PSM3: Finnissy, Ferneyhough, Birtwistle & Elias

Michael Finnissy
Piano Concerto No.2 [UK premiere]
Brian Ferneyhough
Harrison Birtwistle
Gigue Machine [UK premiere]
Brian Elias
Electra Mourns [world premiere]

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano) & Nicholas Daniel (cor anglais)

Britten Sinfonia
Clark Rundell

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 August, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

The Proms Saturday Matinees at Cadogan Hall are now a well-established feature of the season, providing a venue for chamber groups and ensembles that might not otherwise be heard to advantage in the expanse of the Royal Albert Hall.

Nicolas HodgesAmong the UK ‘firsts’ was the Second Piano Concerto (1976) by Michael Finnissy – one of seven such pieces written between 1975 and 1981 which reconsiders the genre ostensibly by rendering it beyond recognition. That said, the follow-through of individual sections over this 13-minute work – in which two solo passages of fearsome difficulty frame a nominally developmental sequence where the soloist is heard alongside an ensemble of alto flutes and solo strings – is by no means divorced from the concerto lineage; not least when Nicolas Hodges brought expressive light and shade to writing which might otherwise seem intractable, with Clark Rundell drawing an undeniably sensuous response from his reduced forces.

Even so, Brian Ferneyhough’s Prometheus (1967) sounded positively ingratiating in such a context. Admittedly this work for wind sextet, written prior to his artistic breakthrough with Sonatas for String Quartet, is beholden to an earlier era of European modernism (Varèse’s Octandre unsurprisingly looms large over aspects of the writing), yet the deft succession of resolute opening section, capricious ‘scherzo’ and chorale-centred finale – each proceeded by transitions for clarinet, piccolo and piccolo (E flat) clarinet – clearly points to the composer’s future concerns. Had the piece had the benefit of so fluent a performance 45 years ago, moreover, it might have helped make his name in his home country a little sooner.

The other two pieces are relatively recent – Nicolas Hodges taking centre-stage for Harrison Birtwistle’s Gigue Machine (2011), which follows on from his earlier piano-cycle Harrison’s Clocks in making inventive play on the distinction between strict (chronometrical) and free (musical) time in a two-part fantasia whose respectively energetic and restrained ideas are alternated and eventually brought together in a vivid if unorthodox demonstration of keyboard virtuosity typical of this composer. As in that earlier work, Birtwistle’s predilection for a rhythmic process which might at any moment fall victim to its very consistency, makes for increasingly unsettling listening as the music pursues its uncompromising course.

Susan BickleyThe concert ended with a first hearing for Electra Mourns (2012) – Brian Elias’s scena on said protagonist’s monologue in Sophocles’s drama and set to the original Greek, whose evocative and other-worldly sound audibly contributed to the hieratic nature of his music. A text of such unrelieved anguish and negativity inevitably invites a setting of comparably extreme expression, but Elias has countered this with a highly resourceful deployment of the string orchestra as well as that of cor anglais in what becomes an equivocal ‘double’ to the vocal part: a setting, then, which combines antecedents from the Baroque and Classical eras with an instrumental component that draws productively on a more recent tradition.

Susan Bickley and Nicholas Daniel were commandingly assured in their contributions, while Rundell secured playing of a weight and amplitude from the Britten Sinfonia that sounded appreciably in excess of the two-dozen-strong forces and an impressive ending to a diverse and well-balanced programme which reinforced the value of these PSM events.

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