianist Karl Lutchmayer were more than equal. Ending the concert was Netsuke (2001) – Kenneth Hesketh’s evocation of non-musical miniatures, inspired by diminutive Japanese sculpture, and continuing the sequence of densely but fastidiously-scored ensemble pieces familiar from his Trinita series.

In-between came the world premiere of Alastair Stout’s The Darkling Heave (2001). A passage from George Mackay Brown’s ’Northern Lights’, in which marine life overpowers a fishing vessel and revels in the death of one of the fishermen, inspired this ’tone poem’ in which the timbral range of a large ensemble is deployed to the full. The convulsive opening gestures for piano and suspended cymbals, the alternating soliloquies for bass clarinet and bass oboe, and the stoical writing for strings and tom-tom before the subdued close – all were drawn into a 14-minute structure with a convincing overall trajectory. Surely a highlight among Continuum’s twenty-five world premieres over its seven years of existence.

Stout’s music can be heard on two recent CDs. Deep in Your Coral Caves features on an anthology of recent commissions by the Composers Ensemble – The Hoxton Thirteen (NMC D076), while Empty Fathoms is included on the debut disc from the ensemble CHROMA (Riverrun RVRCD56).

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