> Piers Hellawell [CT]: Classical Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Piers HELLAWELL (b. 1956)
Inside Story for violin, viola and orchestra (1999)
The Still Dancers for string quartet (1992)
Quadruple Elegy (in the time of freedom) for violin and chamber orchestra (1990)
Clio Gould – violin
Philip Dukes – viola
The Vanbrugh String Quartet
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – Martyn Brabbins
Recorded at Glasgow City Hall June 2001 (Inside Story and Quadruple Elegy)
The Harty Room, Queen’s University of Belfast, June 2001 (The Still Dancers) DDD
METRONOME MET CD 1059 [76:42]
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Piers Hellawell’s music has steadily gained recognition throughout the 1990s and deservedly so, for the three works on this disc show a strikingly original compositional mind at work. In many ways Inside Story, a 1999 Promenade Concert commission, proved to be something of a turning point, placing Hellawell’s music before a wider public and musically demonstrating how much had changed in his creative thought processes since the works of the early 1990s, of which The Still Dancers and Quadruple Elegy are notable examples. These two works in particular are crucial in Hellawell’s output, launching a new compositional phase after something of a stylistic impasse had led to him destroying many of his early works written prior to the 1980s.

Both of the earlier pieces show a preoccupation with blues-based harmonies; in the case of Quadruple Elegy the entire material of the work arising from this source. By the time of The Still Dancers this language had developed and expanded into other harmonic areas. Structurally, The Still Dancers is perhaps the most extreme example (although there are others including the series of chamber works, Sound Carvings) of Hellawell’s disenchantment with conventional development, instead presenting his material in a series of "blocks", most evident in the second movement where the music forms a set of "non-sequential carvings". In the same way the three movements of the work are intended to stand alone in their own right and can be played individually and in any sequence. In contrast, Inside Story shows a more "developed" approach, the material being worked, in what amounts in the second movement, to a series of harmonic variations.

Few of Hellawell’s works bear no extra-musical relationships (Inside Story is one of the notable exceptions); each of the four movements in Quadruple Elegy (in the time of freedom), carrying the titles Baku, Tbilisi, Timisoara and Jan Palac And The Flaming Skier. Although directly inspired by the political upheavals of 1989 in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Romania, the composer is keen to point out that the work is essentially celebratory and not elegiac, a response to personal sacrifice that he takes back to Palac and the Prague Spring of 1968. As with Inside Story, Hellawell never pits the soloist against the orchestra in a confrontational sense, preferring to create a sense of integration or dialogue with the accompanying material. In Jan Palac, the only "slow" movement in the work (track nine from 0’40") the soloist’s voice floats quite magically over the orchestra in a state of ghostly commentary, the blues here being particularly prevalent. Tbilisi takes a quite different line, the soloist leading the dance but never dictating to the orchestra. In his aim to produce a work of uplifting celebration Hellawell succeeds without question but it is his ability to combine this with music of thought-provoking depth that makes his success complete.

The Still Dancers takes its title not from human dance as one might expect, but from feats of the natural world, trees frozen into shape by exposure to the wind, the aforementioned scattered rocks in the second movement and a vista of cloud seen from above in the concluding movement. Hellawell then prefaces each movement with an "Invocation", what are described in the booklet notes as "letter-headings from a more experimental sound world". What results is effectively a series of soundscapes, highly imaginative, sometimes lyrical, sometimes gritty and with just the occasional distant reference, I fancy, to minimalist technique and ethnic music. The Vanbrugh Quartet is on fine form here, giving a performance of real integrity (try the second movement, inscribed "brutal" by the composer, track four 0’15").

Inside Story shares the same spirit of uplift as Quadruple Elegy and is marvellously inventive in its ceaseless flow of bubbling, rhythmic driven energy. The ethnic influence is evident in the background once again, with the sounds of the gamelan detectable in both rhythm and texture and yet curiously, if there is a single composer that this music brings to mind, particularly in the first movement, it is that of Walton with the ghost of the opening movement of the Cello Concerto floating in the melody and harmony (track one from 1’30"). Hellawell wrote the work for Gould and Dukes and it shows; the wonderful spirit and sure-footedness of their playing never being in doubt. Cast in a binary two-movement structure the second movement commences with a long cadenza-like passage, in more elegiac fashion after the sheer energy of the first. The ensuing cumulative variations gradually build once again in energy until a prominent and florid flügel horn part starts to dominate and divide. The orchestration throughout is stunning in its textural variety. Hellawell showing himself to be a composer with a fascinating ear for fine detail and sonority.

Inside Story is possibly one of the finest and most striking British scores of the last decade of the twentieth century and I would urge anyone who is not familiar with Hellawell’s music to give it a go. It is a hugely rewarding listen. All three works show Hellawell possessing a highly alert, original and thought-provoking musical mind. Add to this the exemplary quality of these performances (it is hard to believe them ever being beaten) and the result is a very fine disc indeed.

Christopher Thomas

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