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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Brian Ferneyhough: played by Ensemble 21, reviewed by Bruce Hodges

Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943): Carceri d’Invenzione (1981-86, U.S. premiere of entire cycle)
Superscriptio (1981)
Carceri d’Invenzione I (1982)
Intermedio all ciaccona (1986)
Carceri d’Invenzione II (1985)
Etudes Transcendantales/Intermedio II (1982-85)
Carceri d’Invenzione III (1986)
Mnemosyne (1986)

Ensemble 21
Mario Caroli, flute and bass flute
David Fedele, piccolo
Tony Arnold, soprano
Mark Menzies, violin
Michael Adelson, conductor
Alan Pierson, conductor

Despite Brian Ferneyhough’s daunting reputation, close to four hundred people turned out to hear the United States premiere of his complete cycle, Carceri d’Invenzione. Its seven sections comprise some of the most grueling repertoire currently available for both performers and audience, and at the end of the evening, one musician who would usually be inclined toward post-concert revelry politely declined, saying she was “just going home.” I can well understand.

The initial piccolo solo, played with authority by David Fedele in shrill, puffing whistles both breathy and breathless, is described by the composer as follows:

“Formally, Superscriptio is constructed upon a dense network of metric and proportional relationships, wherein variations of texture and momentum are achieved by means of distortions in the pattern created by the mobile juxtaposition of diverse bar lengths, as well as by the gradual de-synchronization of gestural shaping, dynamic intensity and rhythmic density – elements which, at the outset, are all heard to be changing simultaneously.”

With all due respect to the composer (who was thankfully present for ovations at the end), most listeners approaching this extraordinary work will not have a clue what to make of such a remark, and I politely waited until later to try to digest the notes. This is a fine example of a situation in which one should temporarily set aside cerebral analysis, and just listen.

As Mr. Fedele sat down, conductor Michael Adelson began Carceri d’Invenzione I with a small chamber ensemble, lit from the back with a deep green light. Parts reminded me of the calculated chaos of Ives, but Ferneyhough’s intricacies make Ives resemble the purity of medieval chant. This is complexity at an entirely different level, and further, not music for beginners, despite the suspicions of one person behind me that this was “music that had nowhere to go, and didn’t know how to go there.” (I do not agree.) The ensemble swoons together in a crescendo, but then breaks apart, the instrumental lines flying off in all directions like bottle rockets. With only a slight pause, violinist Mark Menzies plunged into Intermedio alla ciaccona, its nervous rhythm packed with double-stops, harmonics and tiny swoops, all delivered by Mr. Menzies at hyperspeed. Imagine a traditional violin encore by say, Sarasate, except the line has mutated into a skein of flickering little events. If nothing else, one could marvel at his fingers finding the right position on the strings, given the wide intervallic leaps.

The backlighting changed to orange, and a much larger ensemble with Alan Pierson at the helm plunged into the Carceri d’Invenzione II, with flutist Mario Caroli fairly rocking out in ecstasy, with the ensemble occasionally sounding like bees swarming around a hive before moving on. Mr. Caroli was superb. Perhaps his swaying body was mildly distracting, but far be it from anyone gazing from the shore to tell anyone navigating this hurricane how it should be done. As someone said in the dazed crowd at intermission, “there is just too much information going on here.”

Perhaps the finest of all was the Etudes Transcendantales / Intermedio II, which is sort of like a baroque concerto being subjected to experiments in metre, timbre and texture – sort of like Schnittke, but with more emphasis on microtones and a vocalist using texts by Ernst Meister and Alrun Moll. With the lighting now a deep blue, the clear-voiced and intrepid soprano Tony Arnold opened this disturbingly difficult music with Marilyn Nonken on harpsichord, before Adelson and the small ensemble joined in the fray. Among the group, Chris Finckel’s solos stood out, as well as Jennifer Grim on flute, and Jacqueline Leclair on oboe. Etudes sounds more like a concerto grosso being slowly stretched apart like taffy, with the pieces hardening and splintering into thousands of tiny microtonal fragments. Someone was heard to remark at the close, “Pierrot Lunaire it ain’t.”

The last Carceri d’Invenzione III had a large ensemble again working furiously, before ultimately dying out and leaving the indubitably talented Caroli to play Mnemosyne, the sole portion of the cycle using electronics. The six previous sections are “again spread out here,” according to the composer, but displayed as if in slow motion, with the live flute in piquant long tones over an electronic drone, with the rhythm slowly coming to rest. As the rest of the group waited in a bit of awe-struck silence, Caroli somehow played this piece and as with the other six parts, one could only look on in an incredulous stupor.

It’s been said before, but it’s a tribute to the increasing prowess of contemporary musicians and their familiarity with unusual techniques and notation, that any of them could even play this piece, and Ensemble 21 can only be congratulated for a spectacularly exhausting night. As with some of the spectral composers, you sense that what Ferneyhough is doing is not quite perceivable in the way that he would ideally like you to perceive it – that some arcane information is perhaps bypassing your normal sensory array and digging deep inside your brain, to do some as yet unexplained work. (Yes, “work,” not damage.) One has to respect a composer whose music has a near physiological effect as one tries to grasp it.

Bruce Hodges

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)