The Guardian’s contemporary
music guru Andrew Clements was rather
dismissive of this new NMC offering,
finding ‘nothing to give the disc real
focus or substance’. He did concede
that the pieces were possibly chosen
for maximum contrast, which is exactly
how I see it. Looked at from this standpoint,
there’s actually quite a lot to enjoy.
Admittedly the music
of Gerald Barry does infuriate some
listeners and unlike the other composers
featured here, he refuses to offer any
sort of explanation or thoughts on the
creative process behind his trio, enigmatically
entitled In the Asylum.
Typical of Barry, his liner note is
simply a cryptic one-line ‘clue’, which
goes ‘In The Asylum the composer is
writing three pieces: The Rung; The
Potent Rug; Wig of Flanders’. That’s
your lot and you can make of it what
you will, though I wouldn’t particularly
try relating it to the musical sounds
that come out of the speakers! I suppose
it’s Barry in playful mood, toying with
convention and rather imitating his
countryman Samuel Beckett, who famously
refused to offer any ‘meaning’ for his
works. The piece isn’t that outrageous,
though it does explore, as do other
works of Barry’s, a wide variety of
instrumental texture, even in this limited
medium. After a relatively slow start,
the harmonic language grows denser and
more adventurous, with some interesting
interplay between the three instruments.
It is possible to discern the differing
sections and to define a ‘structure’,
but ultimately it’s best to let this
short piece wash over you a few times.
The performance helps, being extremely
assured in all departments.
I have to admit to
finding the James Clarke Trio
more interesting. It displays greater
range, both emotional and in instrumental
terms, though I wonder if Clarke was
influenced by Schnittke - the tolling
bell sounds from the upper piano register
remind me of his Piano Quintet.
The many and varied string techniques
employed give the work an intentionally
uncomfortable edge, but I found much
of the writing very beautiful and evocative.
Of the other Clarke
works recorded here, all of which are
for solo instrument, I responded most
to Island, where the piano’s
outer reaches are explored with real
imagination, even virtuosity.
The remainder of the
disc is taken up with works by Finnissy.
His very personal take on Brahms’s German
folksong arrangements, In Stiller
Nacht, was written for the Bekova
Sisters. Indeed, Finnissy’s note refers
to it as ‘possibly a derangement’ of
Brahms, with ghostly echoes of the composer
emerging through a Schoenbergian kaleidoscope
of dense harmony and texture. The Independence
Quadrilles retain some of their
dance origins, but essentially Finnissy
does the same thing here, the resulting
piece becoming a sort of danse-macabre
where the skeletal remains of the originals
are treated to elaborately ambiguous
There are some interesting
items here, a few of which will require
more effort than others, but the performances
and recording do them full justice so
if you’re up for a dose of challenging
chamber music, this could be for you.