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Jost, Watkins, Sawer, Sierra: Huw Watkins (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jac van Steen (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 24.1.2008 (GPu)

David Sawer -  Byrnan Wood
Huw Watkins -  Piano Concerto
Arlene Sierra - Aquilo
Christian Jost -  CocoonSymphonie

Sadly it was no surprise to find St. David’s Hall less full than usual for a programme of contemporary music. ‘Contemporary’ – if music written between 1992 and 2003 qualifies for that adjective – rather than ‘new’. There were no premieres to be heard. David Sawer’s ‘Byrnan Wood’ was his first orchestral composition, written in 1992 as a Proms commission, and it has been recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis (NMC DO28S). Huw Watkins’s Piano Concerto was commissioned by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and premiered in 2002, with the composer as soloist, under the baton of Martyn Brabbins. Arlene Sierra’s ‘Aquilo’ – the composer is currently Lecturer in Composition at
Cardiff University – was first performed in May 2001, by the Tokyo Philharmonic, conducted by Susanna Mälkki, as part of the Takemitsu Prize Finalists Concert (where it was judged to be the overall winner). Christian Jost’s ‘CocoonSymphonie’ was premiered in December 2003 by the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Jac van Steen, who also conducted the present concert.

It was striking that three of the four works had clear extra-musical programmes. My unscientific impression is that the last twenty years have seen a huge upsurge in such works. Why? Does it matter? What has happened to ‘absolute’ music? Why are we so keen, apparently, on musical illustration?

‘Byrnan Wood’ starts from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with particular reference, I think, to the moment in Act V scene v in which a Messenger tells Macbeth news which
(in view of the Witches’ prophesy) both surprises and alarms  him:

: Gracious my Lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
but know not how to do’t.

: Well, say, sir.

: As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
the wood began to move.

:Liar, and slave!

:Let me endure your wrath, if’t be not so.
Within this three mile may you see it coming;
I say, a moving grove.

Sawer’s tone poem plays with ideas of the static and the moving; though not strictly pictorial it clearly refers to Malcolm’s army, moving slowly forward, hidden behind the chopped-down branches of trees. That which we expect to be static – so much so that the Witches could use the very idea of its moving as an emblem of the impossible – seems to be moving. For the Messenger, the moving forest is an inexplicable surprise, a seeming contradiction of experience; for Macbeth it has an even greater intensity of meaning, being an assurance of defeat. Beginning with rustling strings (leaf-like?), Sawer’s music has a strong sense of space; sounds move around the stage, beginning in one section and then passed on to neighbouring instruments and sections. The orchestra is monumentally static – seated in neat rows to a familiar pattern – but the ‘core’ of the sound, as it were, is constantly shifting. It is a landscape of sound in which shivering stillness alternates with sudden eruptions, in which the lower brass and strings, and the percussion, grow insistently ominous, more and more explicitly military in tone and rhythm. What might be mistaken for natural movements, as of leaves in the wind, exudes gentleness at odds with the explicitly aggressive human movements. Things are perceived with momentary clarity and then again lost in confusion, as sound swells and diminishes. Towards the end – perhaps registering Macbeth’s realisation that, like many an oracle, the prophecy of the witches was ambiguous and deceptive – the music evokes a landscape of emptiness, a solitariness and vacuity in which the human seems to be overtaken by the sounds of nature, of birds and leaves. Well-shaped, musically intricate but never inaccessible, with moments of real poetry, ‘Byrnan Wood’ is a fine piece, its orchestral colours relished by Steen and the orchestra.

Huw Watkins was – as he had been at its premiere – the soloist in his Piano Concerto. It opens with musical gestures reminiscent of many a precious concerto and the concerto seems to belong, to claim its place, in a line of descent from the late romantic tradition. There are clear tonal centres to the music and some almost old-fashioned melodies; in many ways the piece seems a (slightly-too?) respectful homage to the concerto tradition. In the first movement we get a cadenza just where we might expect it – and rather good it is too; the sequence of movements – Allegro con spirito / Lento assai / Allegro vivace – is firmly conventional. Nothing wrong with any of that, of course. But in the first movement, at any rate, the orchestral writing is sometimes rather on the dull side, and the piece is only fully alive when the piano is very much in the foreground. The sense of real dialogue – even contest – between soloist and orchestra is too often absent and overall the opening movement lacks a certain spark as a result. The reflective second movement is, however, particularly rewarding, and here soloist and orchestra seem to complement one another more fully. There is some excellent writing for the violins in dialogue with the piano and the movement is attractively structured, two climaxes giving way to a poignant conclusion. The third movement is rhythmically varied, with shifting accentual patterns; this is busy, nervous music, and its shape was rather hard to discern on a single hearing; individual passages intrigued and stimulated, but coherence wasn’t obvious.

Arlene Sierra’s ‘Aquilo’ is another piece with a specific extra-musical programme. The composer’s own notes – she was present for the performance – explain the background of the piece. “Aquilo is a Classical name for the north-east wind as designated by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius … Vitruvius writes of the theory of winds beginning from heat and moisture, stating that this is proven by experiments with aelophiles: bronze spheres filled with water through a tiny opening. When the aelophile was heated, a rush of steam would escape … Vitruvius elaborates on the theory with his idea that there are eight (rather than four) winds that flow over the expanse of a flat, disc-shaped earth”. Sierra’s ‘Aquilo’ represents the genesis of one of these winds, evoking too the process by which it is later joined by three more winds and then an additional four, before emerging alone again and finally breaking down, returning to the elements of its original creation. As a programme it invites music of great fluidity and momentum as well as the layering of one musical line on top of another, and Sierra doesn’t turn down the invitation. This is high-energy music, turbulent and vivacious; but Sierra is attentive to variations of pace and volume, relatively serene passages juxtaposed with more tumultuous writing, quieter moments with climaxes. It got a performance of precision and clarity of texture, which brought out the piece’s pleasing sense of structural completeness.

The programme closed with the ‘CocoonSymphonie’ of the German composer Christian Jost. In five connected movements, it seeks to represent a kind of inner journey, a journey across a mental landscape of fantasy, perhaps of dream. One might relate Jost’s concern – on an evening so full of extra-musical imagery – to the way in which the literary epic moved, over the centuries, from accounts of adventures in the outer world (such as The Odyssey) to treatments of psychological growth (as in Wordsorth’s Prelude). Jost’s ‘CocoonSymphonie’ is a kind of interiorised version of Romantic musical narratives such as ‘Harold in
Italy’ or ‘Symphonie fantastique’. Where musical works – rather than poetic epics – are concerned, the distinction between inner and outer worlds is not, of course, absolute. But Jost, in his own observations on his ‘CocoonSymphonie’ is quite explicit – this is a work designed to give musical expression to a journey made across “the landscape of the self”, a representation of the “inner world” understood as “an adventure of confrontation with all and sundry”. The ‘CocoonSymphonie’ grows from the merest tremblings of sound on the strings, grows into larger affirmations from the strings, in music which owes a clear debt to the traditions of German romanticism, the writing in this first section (‘Zustand (Situation)’ being often lush and beautiful and emotionally rich. Gradually the relative certainties (for good or ill) of that first section metamorphose – in the opening sections this is very much music of gradual transitions, largely free of sharp edges and clear distinctions - into the music of ‘Flucht’ (‘Escape’). The music speaks of a kind of stream of (un)consciousness, fluid but with a hidden order that one senses even at first hearing. There is much that is exquisite, much that is self-echoing, as in the interplay of two percussionists and of two choirs of horns – here placed either side of and above the orchestra. In ‘FreiRäume (OpenSpaces) the musical materials lose their clarity, the music seeming to drift more than to explore, as if carried along by gentle, changeable forces not of its own making; here the interplay of willed and unwilled catches very aptly some of the movements of the dreaming or fantasising mind. The dialogue of inner voices becomes edgier and more troubled, altogether busier, in ‘R.E.M.’ (Rapid Eye Movement); the percussion becomes more important and, with ‘Esrchütterung (Jolt)’ we are led to a more or less sudden awakening (though echoes of the music which opened the whole work ensure that there is also a sense of return). This is a satisfying, intelligent piece, its argument readily accessible, the writing richly and variously textured. It rounded off the concert in impressive style.

In a few words addressed to the audience before the concert, Jac van Steen began by saying “You are brave”. But, in truth, no great ‘bravery’ was required to enjoy a programme of approachable contemporary music; these works all occupied a territory  far from the wilder shores of the avant-garde. All four compositions exist in musical idioms with clear forerunners; all are extensions of the tradition rather than overthrowings of it. Some devotees of contemporary music would, no doubt, find them disappointing for that very reason. But for the less dogmatic, for those with an interest in more than the merely contemporary, but with a curiosity of taste that extends beyond the comfortably familiar, this was an enjoyable and stimulating evening. The Orchestra played with technical assurance and with evident sympathy; Jac van Steen’s conducting was exemplary in its attention to both detail and larger shape. A pity there wasn’t a larger audience to enjoy it.

Glyn Pursglove

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